Burmese Activist Poet Sentenced to Fines after Protesting Internet Shutdown

Maung Saungkha in front of his computer
Activist and poet Maung Saungkha. Photo: Civil Rights Defenders.

Maung Saungkha, a prominent Burmese free-speech activist and poet, was today sentenced to fines for demanding an end to internet shutdowns in the conflict-affected Rakhine and Chin States. Maung Saungkha, who is also the director of our partner organisation Athan, has confessed to the so-called crime and is accepting the consequences in order to illustrate the severe limitations of freedom of expression in Burma.

It has been over a year since the internet was shut down in two of the poorest and most conflict-affected states in Burma – Rakhine and Chin States. Currently, the Burma Army and rebels from the armed ethnic group Arakan Army are engaging in an increasingly bloody conflict in the Rakhine State.

The ongoing internet shutdown, which has been noted to be the longest government-sanctioned blackout in the world, is a violation of international human rights law, which requires any internet-based restrictions on communities to be necessary and proportionate. Taking into account the ongoing conflict – in which innocent civilians are continually being targeted and killed – the lack of useful communication methods is directly threatening the lives of Burmese civilians.

On the one-year anniversary of the shutdown, 21 June 2020, Maung Saungkha put up a protest banner reading, “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes and killing people?” from an overpass in the Burmese capital Rangoon.

Today’s sentencing of Maung Saungkha is the latest example of the increasingly harsh restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protests in the country. Approximately a month ago, an additional nine student activists were sentenced to prison for engaging in protests. All of whom were sentenced under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.

Civil Rights Defenders had previously urged the Burmese authorities to drop the charge against Maung Saungkha. While we are happy that he was not sentenced to prison, we still condemn today’s court judgement as it is a clear violation of his rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest. We call on the Burmese authorities to stop harassing those who dare speak up against injustice and rights violations. We further call on the authorities to immediately lift the internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin States, as well as end the notorious targeting of Burmese civilians in the ongoing armed conflict.

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