Myanmar: Facebook should warn users about risks of self-expression

The Myanmar government has detained at least three people over Facebook posts it deemed offensive in the last few weeks. This crackdown on freedom of expression in the run up to the general elections is of great concern. Only the Myanmar government, and the generals’ lack of sense of humour, are to blame. Yet Facebook could do more to protect its users.

Facebook is Myanmar’s most popular site. It provides a platform to communicate and the illusion that users can do so freely. But controversial posts in Myanmar can result in long jail sentences. The company has spoken out before to educate Myanmar people about hate speech; it should do the same to warn them of the risks they face when exercising their freedom of expression online. Myanmar’s internet freedom status was recently downgraded by Freedom House from “partly free” in 2014 to “not free” in 2015.

While internet penetration is still low in Myanmar, Facebook has become a major space for both news and rumours. It is people’s first port of call on the web. It is commonly used by political activists and human rights defenders to communicate and share information.

On 12 October, Chaw Sandi Tun, a 25-year-old woman, was arrested for a Facebook post mocking the military. Her post said that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was wearing a green htamein (traditional Burmese sarong) of a colour similar to the uniforms of the army, and in particular of General Min Aung Hlaing . She added the commentary: “If you love her so much, wrap pieces of her htamein around your head”.

In Myanmar’s patriarchal society, the concept of a man wearing a woman’s clothes on his head is considered offensive. The traditional belief is that a woman’s lower parts, and the garments that cover them, can undermine a man’s phon (masculine power). It is not clear yet under which law Chaw Sandi Tun has been charged. Either way, she faces three years in prison.

Two days later, Patrick Kum Jaa Lee , a Kachin peace activist, shared a Facebook post showing someone stepping on a photo of General Min Aung Hlaing. He was arrested for defamation under article 66 (d) of the telecommunications law and faces a three-year prison sentence. Both activists have been denied bail.

The police also filed a case against young poet Maung Saungkha, who shared a graphic rhyme suggesting he had a tattoo of the president on his penis. He has also been charged under article 66 (d) of the telecommunications law and has been in hiding since. A few days later later another lawsuit was filed, this time by a political activist against a leading member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), for sharing a fake nude image of Suu Kyi on Facebook. The investigation into this case was delayed, which led to accusations that the government was employing a double standard. But now the USDP member has also been arrested.

“People can criticise or comment freely, but nobody can insult someone’s dignity, religion or nationality,” said Myanmar’s information minister Ye Htut in defending the arrests. “These people were not charged because they defamed the military chief, but according to the law.”

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights groups condemned the arrests, warning that an escalating crackdown against free speech ahead of the elections could derail hopes for the country’s democratic transition. The US State Department said the use of laws “to restrict freedom of expression directly contradicts democratic principles and the government’s commitment to promote political reform and respect human rights.”

The human right to freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It extends to all ideas, even ones that can be considered offensive. Freedom of expression can be restricted when it conflicts with other specific rights, but only under exceptional circumstances.

These cases are the first in Myanmar where people have been detained for their use of social media. The arrests are likely to limit free expression online. “It is deeply worrying that the authorities now appear to be moving their repression into the digital sphere,” Amnesty’s Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh said.

The Myanmar government is using laws that allow a wide scope of interpretation of defamation. “Defamation should not result in jail sentences,” said Daniel Aguirre of the International Commission of Jurists, which monitored the first trial of Patrick Kum Ja Lee. “These laws need to be tightened to ensure freedom of expression. Myanmar has extremely limited judicial resources that would be better used guaranteeing a free and fair election.”

Facebook’s brief history in Myanmar has been marked by drama. In July 2014 communal violence erupted in Mandalay after false posts that two Muslim teashop owners had raped a Buddhist girl were shared on Facebook by the influential nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu, who has nearly 100,000 followers. The subsequent violence left two people dead. This and other incidents led the government to seek help from Facebook in monitoring hate speech. “Now users have to submit their phone number to activate their Facebook accounts. If they do something bad, they can be traced,” said the president’s office director Zaw Htay.

“Last month, Facebook posted cartoons with anti-hate speech and bullying messages into Myanmar users’ newsfeeds. “We see that Facebook is increasingly becoming part of people’s lives in Myanmar,” said Facebook’s Asia Pacific policy director, Mia Garlick, adding that the site wanted to create “an environment where people can share responsibly in a safe and effective manner”. Last month, Facebook said it would warn users if it feared they were victims of government spying.

Facebook has provided people in Myanmar with a platform for expression, but it works best in countries with precise laws on freedom of expression and defamation. Myanmar’s laws are vague and the judiciary inadequate, meaning that online posts can result in jail sentences.

Facebook has taken steps to educate people about hate speech. It should also go beyond its responsibility to respect human rights and warn people in Myanmar about the risks they face when using the site.

Source: The Guardian

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