Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the arrests of Chaw Sandi Htun and Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, who were detained in relation to Facebook posts mocking the military.
Patrick Kum Jaa Lee was detained by police in Rangoon on Wednesday, reportedly for sharing a photoshopped image on his Facebook page of Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing being trampled on. Patrick Kum Jaa is the husband of International Women of Courage recipient May Sabe Phyu, who has not seen her husband since his detention.
On Monday, Chaw Sandi Htun was reportedly arrested at a meditation centre over a post captioned: “Why not wear pieces of her htamein as bandanas if you love her so much?” alongside a photo of the National League for Democracy leader delivering a speech beside another photo of Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing addressing the military.
The arrests have served as a warning that police could be cracking down on freedom of speech in the lead up the election – widely tipped to be the most credible in decades.
David Mathieson, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Rangoon, told Reuters the arrests represent an “escalation” in military intimidation.
“This should make it clear to everyone that the military is not open for jokes any more. You thought they were reforming, you thought they were playing nice, and they have shown they are not in the mood for that,” he said.
Amnesty International called the charges “outrageous”.
“It is outrageous to think that someone could face years in jail for nothing but a harmless Facebook post. Both of them must be released immediately and the investigations against them must be dropped. They join a growing number of prisoners of conscience in Burma.
“Burma’s authorities have once again shown how dangerously thin-skinned and vindictive they are when it comes to criticism or ridicule. They might claim that the country has turned a corner on human rights, but this is yet another chilling reminder that the same repressive practices continue.”
Joining the chorus of criticism, the US State Department on Thursday called on Burmese authorities to release both Chaw Sandi Htun and Patrick Kum Jaa Lee, labelling the response to their posts an infringement of “democratic principles”. Both detainees are reportedly charged under the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law.
“The use of such laws to restrict freedom of expression directly contradicts democratic principles and the government’s own stated commitment to promote political reform and respect human rights. Freedom of speech, including speech that discusses the military and other government institutions, is integral to a democratic society … and we call on authorities to release the individuals immediately and unconditionally.”
Chaw Sandi Htun is due to appear in court on 27 October. If convicted, she faces up to five years’ imprisonment.
Amnesty International believes Burma is detaining some 91 political prisoners, and has called for their release in a report titled ‘Back to the old ways’.