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Myanmar: Reverse Conviction Of Activist Poet, Uphold Right To Freedom Of Expression

Court fines Maung Saungkha for holding peaceful protest

(YANGON, September 4, 2020)—Myanmar authorities should immediately reverse the conviction of Maung Saungkha—poet and co-founder of the free-speech activist group Athan, said Fortify Rights today.

The Kyauktada Township Court in Yangon gave the prominent human rights activist the option of paying a 30,000 Kyat (US$22.50) fine or spending 15 days in jail. Maung Saungkha opted to pay the fine.

“Maung Saungkha may not be in prison this time around but he should never have been arrested in the first place or faced trial simply for defending human rights,” said Ismail Wolff, Regional Director of Fortify Rights. “These arrests and convictions are part of a systematic attempt to silence those who speak out against human rights abuses.”

Following six hearings between July 7 and August 21, the Kyauktada Township Court convicted Maung Saungkha of violating Section 4 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (PAPPL), which requires advanced notice to hold a protest.

The conviction relates to the display of a Burmese-language banner over an overpass bridge in downtown Yangon on June 21—the one-year anniversary of the internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states. The banner read, “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes and killing people?”

Last month, the government partially lifted mobile internet restrictions across eight townships in Rakhine and Chin states, providing a limited bandwidth via 2G services.

Conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA)—a non-state army fighting for political autonomy and ethnic rights in Myanmar—has led to human rights violations and displaced tens of thousands of civilians in conflict-affected townships in Rakhine and Chin states since fighting escalated in the beginning of 2019.

International human rights law and Myanmar’s domestic law protect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Article 19 and Article 20(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Myanmar is a signatory, protects the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association, respectively. These rights are also recognized as fundamental rights that states are bound to uphold under customary international law. Under Myanmar’s domestic law, Article 354(b) of the Myanmar Constitution provides for the right “to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions” and “to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession.”

Under international human rights law, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are permissible only when provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. However, as noted by former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association Maina Kiai, “freedom is to be considered the rule and its restriction the exception.”

Moreover, the requirement under Myanmar’s peaceful assembly law that protest organizers notify authorities in advance or face criminal charges is incompatible with international law. The U.N. Human Rights Committee has held that imposing criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for holding a peaceful assembly is incompatible with human rights law.

In April 2020, Athan and Fortify Rights published a joint report entitled, Our Demands are for All Students: Violations of Students’ Rights in Mandalay, Myanmar,” which documented violations of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly under the peaceful assembly law.

The Myanmar Government’s relentless crackdown on protesters and free expression must end,” said Ismail Wolff. “Authorities should right this wrong and free Maung Saungkha immediately.”

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