The unnatural order of things

Does Myanmar want an authoritarian state with a few democratic accoutrements? Or does it want a society in which the powerful can genuinely be held to account?

ON JULY 30, Myanmar’s media industry was dealt another body blow with the arrest of Ko Swe Win, the chief editor of news agency Myanmar Now.

His alleged offence is to have defamed U Wirathu when he stated that the monk had committed parajika – an act warranting expulsion from the monkhood – for publicly lauding the death of legal advocate and National League for Democracy adviser U Ko Ni, who was gunned down outside Yangon Airport in January. The case is based on a complaint filed to police by a Mandalay resident.

Swe Win has won many plaudits for his dogged reporting on a range of issues, including abuses in the labour camp system, the assassination of U Ko Ni and the activities of Ma Ba Tha.

Last year, he received an award from the government for taking up the fight for two domestic workers who were allegedly abused at a tailoring business in downtown Yangon.

It’s the kind of reporting that will win you respect, but also many enemies.

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And that’s why it’s important that the law protects journalists who are endeavouring to hold powerful people to account and protect those without a voice.

Section 66(d) does precisely the opposite. Anybody who posts something online that someone else dislikes is vulnerable. Of course, it applies to everyone—but for journalists and the media industry, the ramifications are particularly scary. There’s no other word for it.

Which is why the National League for Democracy’s amendment bill is such a disappointment. If passed in its original form, it would likely have made no difference to Swe Win’s case. The police would have accepted the complaint from the third party provided that Wirathu supported it. Swe Win would still have been arrested with no guarantee of bail (although he was bailed a day after his arrest).

Thankfully, at least some lawmakers within the NLD have not forgotten what the “D” in their party acronym stands for. When the bill was debated in the Amyotha Hluttaw, the upper house of the national assembly, they objected to the limited scope of the changes and called for the total repeal of 66(d).

One lawmaker from Magway Region was quoted as saying, “It could potentially deter individuals from casting a spotlight on corruption, unfairness and the impotence of the authorities … As a result, it hampers the development of our democratic culture in Myanmar.”

The debate over 66(d) is actually a debate over the type of democratic society that the NLD wants Myanmar to become.

Does it want a disciplined, authoritarian state with a few democratic accoutrements, such as regular elections? Or does it want a society in which governments, businesses, individuals, the military, the judiciary and other institutions can genuinely be held to account? One in which the people have real power to challenge authority? A society where basic rights are subservient to the need for “law and order” (which is simply a euphemism for protecting the interests of those with power)?

Consider the details of Swe Win’s case. On the one hand, you have a monk who has publicly praised a group of men who shot another person in cold blood. This monk is not only free but continues to spew hatred whenever and wherever he can.

And then you have a journalist who said that such behaviour was unacceptable. And that journalist is now in prison for those remarks.

Is this the natural order of things in Myanmar? Is that how justice works? If the NLD believes so, then go ahead: pass an amendment to the Telecommunications Law that, in practice, changes nothing. While you’re at it, keep the Unlawful Associations Act and the State Secrets Act – not to mention the Habitual Offenders Act. And, whatever you do, make sure you don’t empower the anti-corruption and human rights commissions.

But if the NLD does really want to create a rights-based society in which everyone is treated equally, then now is the time to start showing it.

This editorial originally appeared in the August 3 issue of Frontier. 

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