A Kachin peace activist released after serving a six-month sentence for sharing a defamatory post about Myanmar’s military chief has called for the release of all political prisoners.
Patrick Kum Jaa Lee was released from Insein Prison at about 9am on April 1.
Speaking to the media, he condemned the verdict and sentence handed down to him, and said the Telecommunications Law and other legislation should be reformed to protect freedom of speech.
“The law should be prescribed to protect citizens, not to send them to jail,” he said.
Patrick Kum Jaa Lee was arrested on October 14, 2015, following a complaint to police by a military officer after he shared a photo on Facebook that showed Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing being stepped on.
He was charged under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which prohibits actions that “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate” and carries a potential three-year prison term.
In January, Hlaing Township Court Judge U Sein Kyi found him guilty, saying the image was defamatory and "against the cultural and customary context of our country".
The case drew criticism from human rights groups and prompted accusations that the government and military were using the new Telecommunications Law – hailed as a step toward liberalising the sector when enacted in 2013 – as a tool to stifle dissent.
Also in October, a young National League for Democracy supporter, Ma Chaw Sandi Tun, 25, was arrested for a post comparing Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s uniform with the colour of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s htamein. She received a six-month sentence under the same section and was released on March 30.
Patrick Kum Ja Lee said the law had been used against activists unfairly because no by-laws had yet been passed. “Nobody should go to jail in these circumstances. We can only accept a penalty according to a law with proper procedures,” he said.
Legal expert U Tin Than Oo said that while the Telecommunications Law does not have by-laws, these are not always required.
“Action can still be taken against those who violate the law. But the government needs to use the law correctly. In the case of this law, the previous government failed to use it against those who were really violating the law. Instead, it used it for political cases. This is simply wrong,” he said.
Patrick Kum Jaa Lee said there were “so many people” in prison who had been sentenced under “oppressive laws”. He said he believed the new government would released all political prisoners.
“Some [prisoners] have not made big mistakes but have received huge sentences. I want them to be released,” he said, adding that many in Insein Prison were from other parts of the country, making it difficult for their relatives to visit.
Patrick Kum Jaa Lee also said he was that he was in poor health and would be seeking treatment. During his trial his defence team sought bail on health grounds but the application was rejected by the court.
The issue of political prisoners poses a significant challenge for the NLD-led administration, with human rights group lobbying hard for a full and unconditional release. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to release all prisoners of conscience, but whether that pledge is even feasible remains to be seen. The military retains control of the National Defence and Security Council, which the president must consult in order to grant amnesties.