Myanmar grants somewhat limited rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The country is one of the few states in the world that is yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that states that both freedom of religion and freedom of expression are human rights.
The people of Myanmar have according to the Constitution the right to “express and publish freely their convictions and opinions” as long as they are “not contrary to the laws enacted for Union [sic] security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality”, making the provision open for subjective interpretations. Freedom of expression is in general believed to be under severe threat in Myanmar due to several laws criminalizing and limiting free speech. In 2019, PEN Myanmar reported a continued lack of progress to respect, protect and fulfill the right to freedom of expression.
Myanmar is religiously and ethnically diverse, but the vast majority of the population practices Buddhism. According to Article 361 of the Constitution, Buddhism is granted a “special position”, but Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism are also recognized. While Article 363 of the Constitution states that “The Union may assist and protect the religions it recognized to its utmost”, the government favors Theravada Buddhism through propaganda and state support, including “donations to monasteries and pagodas, encouragement of education at Buddhist monastic schools, and support for Buddhist missionary activities.”
Several provisions in the Penal Code criminalize ‘blasphemy’, and the laws are often used to prosecute and criminalize criticism of religion, especially criticism towards Buddhism. The most used provisions are:
Other provisions relating to “offences against religion” are:
Sections 296 and 297 carry a punishment of “imprisonment of either description for a term which may be extended to one year, or with fine, or with both”.
The ‘blasphemy’ laws were introduced during colonial rule, the laws and they carry up to two years of imprisonment, a fine, or both. According to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the ‘blasphemy’ laws are vague and broadly formulated, violating the “principle of legality, and leave them open to subjective interpretation and misuse.” Because of the broad nature of these laws, they can easily be used to silence criticism of religion, making non-believers and followers of other faiths other than Buddhism vulnerable to prosecutions.
According to ARTICLE 19, Section 295 (a), in particular, has been used frequently to prosecute religious minorities and individuals that speak out against extremism.
In recent cases, individuals have been convicted of ‘blasphemy’ without the existence of evidence of deliberate and malicious intent to insult a religion – which is prescribed by law as a necessary element – making the imprisonments arbitrary.
In June 2020, Kyaw Win Thant was sentenced to 21 months in prison for insulting Buddhist monks. The court sentenced him for violating Section 295 (a) of the Penal Code. According to reports, Thant criticized Buddhist monks on Facebook in response to the opposition of some monks to the Government’s proposal to teach sex education in school.
It is reported that Thant had written on Facebook that “The baldies [an insulting term meaning Buddhist monks] do not know about sex education because they were never taught before” and “But they watch so much porn. The baldies are the most horny.” The posts were subsequently deleted and could therefore not be verified.
Kyaw Win Thant was arrested in May 2020 after hundreds of people gathered outside a monastery where Thant was present to apologize to the monks. Footage showed that the protestors were chanting “arrest him, or kill us”.
In April 2020, street artists Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai and Naw Htun Aung were charged with ‘blasphemy’ under provision 295 (a) of the Penal Code for a mural painted to raise awareness of the Covid-19 pandemic. The painting was alleged to be blasphemous because the artists had portrayed the Grim Reaper wearing a robe that had the same color as the robes Buddhist monks in Myanmar wear.
Htin Lin Oo was sentenced to two and a half years in prison with hard labor for insulting religion at a literary event in October 2014. Oo, the former information officer for the National League for Democracy, expressed criticism of members of the clergy and said that Buddhism was misused to discriminate against other religions. He was pardoned in April 2016 along with 82 other political prisoners by the president.
New Zealander, Philip Blackwood was arrested on charges of ‘blasphemy’ in 2014 for depicting Buddha as a DJ wearing headphones in the promotional material for a bar he managed along with the owner and the bar manager. They were sentenced to two and a half years in prison with hard labor. Blackwood was pardoned by the president after serving about one year of his sentence.