Myanmar authorities have arrested a peace activist and a young woman for mocking the country’s powerful military in the latest crackdown on free speech ahead of landmark elections on November 8.
Human rights groups have condemned the military-dominated government for moving their repression into social media, where political activists increasingly share information and communicate in the country that began opening to the outside world in 2011, after decades of military dictatorship.
Peace activist Patrick Kum Jaa Lee, 43, has been arrested at his home in Yangon for a Facebook post showing someone stepping on a photograph of Commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing.
Earlier this week opposition female activist Chaw Sandi Tun, 24, was arrested over a satirical Facebook post pointing out that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was wearing clothes of a colour similar to those of the army, and in particular General Min Aung Hlaing.
“If you love her (Suu Kyi) so much, put a piece of her longyi (sarong) on your head,” the comment read. In Myanmar’s conservative society the idea of a man wearing a woman’s clothes on his head is deemed by some people to be offensive.
Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher, described the arrests for harmless Facebook posts as outrageous. The pair could face years in jail.
“Myanmar’s authorities have once again shown how dangerously thin-skinned and vindictive they are when it comes to criticism or ridicule,” Ms Haigh said.
“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.”
Rights groups have warned the government of returning to military-era repressive tactics in the run-up to the election that is seen as a test for the country’s progress towards a democratic transition.
Amnesty claims that at least 93 prisoners of conscience have been put behind bars as authorities have intensified repression over the past two years.
Ms Suu Kyi’s supporters say that manipulated photographs, false information and propaganda that are aimed to denigrate her are being disseminated widely on Facebook but no charges have yet been laid against those responsible. Myo Yan Thein, an NLD official, told journalists the government’s selective imposition of communication laws was not fair. “Aung San Suu Kyi has been the victim shameless attacks so many times and in so many ways,” he said.
The NLD is expected to poll strongly in large parts of the country and could win enough votes to control parliament, even though a quarter of seats are reserved for the military.
But the Nobel laureate who spend 15 years under house arrest has been warning of attempts to disrupt voting on polling day, urging voters to be “very, very brave”.
During campaigning in the majority Buddhist country radical monks have been pushing a hardline nationalist agenda, stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, much of it directed against ethnic Rohingya in western Rahkine state.
The monks support laws enacted by parliament earlier this year that are aimed at stopping the spread of Islam by restricting conversions and inter-faith marriages .
The monks’ campaign will benefit the ruling party of president Thein Sein, a former general who has been widely praised on the international stage for overseeing reforms and promising free and fair elections.
In 1990 the military refused to accept the results of an election which the NLD won in a landslide.
Ms Suu Kyi, 70, has been barred from becoming president after the November poll because her late husband and two sons are British. The military refused to allow the constitution to be amended that states a president cannot have family members who are foreigners.