Ensure Freedom of Expression and Protection for Defendants

(YANGON, December 11, 2015)— The Myanmar government should immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against six men for printing the word “Rohingya” in a 2016 calendar, Fortify Rights said today. The government should uphold the right to freedom of expression and ensure protection for the six defendants, including Aung Khin who is in hiding.

The six men face up to two years in prison.

“These charges are absurd. This appears to be part of a campaign to strike the term ‘Rohingya’ from the country’s vocabulary,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “There is no justifiable reason to restrict the use of the term ‘Rohingya.’”

In November, a printing house in Yangon published several hundred copies of a calendar at the request of Aung Khin, a 57-year old resident of Shwe Pyi Thar Township, Yangon. The calendar refers to the Rohingya as an ethnic group in Burmese, English, and Arabic languages and cites previous uses of the term “Rohingya” in Myanmar. The calendar includes a quote from the former Prime Minister of Myanmar U Nu, encouraging peaceful cohabitation of Buddhists and Muslims, as well as quotes from Rohingya historians.

Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic and religious minority and have long suffered severe discrimination and persecution in Myanmar. The Myanmar government rejects the existence of Rohingya, denies Rohingya equal access to citizenship by law, and continues to subject Rohingya to widespread and systematic abuses, including forced labor, rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, and avoidable deprivations in humanitarian aid.

Local members of Ma Ba Tha—an organization of extremist Buddhist monks and nationalists that seek to “protect race and religion” in Myanmar—saw the calendar on Facebook and complained to the local administrator of Shwe Pyi Thar Township. At approximately 2:30 a.m. in the morning of November 20, 19 police officers raided Aung Khin’s home, but he had already fled. The following day, on November 21, authorities charged the five men responsible for printing the calendar with violating the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law.

Article 8 of the publishing law prohibits the publication of materials that could “harm the rule of law, public tranquility, liberty and freedom of every citizen’s security, or encourage mass violence or stimulate crimes.” The law also prohibits publications that would “cause harm to an ethnic group or among the ethnic groups,” or “insult other religions.” 

On November 22, Ma Ba Tha held a daylong town-hall style meeting in North Dagon Township, Yangon, where they denounced the calendar and called for the arrest of those involved in its production. On November 23, the five men were each fined the equivalent of US$800. 

On that same day, in a rare interview, Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Min Aung Hlaing told the Washington Post, “We do not allow the word Rohingya.” Referring specifically to the printing of the calendar, Pazundaung Township Police Chief Major Khin Maung Lat told independent news agency Myanmar Now, “This is an activity that threatens the law and order of the country.”

On November 24, Police Chief Major Khin Maung Lat unexpectedly re-arrested the five men and charged them with violating Section 505(b) of the Myanmar Penal Code for producing a document with “intent to cause…fear or alarm to the public.”

The language of Section 505(b) is overly broad and has long been used as a tool of repression against political activists, human rights defenders, and others, Fortify Rights said. The defendants in this case—Kyaw Kyaw, Ye Thu Aung, Win Naing, Zaw Min Oo, and Win Htwe as well as Aung Khin, who is in hiding—now face up to two years in prison under Section 505(b).

Article 354 of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution provides citizens the freedom “to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions” and allows for restrictions on rights in order to ensure “Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality.” International law protects the right to freedom of expression and allows restrictions only in exceptional circumstances if certain specific conditions are met. 

“If the government is truly concerned about keeping peace, they would stand up for the rights of all people, Rohingya included,” said Matthew Smith. “This calendar doesn’t threaten law and order, human rights abuses do.”

There are more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In 2012, targeted, state-sanctioned violence against Muslims affected 13 of 17 townships in Rakhine State. The government now confines more than 140,000 Rohingya to more than 60 internment camps. More than 100,000 Rohingya men, women, and children have fled Rakhine State to escape on-going persecution, often falling into the clutches of deadly human trafficking syndicates.

A 79-page report in February 2014 by Fortify Rights, Policies of Persecution, exposed Myanmar government restrictions that deny Rohingya basic human rights, including the rights to nondiscrimination, freedom of movement, marriage, family, health, and privacy. A 78-page report published October 29, 2015 by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, Persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, concludes that strong evidence exists to establish the elements of the crime of genocide against Rohingya in Rakhine State.

“Human rights are universal, and we all have a role to play in defending them,” said Matthew Smith. “President Thein Sein has an opportunity to show his commitment to basic rights and freedom by dropping these charges and protecting individuals at risk and under threat.” 

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