In December 2018, Maung Saungkha—poet, advocate for free speech and founder of Paung Ku’s partner Athan (‘voice’ in English)—became the first Myanmar recipient of a Human Rights Tulip Award from the Netherlands Embassy in Myanmar. The award, which Maung Saungkha sees as being both for Athan and for himself, is a symbol of the reality that freedom of expression is being increasingly curtailed in Myanmar. Athan documents this reality, and campaigns to promote freedom of expression.
The organisation’s latest report on freedom of expression in Myanmar noted that 42 journalists and 149 activists have been imprisoned since the NLD-led Government came into power, mainly through use of Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law 2013 (which deals with defamation) and the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law 2011. Under the previous government, there were 11 cases filed under the Telecommunications Law.
Maung Saungkha was himself jailed under Telecommunications Law’s Article 66(d) and the colonial-era Section 505(b) of Penal Code, after posting a satirical five-line poem on Facebook in 2015. The poem was borne out of his frustration at the lack of transparency within the Union Election Commission (UEC) during the last days of U Thein Sein’s presidency. He was found to have committed ‘criminal defamation’ by the courts and sentenced to 6 months in prison.
The charges relating to Section 505(b) of the Penal Code were reportedly dropped in April 2016. In May 2016, Maung Saungkha was freed after serving time. The seeds that grew into Athan were planted prior to Maung Saungkha’s imprisonment although being unfairly prosecuted under an unjust law certainly watered his commitment. He and fellow Athan founders Aung Khant and Ye Wai Phyo Aung, came together on their paths to freedom of expression activism in March 2015. Aung Khant was part of a group of young people busy handing out white armbands to pedestrians passing Mahabandoola Park in downtown Yangon on a particularly humid day. The armbands read: “We are Students, Respect Our Rights”, and were distributed in protests against a brutal crackdown of police on students demonstrating for education reform that had taken place just two days before.
When Maung Saungkha was released from prison, he and others came together to stage demonstrations and campaigns in support of freedom of expression; then saw it was necessary to form an organisation that could speak out for the voiceless and for citizens mistreated under the law.
They started to approach donors but had repeated funding applications rejected. A small amount of funds for monitoring violation of freedom of expression in Myanmar was provided by the South East Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), but Athan’s activists were limited to holding work meetings at the local teashops and in friends’ office spaces. The computers used to compile data on violation of freedom of expression were rented from another organisation.
In February 2018, Athan made contact Paung Ku. As usual, the Paung Ku program team took time to get to know the organisation – including learning about their aspirations, past work, and what existing capacities they wanted to strengthen. Athan’s founders were clear that they wanted to document cases of violation of freedom of expression as well as to raise community awareness about the importance of freedom of expression in Myanmar.
Together we brainstormed about the Athan’s vision, analysed their existing capacities, and identified what Athan needed to carry out its work effectively as well as what Paung Ku could offer in terms of networking support, small grant funding and access to technical resources. This groundwork meant that when Athan submitted a funding proposal to Paung Ku, we had a shared understanding of what might be possible.
However, in order to receive a grant Athan had to follow Paung Ku’s partner financial management guidelines (set up to ensure accountability to our own donors). This meant transitioning from being a freeform organisation with no finance staff to a more structured one. A Paung Ku program officer helped build Athan capacity in financial and administrative documentation, evaluating their awareness raising work, report writing and other skills: while taking care not to overburden the newly formed organisation with stringent procedural requirements. Paung Ku also had to make sure we gave Athan enough space to pursue their vision. Looking back, it was a mutual learning experience for both Athan and Paung Ku.
Meanwhile, increasing number of journalists and citizens were charged with different kinds of lawsuits for openly criticising the government and, in some cases, for merely pointing out the situation. In June 2018, Paung Ku’s partner Mon CSO Network was charged with Article 10 of the Law Protecting Privacy and Security of Citizens by a member of the Ethnic Affairs Committee of Mon regional parliament. They requested Paung Ku help in finding a lawyer; we also contacted Athan so they could document the case.
In the earliest days, Athan’s documentation consisted of a list of case summaries shared on Facebook. But within just three months of start-up, Athan had produced a situational report on the status of freedom of expression during the first two years of the NLD Government. The report was concise yet thorough; it sent a chill through readers and became a good reference tool for public dialogue and advocacy. Then in October 2018, Athan released a “Mid-term Report on Freedom of Expression” together with SEAPA. The collaboration with professional journalists provided Athan with a valuable learning experience and really raised their profile. Other organisations across Myanmar are now reaching out to Athan for documentation of incidents of freedom of expression violation as part of growing calls for justice.
Another core activity of Athan was giving freedom of expression training in different states and regions. So far, they have conducted trainings in Yangon, Mandalay, Magway, Sagaing and Ayeyarwaddy regions. During end-of-the-project evaluation with Paung Ku team, Athan reflected that at first they thought it was important to advocate to the government and parliamentary stakeholders for legal reform on freedom of expression; however, after implementing the project for a while, they learnt that public participation was crucial. Hence, they started giving trainings on freedom of expression, especially targeting the young people. One of their achievements was being able to give training to the NLD youth members in Yangon and Pathein, during which they felt they were able to dispel myths and clarify grey areas regarding freedom of speech. One participant from the training told Athan that he was able to differentiate between what is right and wrong.
Moreover, Athan became one of the credible sources in Myanmar for data related to freedom of expression and number of journalists charged under the Telecommunications Law. Athan contributed on the current status of freedom of expression for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Midterm Report summited to the United Nations in 2018 July together with PEN Myanmar and Myanmar Journalist Network.
For Paung Ku, Athan is one of many partners working towards social justice, based on the firm principles of human rights, justice, peace and equity. As part of our commitment to helping partners exchange experiences and learn from each other, we facilitated discussions between Athan and other organisations such as Burma Monitor (a hate speech monitoring group), Myanmar Cultural Research Society (a research group exploring the situation of persecuted minorities), and Olive (a community-based group monitoring inter-communal conflicts). All of these partners are engaged in complementary work. Athan also participated with other Paung Ku partners from across the country working on a range of issues from environmental justice, community development, gender, youth, peace, to religion in a Peace and Diversity Workshop. Through this workshop, Athan was able to further widen its network and had a safe environment in which to reflect on the threats and opportunities for diversity and peace in Myanmar.
Looking back at the partnership with Paung Ku, Maung Saungkha said:
“Paung Ku took us seriously when we were just an inexperienced organization. And you helped us like comrades during the initial difficult months. It was because of the partnership with Paung Ku, Athan has become what it is in a very short time.”