UPDATED at 10:46 A.M. ET on 2019-11-19
Six members of a traditional satirical group received a second prison sentence Monday from a Yangon-based court for mocking Myanmar's military in a performance earlier this year during the country’s annual New Year’s celebration, the defendants and their lawyer said.
Botahtaung Township Court sentenced Kay Khine Tun, Zayar Lwin, Paing Pyo Min, Paing Ye Thu, Zaw Lin Htut, and Su Yadanar Myint to one year in jail for violating Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code.
The section pertains to the circulation of statements, rumors, or reports with the intent to cause military officers to disregard or fail in their duties. Violators can receive a maximum sentence of two years in prison.
A seventh performer, Nyein Chan Soe, was acquitted of the charge.
All seven members of the group were arrested in April and May for performing thangyat, a satirical work akin to modern slam poetry that usually includes humorous criticism of politics, society, and the military, while they wore army uniforms.
They all still face additional charges at Botahtaung Township Court for online defamation under Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law for posting photos and videos and livestreaming their performances on Facebook. The section prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.
Zayar Lwin, Paing Phyo Min, Su Yadanar Myint, and Paing Ye Thu also face Section 66(d) charges at Yangon’s Mayangon Township Court.
Members of the Peacock Generation face the same charges in several other townships outside Yangon where they had performed, including Pathein, Daedaye, Maubin, and Pyapon in Ayeyarwady region.
Zayar Lwin said the verdict in Monday’s hearing only serves the purposes of the military.
“The courts are representative of the state,” he said. “I believe this verdict was not issued in the interest of the people, but rather in the interest of the military.”
“The military, which has been suing and imprisoning citizens, is not a dignified organization,” he said. “They have only proved to be villains in our country. I would like to appeal everyone to keep pressuring the military to get out of politics.”
The armed forces, whose political power is enshrined in Myanmar’s constitution, control a quarter of the seats in the national and regional parliaments, have veto power over proposed constitutional changes, and control three security and defense ministries.
Members of the military often strike back at their critics by filing defamation-related lawsuits against them.
In October, the Mayangone Township Court in Yangon sentenced five members of the Peacock Generation troupe — Zayar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, Paing Phyo Min, Zaw Lin Htut, and Kay Khine Tun — to a year in prison with labor for using lyrics that the armed forces said damaged its reputation during their performances for the Thingyan Buddhist New Year festival in April.
Verdict is ‘unlawful’
Defense attorney San Myint said it’s unfair that the military has filed additional lawsuits against the student performers for allegedly violating Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law.
“They filed another lawsuit under Section 66(d) a week before the judge issued the verdict for the first lawsuit under 505(a),” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They did it in Botahtaung Township Court and in Mayangone Township Court.”
“I conclude that the verdict against the Peacock Generation members is unlawful,” he added. “I also assume that the court is making these verdicts to satisfy the plaintiff, although its decision is unlawful.”
Lieutenant Colonel Myo Min Oo of the Yangon Region Military Command filed the lawsuit against the group accusing it of insulting the military through its lyrics and performances during the New Year celebrations.
He did not talk to the media following Monday’s verdict.
Lieutenant Colonel Than Tun Myint, plaintiff for the lawsuit filed in Mayangone Township Court, told reporters during the hearing that the military filed the lawsuit to get justice and that it is unacceptable for anyone to insult members of the armed forces who sacrifice their lives by fighting for Myanmar.
Peacock Generation member Paing Ye Thu lambasted the army for filing charges in various jurisdictions.
“The military has filed lawsuits in different township courts under more than one law,” he said. “The law clearly says that two sentences shall not be given for a single offense.”
“The military is oppressing us politically and bullying us by abusing the law,” he added. “It would be better for us to not have the military.”
Democracy activist Nilar Thein from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, a group of former student activists who protested military rule in Myanmar 30 years ago, said she would submit appeals to President Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on behalf of the members of the Peacock Generation.
“We have witnessed that the judge has clearly favored the testimony of the plaintiff and issued the verdict based on the plaintiff's testimony,” she said. “I would like to ask who will assume responsibility for the court’s decision and the military’s actions.”
“We are working on sending a letter to the president and the state counselor to inform them about the Peacock Generation’s experience involving rights violations, and the injustice and abuse of laws,” she said.
International rights groups decried the court’s decision as an attack on freedom of expression.
“These new convictions against the Peacock Generation are signs of a relentless assault on freedom of expression in Myanmar,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southeast Asia, in a statement. “The military is going after these brave, talented satirists to make an example of them.”
“It is ludicrous that these performers have yet to face even more charges and jail terms in the future,” he said. “The authorities must end this madness and release them all immediately and without conditions. Their convictions should be quashed, and all remaining charges against them dropped.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called on Myanmar authorities to void the verdicts and drop pending charges that violate the right to freedom of expression.
"Court rulings that performance artists are a threat to the military make a mockery of free expression rights," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director, in a statement. "The Myanmar military's ridiculous efforts to intimidate these actors for satirizing the military show how low they will stoop to silence their critics."
The U.S.-based Clooney Foundation for Justice, which advocates for justice through accountability for human rights abuses around the world, said that Monday's convictions violate the right to freedom of expression.
"Indeed, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has explained that 'States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army,'" the organization said in a statement.
"Moreover, there was no evidence presented to show either that the defendants intended anything other than what one defendant called 'constructive criticism' — or that their performances were likely to cause mutiny," it said.
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.