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Burma: Poet's arrest signals deteriorating tolerance for online satire and free expression

Maung Saungkha/Facebook

This story was originally published on pen.org on 12 November 2015.

The arrest of a poet on charges of insulting the president of Myanmar points to both the government's low tolerance for satire as a form of creative expression and the overly broad wording of the 2013 Telecommunications Law and other statutes applied to social media networks, according to PEN Myanmar. The charges brought against Maung Saungkha for a poem he posted on Facebook represent government "intimidation of the creativity of writers, poets and artists," PEN Myanmar said in statement.

Saungkha was arrested on November 5, 2015 and accused of defaming the president under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law because he referenced having a tattoo of the president on his penis in a poem. Saungkha went on the run after posting the poem to Facebook in late October, saying he had no intention of defaming the Burmese president and that the verse was about oppressive authority in general and not directed at any particular official.

PEN Myanmar noted that satirical poetry has a long history in Myanmar. "The appreciation of literature in Myanmar may be in danger if such kinds of threats can be imposed to any kind of literature which is seen as an offense to the people of power,"' the PEN Myanmar statement said.

In October alone, there have been three other arrests for satirical Facebook posts. Activists Chaw Sandi Tun and Patrick Khun Jaa Lee were arrested because their Facebook posts were deemed to mock the army. A joint secretary of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, U Than Tun, was also charged for posting a fake, degrading photo of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the wake of the November 9 parliamentary elections, which saw the opposition National League for Democracy score majorities in both houses of Parliament, there is opportunity for further reform of intrusive laws that restrain free expression online. These include the Telecommunications Act, which contains a broad prohibition on large and ill-defined categories of communication: "Whoever commits any of the following acts shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to a fine or to both: Extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network." Also in need of review is the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law, which deems unlawful and punishable by up to 15 years in prison any content produced using electronic technology that is detrimental to the security of the State, community peace, national solidarity, or natural culture.

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