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Free Speech Advocates Protest Myanmar Telecom Law


Demonstrators rally in Yangon on Jan. 22, 2017, to denounce the country's controversial sweeping telecommunications law.
Demonstrators rally in Yangon on Jan. 22, 2017, to denounce the country's controversial sweeping telecommunications law.

Writers, journalists and activists in Myanmar are protesting a controversial law that has been increasingly used to prosecute government critics for online defamation.

The cases have created a chilling effect on free speech under Aung San Suu Kyi's new government and added to a host of problems that have dogged her administration as it closes in on one year in power April 1.

Large rally against 2013 law

Hundreds gathered outside City Hall in Yangon over the weekend to demand Myanmar's parliament change the legislation, called the Telecommunications Act, which was passed in 2013 to regulate the fledgling industry but also includes penalties for online defamation.

"This law was created to shut the mouth of the people," Zayar Hlaing, an editor at the Burmese investigative magazine Mawkun, told the crowd while standing on top of a truck. "And it is a bit ugly that the elected government is still using that."

Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the president's office, appeared to defend the legislation but said any changes to the law would be up to lawmakers.

"In a democracy, rights and responsibilities need to be in balance. And rule of law is important in democracy. Following the rule of law means democracy. It's the same in other countries," he said. "Amending, repealing or approving laws will be done by the parliament. It is just the decision of the parliament."

At the time the legislation was passed in 2013, Myanmar was in the process of liberalizing its telecoms sector under the quasi-civilian government of then-President Thein Sein, whose administration launched a series of political and economic reforms steering the country away from decades of military rule.

Costs declined with 2013 law

Two foreign firms were allowed to roll out networks to compete with state-backed Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications. The liberalization of the sector drove down the cost of smartphone ownership and created an explosion in online access and Facebook usage.

While the 2013 law mainly deals with dry matters such as licensing and network facilities, a controversial section – 66D – seems to have been written with these new users in mind, setting penalties of up to three years in prison and a fine for "extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network."

Many in attendance at Sunday's rally wore t-shirts that said "Amend the Telecommunications Act ASAP" and included a red line drawn over "66D."

Enforcement under Suu Kyi increased

The clause was sporadically enforced under the Thein Sein administration, whose reforms included abolishing censorship in the media. But after the National League for Democracy dominated elections in 2015 and formally came to power a few months later, the cases started to increase, puzzling supporters who believed the NLD stood for free expression.

Making matters worse, some of the defendants were charged for insulting or defaming senior members of the party, including Aung San Suu Kyi, her handpicked president Htin Kyaw and Yangon's powerful chief minister, Phyo Min Thein.

Pen Myanmar recorded 38 cases in 2016, compared to seven from 2013 to 2015.

Zayar Hlaing, the Mawkun editor, said on Sunday that he has counted more than 40 cases under the new government.

Law used in petty disputes

Robert San Aung, a prominent human rights lawyer who has defended several activists on charges of violating the clause, said the cases have increased because of saboteurs trying to create instability during the democratic transition, but also because normal people have discovered they can use it as a way of getting back at others in personal disputes.

"What I want to propose to the parliament is to repeal this law," he said. "If they believe it should not be repealed, then amend this law."

Robert San Aung of the Myanmar Media Lawyers Network
Robert San Aung of the Myanmar Media Lawyers Network

This law is one of many concerns for Myanmar's civilian government.

But it does not seem to be a high priority for Aung San Suu Kyi, who in her dual roles of State Counselor and foreign minister is seen as the de facto leader of the country. Efforts to amend or change the law have stalled amid a number of more pressing concerns.

Since October, the administration has been under fire as Myanmar's army conducts a search for militants in Rakhine State following an attack on a police post that killed nine border guards. Rights groups have said actions allegedly taken during the manhunt, including sexual assault and widespread arson, could amount to crimes against humanity.

Much of the blame has landed on Aung San Suu Kyi's table. As the head of the civilian government, she may have little control over the military, but critics say she has not used her powerful voice to intervene.

There is also Myanmar's stumbling peace process, a signature effort of her new administration that has been damaged by ongoing fighting in the north between ethnic armed groups and government forces.

Maung Saungkha, who was convicted under the law last year for writing a poem deemed defamatory towards the former president, told the crowd he would rather not have to pay attention to what should be a minor issue.

"We don't want to be on the street for a small matter like 66D. We will be on the street for constitutional amendments or peace," Saungkha, who spent six months in prison after his arrest, said.

Many call it a bad law

Nay Phone Latt, a blogger turned regional lawmaker for the NLD, said in an interview on Monday that problems with the law were built into it.

"The law has so many weaknesses. Actually it should be focused on the telecommunication companies and the government," he said. "It should not be focused on the end user."

Nay Phone Latt, who was jailed under a precursor to the law in 2008, spent four years in prison before being released as part of an amnesty.

He thinks some members of the national or union parliament don't understand the scope of the law because of a lack of experience with technology. But he is confident the MPs in his party will come around to changing it in time.

"I think they will hear the people's voice," he said.