Authorities in Myanmar (Burma) arrested Swe Win, an award-winning investigative journalist, at Yangon International Airport Sunday night as he was preparing to fly to Bangkok. Police arrested Swe Win on charges of attempting to flee the country before his upcoming trial on criminal defamation charges for allegedly defaming U Wirathu, a monk known for stirring up hatred against the country’s Muslim community. The incident marks the fifth detention of a journalist in Myanmar since the beginning of June, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists.
Swe Win, chief editor and correspondent for Myanmar Now, was transferred to a jail in Mandalay. He was released on Monday evening after posting a 5 million kyat ($3,675) bond and is due in court on August 7, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma.
The charge was brought against Swe Win by Kyaw Myo Shwe, a supporter of the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, after Swe Win wrote a Facebook post suggesting U Wirathu had violated the monastic code of conduct by making statements commending the Jan. 28 murder of Ko Ni, a Muslim lawyer who was a pro-democracy advocate, former political prisoner, and leading voice of the country’s Muslim community. Ko Ni was also a legal advisor to the ruling National League For Democracy and a longtime supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi.
According to a report in Coconuts Yangon, the charges were filed in response to a post on the Facebook page of Ba Kaung, an alias of Swe Win, which read that Wirathu had broken a rule that required expulsion from the monastic order: “[H]is monkhood is over, but this can’t be the first time that he’s broken these rules.”
As controversy spread over his post, Swe Win took to Facebook to write, “We all know that U Wirathu has been publicly thanking U Ko Ni’s murderers. We also know that the concerned authorities haven’t taken any action against someone who’s supporting such a horrific crime . . . when I asked Mandalay-based monk U Sein Dago Wu on his opinion, he said that U Wirathu’s words had violated the rules of Parazika. I put his answer in the article and on my Facebook . . . I take full responsibility for my actions.”
U Wirathu is the vice-chair of the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha and the leader of the 969 campaign, which called for boycotts of Muslim businesses. He has led calls for restrictions on the country’s Muslim population and stirred up fears of an Islamic takeover of Myanmar. A 2015 report by U.S.-based rights group Justice Trust alleged that a number of anti-Muslim communal riots in Myanmar had been immediately preceded by speaking tours conducted by U Wirathu. In March of this year the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee banned him from giving sermons until March 2018 on account of his incitements to violence. “[H]e has repeatedly delivered hate speech against religions to cause communal strife and hinder efforts to uphold the rule of law,” the council said in a statement reported in Frontier Myanmar.
Swe Win’s accusation that U Wirathu’s celebration of Ko Ni’s murder was incitement is a serious charge, as the Theravadin Buddhist Monastic Code forbids acts of murder as well as incitement to murder, and guilt is a parajika, or offense causing loss of monastic ordination.
“What is unusual about criminal defamation law in Myanmar is that anyone can bring a charge,” says Steven Butler of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). “Usually the injured party must bring the charge, but in this case, a third party can do it. This has happened a number of times in Myanmar.”
Since Suu Kyi’s party swept into power in November 2015, more than 80 lawsuits have been filed under the criminal defamation law, which had been employed by the former military government to prosecute those who took part in the pro-democracy struggle. At least a dozen people have been charged. Several suits have involved alleged insults against Suu Kyi, among them a woman now serving a six-month jail term for criticizing Suu Kyi on social media.
“The use of the law has actually increased under the current administration,” noted Butler. “Many of the worst perpetrators are members of the current government.”
In early June a delegation from the CPJ that included Butler was told that a bill to remove the criminal penalties of the law would be considered. “What actually happened is that they introduced a bill that would remove the ability of third parties to bring charges and would allow those accused to get out on bail, but the jail sentence of up to three years would remain intact.”
“We have been surprised by how bad the situation continues to be for journalists in Myanmar,” Butler said. “Members of the current administration who themselves suffered in jail under laws like this have now come out in defense of the law and made use of it themselves.”
“It is good that this has happened,” Swe Win said at a press conference on Sunday night. “I have got to tackle this. The [defamation] law should not exist. It will be good for the citizens as well.”
In another prosecution under the criminal defamation law, Kyaw Min Swe, editor of The Voice, has been held since June 2 on charges filed by the military for an article the newspaper published criticizing a propaganda film produced by the army. Kyaw Min Swe has been refused eight separate bail requests.
Three other journalists—Aye Naing and Pyae Phone Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma news agency, and Thein Zaw of The Irrawaddy media group—were arrested on June 26 on charges filed by the military under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act for reporting on an event hosted by a rebel militia. A court on July 28 refused to release them pending the conclusion of their trial.
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