Human Rights Watch says Myanmar government using ‘abusive laws’ to punish critics

Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison in September 2018 under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. (File/AFP)
Updated 01 February 2019
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Human Rights Watch says Myanmar government using ‘abusive laws’ to punish critics

  • The military governments that ruled Myanmar for decades placed severe restrictions on free speech
  • The Suu Kyi-led government had made "only marginal changes" to oppressive legislation

YANGON: Myanmar's government under Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has used repressive laws to prosecute peaceful critics, dashing hopes that its first democratic leader in decades would safeguard free speech, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
Freedom of expression has been deteriorating since her administration came to power in 2016, with prosecutions creating a "climate of fear" among journalists, the rights group said in its report, "Dashed Hopes: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Myanmar".
"Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy promised a new Myanmar but the government still prosecutes peaceful speech and protests and has failed to revise old oppressive laws," Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch and the report's author, said in a statement.
A government spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The military governments that ruled Myanmar for decades placed severe restrictions on free speech. Reforms undertaken by the quasi-civilian administration that came to power in 2010, including the abolition of censorship, had "positive implications for speech and assembly", HRW said.
However, the Suu Kyi-led government had made "only marginal changes" to oppressive legislation and continued to use "overly broad, vague, and abusive laws" to prosecute peaceful speech and assembly, it said.
Myanmar free speech group Athan, whose report was quoted by HRW, said some 140 cases had been filed since 2016 under the Telecommunications Act, at least half of which involved prosecution for peaceful speech.
Parliament made some amendments to section 66(d) of the act, which punishes anyone who "defames" someone using a telecommunications network with up to two years in prison, but rejected calls to repeal the provision.
Reporters were especially vulnerable to prosecution and attacks, HRW said, with threats coming from authorities as well as nationalists and militant supporters of the government or army.
"The result has been a climate of fear among local journalists," the HRW report said.
Laws criminalising defamation, the Official Secrets Act, the Unlawful Associations Act, the 1934 Aircraft Act, and section 131 of the Myanmar Penal Code have all been used against journalists in recent years.
Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison in September 2018 under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in Rakhine state.
"Aung San Suu Kyi's government has had a real opportunity to abolish the tools of oppression used by the military juntas, but has instead used them against peaceful critics and protesters,” Lakhdhir said.
"It's not too late to reverse course and take steps to fully protect speech and assembly in Myanmar," she said.


Sri Lanka churches halt public services over security fears

Updated 25 min 39 sec ago
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Sri Lanka churches halt public services over security fears

  • Potential bombers ‘at large’ as death toll lowered to 253
  • Muslims asked to shun Friday prayer

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspended all public services over security fears on Thursday, as thousands of troops joined the hunt for suspects in deadly Easter bombings.

A senior priest said that all public services were being suspended and all churches closed “on the advice of security forces.”

Authorities revised the death toll down to 253, from the previous figure of 359, explaining that some of the badly mutilated bodies had been double-counted.

The father of two of the suspected bombers has been arrested on suspicion of aiding his sons.

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said suspects remained at large and could have access to explosives. Some of the suspects “may go out for a suicide attack,” Wickremesinghe said.

Hundreds of Ahmadi refugees in western Sri Lanka have taken refuge in mosques and a police station after facing intimidation following the bombings. Scores of Ahmadis who settled in Negombo after fleeing persecution in their home countries have been thrown out of their accommodation by landlords.

Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando resigned on Thursday over security failures. He submitted a letter of resignation to President Maithripala Sirisena.

Britain’s Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka.

“The horrific attack is a demonstration of how tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) that originated in this island nation several decades ago returned to haunt a shocked and broken government thanks to a complete collapse of counterterrorism capability or capacity,” Dr. Theodore Karasik, a security expert, writes in an opinion piece.

Hate preacher Zahran Hashim, head of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath group that is being blamed for the attacks, developed a reputation as a preacher who “copied” Daesh propaganda videos to enhance his posts via the pro-Daesh Al-Ghuraba media channel, which used Facebook and YouTube as its primary platforms, Karasik says. 

Sri Lanka’s Islamic affairs minister, M. H. M. Haleem, asked all Muslims to avoid prayers on Friday for security reasons. He also said it would be a mark of respect for those who perished in the nation’s worst violence in years.

Politician and Western Province Gov. Azath Salley told Arab News that the blasts were orchestrated by a handful of extremists and that the island’s Muslim population could not be held responsible for their “deviant” actions.