It is over four years since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections in Myanmar. Sadly, political reform there has been slow and inconsequential. The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, still carries considerable influence and political clout. A UN fact-finding mission stated that it is responsible for grave human rights abuses. Several media reports have noted that officials are increasingly prosecuting individuals deemed to have defamed the military, particularly those who support democratising the constitution.
One victim of this continued repression is writer Saw Win, who in October 2019 was charged with defaming the military after participating in a peaceful rally in Kawthaung township, in the Tanintharyi region of southwestern Myanmar. If convicted, he faces up to two years in prison. Saw Win, who uses the pen name Saw Wai, is a renowned poet and performance artist. On 3 April 2019, Saw Wai, lawyer Kyee Myint and Nay Myo Zin, a former military captain, spoke at the event, which was attended by about seven hundred people. According to Amnesty, Kyee Myint called for the constitution to be amended to protect the people of Myanmar and prevent the military from staging a coup, while Saw Wai recited a poem, asking the audience to chant ‘reject evil laws’. PEN Myanmar claims that Saw Wai called for people to support the Union of Myanmar Constitutional Amendment Joint Committee, formed in February 2019.
On 17 October, Lieutenant Colonel Zaw Zaw filed charges against Saw Wai and the two other activists, accusing them of violating Section 505(a) of the Penal Code. This forbids the circulation of statements and reports with ‘intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the army, navy or air force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty’. The Kawthaung township court accepted the case on 31 October and began proceedings on 20 January this year. After Saw Wai failed to appear in court, a warrant was issued for his arrest. On 3 February, Saw Wai and Kyee Myint appeared in court and were granted bail on medical grounds. By then, Nay Myo Zin was already serving a one-year prison sentence after being convicted on charges arising from a speech he gave at another rally. The following month, the court granted Saw Wai’s request to move the location of the trial to Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi region, which is nearer to Yangon than Kawthaung. The court agreed that he would not need to be present at every hearing.
Saw Wai has fought long and hard for freedom of expression in Myanmar. In 2008, he was awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression in recognition of his efforts, despite the personal risks he has faced. At the time of the award, he was serving a two-year prison sentence in connection with a poem he had written critical of the authorities. Entitled ‘February the Fourteenth’ and published in the Yangon-based weekly magazine Love Journal, Saw Wai’s poem cryptically criticises General Than Shwe, head of Myanmar’s ruling military junta until 2011:
Only once you have experienced deep pain
And like an adolescent
Thought the blurred photo of a model
Can you call it heartbreak.
Millions of people
Who know how to love
Please clap your gilded hands
And laugh out loud.
Saw Wai was released in May 2010. It seems that little has changed in Myanmar and he faces imprisonment once again.
PEN has suggested sending appeals to those likely to have the most influence on the case, calling for the charges against Saw Wai and his co-defendants to be dropped immediately and unconditionally; urging the authorities to repeal or amend all laws that impose restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in Myanmar, in line with international human rights standards; and calling for the urgent ratification of various human rights treaties to which Myanmar is not yet a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Kyaw Zwar Minn
Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
19A Charles Street
London W1J 5DX
U Htun Htun Oo
Chief Justice of the Union of Myanmar
U Hla Myint
Chairperson of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission
Update: On 20 February, Henry Peter Adonyo, a judge in Uganda’s High Court, overturned the conviction and sentence of the academic, activist and writer Dr Stella Nyanzi (LR, November 2019) and called for her immediate release. He claimed that the lower court where she was convicted did not have the right to hear the case against her, and that she had not received a fair trial. Nyanzi was released the same day. On 16 January Nyanzi was awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.