Rights groups call on Myanmar to drop charges against poet who protested Rakhine internet shutdown 

Seven major international rights groups on Wednesday called on Myanmar’s government to drop charges against activist and poet Maung Saungkha, who faces three months in prison for protesting against Rakhine’s internet shutdown.

Maung Saungkha is accused of breaching the Peaceful Assembly Law by hanging a banner from a bridge in Yangon in June that asked if the internet shutdown was an attempt to hide “war crimes”. 

The law criminalises protests that go ahead without official permission. 

“We didn’t inform the police because we thought that if we did they would deny us permission to do it,” Maung Saungkha, who is out on bail and due to be sentenced on Friday, told Myanmar Now. 

He argued in court that speaking out against the shutdown was necessary, he added, and that they chose this form of protest to avoid holding a gathering amid the Covid-19 outbreak. 

He was doubtful that the court would take his side, he said. “I’m not expecting much.”

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Forum-Asia are among the groups who endorsed the statement calling for charges against him to be dropped. 

“The current National League for Democracy-led government… has increasingly restricted the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest,” the statement said. 

It also called for the release of nine student activists who were jailed earlier this year for their roles in a separate protest demanding an end to the shutdown. 

“The charges against Maung Saungkha are just the latest example of the Myanmar government’s intolerance of critical speech and peaceful protest,” said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, Forum-Asia’s executive director.

“Instead of prosecuting those peacefully protesting the year-long internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States, the authorities should uphold free expression rights by ending the shutdown.”

Seven townships in Rakhine and one in Chin state remain effectively shut off from the internet even after the government allowed access to 2G services last month. At such speeds users still cannot make video calls, send emails, or access web pages with photos or videos, the statement said. 

The blackout first came into effect in June last year and has been labelled the world’s longest internet shutdown. 

Around 200,000 have been displaced by recent fighting between the military and the Arakan Army in the region. The government has sought to justify cutting internet access on security grounds but rights groups fear it is intended as a cover for human rights abuses. 

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