Satirical performers imprisoned for mocking the powerful military have just had another year added to their jail time in Myanmar, deep into what was meant to be a historic transition to democratic rule.
The Peacock Generation, a troupe of young performers, last year put on army uniforms and staged satirical thangyat skits — a local take on modern slam poetry with humorous criticism of politics, society, and the military — and was charged with defaming the military.
Last week, as courts continued to jail troupe members for the early 2019 performance — out of about 25 Peacock Generation members who still face trial — three leaders of the group had an extra year added to their earlier defamation sentences.
The satirists are among 180 political prisoners currently being detained under a four-year-old civilian administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself endured years of house arrest under junta rule and once famously said, “one prisoner of conscience is one too many.”
Less than six months until general elections, rights groups are urging the 74-year-old democracy icon and Nobel laureate to remember her roots and the promises of freedom that helped her National League for Democracy (NLD) party sweep the 2015 general elections.
Rights groups that keep a tally of political prisoners note that one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s first acts when she took office as state counselor in 2016 was to release political prisoners and jailed students.
Now, however, Myanmar has 592 political prisoners in various stages of incarceration or prosecution, according to the Association of Assistance for Political Prisoners (AAPP Burma), a nonprofit human rights organization based in Thailand.
Of the nearly 600, 41 of are serving sentences, 142 more are facing trial while in detention, and 409 others are undergoing trials outside prison, the group said.
Some detainees are charged under the Counter-Terrorism and Unlawful Associations laws amid a bitter armed conflict in Rakhine state. Others are pro-democracy activists who criticized the military, or villagers who staged protests over land grabs or environmental issues.
‘We are not happy’
Former political prisoners and activists said scores of prisoners of conscience should not be in jail under Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government, which was voted into office with overwhelming support from citizens.
Mya Aye, a former student activist and political prisoner turned politician, said the current government should free political prisoners, many of whom were former activists, before the 2020 elections and let them participate in the vote.
“The government should not put people in prison because they have different opinions from it or different beliefs, because most of the government leaders themselves struggled in the past as political prisoners,” she said.
“We are not happy about the situation right now,” added Mya Aye of the National Democratic Force, a peace activist group.
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin acknowledged the need for government initiatives to release political prisoners.
“After we [the NLD] took power, we did not speak about political prisoners as a key priority,” he told RFA.
“We also noticed people inside the government saying there were no political prisoners in Myanmar — not by the party leadership, but by the Ministry of Home Affairs and other administrative agencies.”
“We have to make attempts to release all political prisoners,” he added. “At the same time, I believe that the government will free them on occasions whenever it is possible.”
President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to RFA’s questions about the government’s plans concerning the political prisoners.
One hurdle to quick action on their release is that the approval of the Myanmar military is required in cases filed by the army, said Tun Kyi, a leader of the Former Political Prisoners’ Society, based in Yangon.
Military still calls many shots
The military has not been shy about filing suits under the Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which outlaws online defamation and carries a maximum two-year jail sentence.
“There could be several challenges because the release of some requires the approval of military leaders,” Tun Kyi said.
“If the government doesn’t make any strong actions or remarks, these prisoners will not be released,” he added.
Myanmar’s military, which retains control of key security agencies and holds a guaranteed quarter of seats in parliament under a constitution it wrote in 2008, has resisted pressure from civilian rulers, with disastrous results for Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation.
Human rights groups who had championed Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy campaign were aghast when she led Myanmar's defense last December before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on genocide charges for the army’s expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state in August 2017. Thousands were killed amid the crackdown, and more than 740,000 fled to safety in Bangladesh.
Defending the same military that once held her captive, Aung San Suu Kyi repeated the assertion that the army had conducted an operation to clear northern Rakhine of Muslim insurgents who carried out deadly attacks on police outposts, and asked the ICJ to drop the case.
Inside Myanmar, which was under harsh military rule for nearly 50 years until 2011, the actions of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government on the political prisoner issue will determine its legacy in working towards democracy, said AAPP cofounder and secretary Bo Kyi.
“If it genuinely wants to build a democratic state, it should pay attention to creating an environment where basic human rights are guaranteed,” he told RFA.
“When there are arrests and charges for exercising basic human rights, it is difficult to call it a democratic government,” he said.
Hope dies hard
Not everyone has given up on Aung San Suu Kyi — not even a supporter of the Peacock Generation who was arrested during a brawl with police.
Nan Linn, one of five political activists arrested and charged with harming public servants following a May 2019 confrontation between police and sympathizers of the Peacock Generation troupe, said he hoped to see action from the government before the November elections.
“I don’t think Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi’s government’s has received [enough] public support, so [she] will view the prisoner release as a required task to complete in order to win the next election,” he said.
Thet Swe Win, executive director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, even pointed to the ongoing trials of members of the Peacock Generation as a “good sign” that authorities are clearing the dockets, rather than leaving cases in limbo.
“We have seen the successive court trials of Peacock Generation satire group and quick verdicts in the past few weeks,” he said.
“We are hoping that the ruling government tries to get all the cases of prisoners of conscience cleared and secures their release before its tenure ends.”
The AAPP said it sent the Myanmar government an updated list of political prisoners in March and requested their release.
In April, President Win Myint — a former political prisoner jailed for his role in the 1988 pro-democracy protests that launched Aung San Suu Kyi’s career — freed nearly 25,000 inmates across the country as part of the annual amnesty marking the Buddhist New Year, but only 18 political prisoners were released.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.