In the recent years, a group of promising youth of Myanmar has started displaying their demand in a form of numerous type of fun, song or a combination of dance and music with the verse that often has a satirical edge. These spirited youths, being known as ‘Peacock Generation’ (also known as Myanmar Thangyat Troupe-a satirical poetry group–Daung Doh Myo Sat) are displaying their movement for the demand of basic human rights, freedom of expression and a true democracy. But the military dominated administration never accepts any criticism. Recently five members of Peacock Generation, Kay Khine Tun, Zay Yar Lwin, Paing Pyo Min, Paing Ye Thu and Zaw Lin Htut were arrested after a satirical performance that poked fun at Myanmar’s powerful military.
They were arrested in April 2019 for their performances of a customary art, similar to ‘criticizing poetry’ during the celebrations of Myanmar’s traditional New Year. In that occasion, these spirited youths generated fun at military representatives in parliament and military involvement in business. Though there is an elected government in Myanmar, the military is a powerful political side. In 2016, poet Maung Saung Kha was sentenced to six months in prison for defaming former president Thein Sein in a poem, he posted on his Facebook page.
In August 2019, another court in Yangon found a prominent filmmaker guilty for defaming the military with his postings on Facebook and sentenced him one year prison. Filmmaker Min Htin KO KO Gyi, who was the founder of Myanmar’s Human Dignity Film Institute, one of the known activists of Human Rights and one of the key person of Human Dignity International Film Festival, has also been jailed since April 2019 only for criticizing the military.
The recent movement of Peacock Generation is not beyond the tradition of Burma, it is mostly known as ‘Thangyat’. One of the youth activists Zeyar Lwin said, “It’s a tradition that lets the people tell the government and the rulers what is happening in the country, what has to be done and what has to be fixed.” Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent youth activist, encouraged the army Generals to accept the ‘Thangyat’ tradition. She commented indicating the Generals, “They should grow a thick skin, so they can actually listen to what younger people think about them.”
In Myanmar, normally the senior generations are afraid of expressing themselves candidly. After 8888 uprising in 1988, there was a little movement of the youths in 2007, which is popularly known as ‘Saffron Revolution’. Both the movements had significant outcome to bring some changes in perception of the military rulers. However, Aung Sung Suu Kyi’s entry in the government machineries could not meet up the expectation of the general people. Recent movement of Peacock Generation is the reflection of long preserved dissatisfaction of the general people. Renowned media, Freemuse Executive Director Dr Srirak Plipat said, “The imprisoned members of Peacock Generation are entitled to the right of exercising their art as a medium for expression, including criticizing the authorial powers and to hold them in the account.” Maung Saungkha of Athan, a Myanmar based free speech group said, “This sentencing of Peacock Generation means that the judiciary of the country is continuing the military’s suppression on the freedom of expression.” However, the role of military could not create panic among the Peacock Generation activists. One of the activists, Su Yadanar Myint said that she is not at all scared of a prison sentence rather it will create opportunity to read books and stay privately with other political prisoners.
On 15 and 19 April 2019, members of the Peacock Generation were arrested for wearing military costumes in the performance as described before, was live-streamed on the Facebook later on. They were convicted under Section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code and sentenced to one year in prison on 30 October 2019. It is to be mentioned that Section 505 (a) of the Penal Code prohibits the circulation of statements and reports with the intent to cause officers or soldiers of the Myanmar Armed Forces to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in their duties. This type of offences might be sentenced up to two years in prison and it is a “non-bailable” offence. Moreover, the section 66 (d) of the 2013 Telecommunication Act brings a maximum two-year prison sentence. The tough action of Myanmar administration against the Peacock Generation has been criticized at home and abroad. Joanne Mariner, research director for Southeast Asia for the human rights organization Amnesty International said, “This is an appalling verdict. Punishing people for performing a piece of satire speaks volumes about the dire state of freedom of expression in Myanmar.” However, military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min said, “the Peacock Generation’s performance has created misunderstandings between the public and the military.” He also said, “That’s not really good for the dignity of military.” The use of Article 505(a) to silence artists and artistic expression deeply impacts the human rights and has the potential to create a long-term damage on the state of culture, art and artistic expression in the country. However, the members of Peacock Generation are facing the same charges in different other townships, where they have performed ‘Thangyat’.
‘Thangyat’ is a century-old form of Myanmar traditional art which is usually performed during the New Year water festival in April and other festive occasions. It is really strange to perceive, it could poses any real threat to Myanmar military. However, at one point of the display, a performer in a soldier’s uniform moved seriously around the stage to an old patriotic song about the military. Then the music suddenly stopped and a jingle for Mytel, a phone operator partly owned by the military, resounded through the speakers while the soldier broke into a dance. Another lyric demanded that generals be sent to the International Criminal Court or ICC. The performers wanted to project that Myanmar’s military has faced repeated international calls as its generals were asked to be prosecuted for genocide after they ordered attacks against the Rohingya minority in 2017. There is also a strong allegation of killing thousands of Rohingyas by the military. United Nations experts and several major rights groups have also called for accountability for alleged war crimes against other ethnic minorities, including in Kachin and Shan states.
The present state of ‘Freedom of Expression’ in Myanmar reminds the 8888 uprising. The military junta did not tolerate the movements of the protestors and brutally countered them in 1988; the same year they killed thousands of protestors to block a mass student-led uprising. The 8888 Nationwide Popular Pro-Democracy Protests also known as the 8-8-88 Uprisings or the People Power Uprising were a series of nationwide protests, marches and civil unrest in the country that peaked in August 1988. Key events occurred on 8 August 1988 and therefore it is known as the 8888 Uprising. The protests were initiated as a student movement and developed mostly by the university students at Rangoon Arts and Sciences University and the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT).
Public performances of ‘Thangyat’ were banned in 1989 by the military after the 8888 Uprising, however, it was allowed again in 2013. In March 2019, before the water festivals, the authorities in Yangon asked the organizing committee of the program to submit the ‘Thangyat’ lyrics for a government approval. But they did not submit the lyrics. One of the activists of Peacock Generation Su Yadanar Myint said, “We didn’t submit anything to the censorship committee because we want freedom of expression; the censors would have cut lots of the lyrics.” While doing the performance, they criticized the army’s share of power in the parliament and showed the audience pictures of a dog wearing a military jacket.
Myanmar’s state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi had a loud voice during her movement of democracy, on the demand of ‘Freedom of Expression’. After 2012 the government started approving limited democracy within the framework of military backed administration. Though the restriction on ‘Thangyat’ was lifted in 2013, National League for Democracy (NLD) government did not welcome the decision wholeheartedly. One of the spokespersons of Suu Kyi’s, NLD party, Myo Nyunt said, “We have to have freedom of expression parallel with the rule of law.”
There are multi diversities of Burmese history. This country had been ruled by the oppressive and isolated government of General Ne Win since 1962. The country had a national debt of $3.5 billion and currency reserves of between $20 million and $35 million, with debt service ratios standing at half of the national budget. In November 1985, students gathered and boycotted the government’s decision of withdrawing Burmese local currency notes. That time, constant involvement with the international market was required as there were huge economic complications all over the country. Moreover, the then military government had colossal expenditure in counter-insurgency operations. During that time of economic crisis, on 5 September 1987, Ne Win announced the withdrawal of the newly replaced currency notes; 100, 75, 35 and 25 kyats were to be replaced by 45 and 90 kyat notes, apparently because only the latter two numbers are divisible by 9, which was considered as the lucky number of Ne Win. Students were particularly irritated at the government’s decision as their savings for tuition fees were wiped out instantly. Students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) initiated riot in the various places of Rangoon. Meanwhile, larger protests in Mandalay involved monks and workers also. They were actively involved in burning government buildings and state businesses. Burmese state media reported little on the protests, but information quickly dispersed among the students almost in all over the country.
Following the protests, authorities announced the closure of universities for several months. But the students and sympathizers became organized and prepared for large demonstrations by June 1988. Many students, sympathizers and riot police died throughout the month as the protests spread all around. Large scale protests were reported in Pegu, Mandalay, Tavoy, Toungoo, Sittwe, Pakokku, Mergui, Minbu and Myitkyina. Demonstrators in larger numbers demanded multi-party democracy that confirmed Ne Win’s resignation on 23 July 1988. In a farewell address given that day, Ne Win stated, “When the army shoots, it shoots to kill.” He also promised a multi-party system, but he had appointed the largely disliked Sein Lwin, known as “Butcher of Rangoon” as the head of new government.
Aung San Suu Kyi took over as State Counselor of Myanmar in 2016 after a long five decades military government. But the constitutional provisions adopted under military rule have been continued. The Myanmar authorities are continuing to arrest and imprison the activists and human rights defenders simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. It is a clear violation of Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Amnesty International is concerned about a number of laws in Myanmar that restrict the right to freedom of expression, including Section 505 of the Penal Code and Section 66(d) of 2013 Telecommunications Act. Though Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon sometimes in the history, her present stand is just reversed. Possibly she has forgotten the attitude of military during her initial stage of political carrier. The military junta arranged an election in 1990, her party the National League for Democracy won 81% of the seats in the government (392 out of 492)but the military junta refused to recognize the results and continued ruling the country as the State Law and Order Restoration Council. She was also kept under house arrest.
‘Freedom of speech’ is a principle that supports the liberty of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. The term “freedom of expression” is sometimes used synonymously but includes any act of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used. The educated youth communities of Myanmar started realizing the need of these basic human rights in the late 80’s of the previous century. Though the military government brutally addressed the 8888 uprising, that event is remembered and honored by the Burmese expatriates and citizens. There is also support for the movement amongst students in Thailand, which is being remembered in every 8 August. This type of event generates much support for the Burmese people internationally. Songs, poems and street dramas are being displayed by the students participate in the processions. In 1995, a film named ‘Beyond Rangoon’ were prepared based on a true story that took place during the uprising 8888. The uprising led to the death and imprisonment of thousands of individuals. Many of the deaths were inside the prisons, where prisoners of conscience were subjected to inhumane torture and deprived of basic provisions, such as food, water, medicine, and sanitation. From 1988 until 2012, the military and police illegally detained and imprisoned tens of thousands of leaders thriving for democracy, as well as intellectuals, artists, students, and human rights activists. The uprising began as a student movement; many of the individuals were targeted, tortured, and killed by the police and military. Many of the student leaders of the uprising became lifelong activists and human rights leaders. Many of the same activists played a big role during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The group organized as ‘88 Generation Students Group’ to celebrate the events of 8 August 1988 every year; eventually the same group generated the Saffron Revolution in 2007. This time also they were arrested prior to large-scale demonstrations and bestowed lengthy prison sentences of up to 65 years. However, all of them were released in a general amnesty in 2012. Now these people are continuing to work as politicians and human rights activists in Myanmar. They also campaigned for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party during 2015 Elections. Though the present stand of Aung Sun Suu Kyi is controversial as a person despite her idealistic past, the need of ‘Freedom of Speech’ among the educated youth will not get abolished. The way ‘Peacock Generation’ is getting organized day by day, the shining future might not be too far; the people of Myanmar will get the taste of true democracy someday. Possibly, the military dominated civilian government could foresee the threat basing on the movement of ‘Peacock Generation’; the counter measures are being taken accordingly without leaving much of space. The situation of 1988 in Myanmar and the present days are not same. Mass people are using internet; people are getting more connected with each other. Matter gets internationalized very fast. The legitimate and justified demand of the youths of Myanmar will get acceptance globally. Possibly, it might be a blunder for the military dominated government of Myanmar to play with the emotion of educated youths in the present context.
Researcher- Geopolitics and CHT