July 5, 2016 – An official in Myanmar has been charged with defamation for referring to Aung San Suu Kyi with a slur parroted by the former military government she spent decades campaigning against, police said today.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept historic polls in November, with the veteran activist vowing to expand freedoms she fought for while under house arrest for some 15 years.
But limits on free speech remain, as does a culture of charging critics with defamation – a common play under the former military-backed administration.
Yesterday a court in central Magway charged a planning official from Salin township over Facebook posts that referred to Suu Kyi with a racial slur used by the former military government to draw attention to her marriage to a British academic.
The government employee referred to Suu Kyi as the wife of a “kalar,” a derogatory term used to slander foreigners. “He was arrested on Saturday and detained at our police station. He appeared at court yesterday,” Win Tin, a police officer from Salin, said.
Myanmar’s former military rulers attempted to seize upon Suu Kyi’s marriage to Michael Aris, who died in 1999, to undercut her ties to a country she grew up in but did not return to until later in life.
But their efforts failed, and Suu Kyi received rapturous support from her countrymen during her years as an activist. Suu Kyi, now leading the first civilian government in nearly half a century, continues to enjoy a saint-like status by many.
The official in Magway was charged by a member of the local NLD office, who said the post sparked anger in the community. “He insulted the country’s leader … if we did not file a lawsuit, public anger would be bigger,” said Kan Oo, an NLD lower house MP from Salin.
Social media has exploded in Myanmar in recent years, alongside the lifting of military-era censorship laws and web restrictions. But a rise in hate speech has followed, as well as a surge in the prosecution of online critics.