PEN member now serving 54-year prison sentence.
24 May 2023: PEN International is dismayed at the decision of Myanmar’s military junta to sentence writer, activist, and PEN Myanmar member, Wai Moe Naing to 20 years’ imprisonment for committing high treason. Already serving a 34-year prison sentence following several convictions in retaliation for his peaceful advocacy against the military coup of 1 February 2021, this latest unjust conviction follows rushed legal proceedings that violated fair trial norms. PEN International continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all those unjustly detained by the military junta for their peaceful expression in Myanmar, including Wai Moe Naing.
On 19 May 2023, Wai Moe Naing was convicted of high treason for his role as a protest leader and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment under Article 122 of Myanmar’s Penal Code, narrowly avoiding a potential death sentence. Already serving a sentence of 34 years’ imprisonment, this latest ruling results in a combined total of 54 years in prison.
‘From the military junta’s efforts to silence Wai Moe Naing, it is obvious that the regime fears his voice. When he was first assaulted and detained in April 2021, he was engaged in non-violent advocacy, holding peaceful rallies in order to explain how the military’s seizure of power violated Myanmar’s undemocratic 2008 constitution. It is a cruel injustice that Wai Moe Naing has been convicted of high treason by the same regime that has so brutally betrayed the people of Myanmar. We demand his immediate and unconditional release’, said Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
A further trial on a remaining charge of murder remains. The charge is reported to relate to the killing of two police officers in the Monywa district, in central Myanmar but no evidence has emerged that links Wai Moe Naing to the crime. Wai Moe Naing’s friends and family have rejected the accusation of murder on the strongest possible terms.
As reported previously, two of Wai Moe Naing’s legal representatives have been arrested, with many others now unwilling to represent him out of fear of retaliation from the military junta, raising ongoing concerns over Wai Moe Naing’s ability to defend himself according to international fair trial norms.
PEN International considers that Wai Moe Naing’s long-term imprisonment represents a complete disregard of his right to a fair trial and is illustrative of the military junta’s willingness to use Myanmar’s legal system as a means to further its repression of dissenting voices.
Wai Moe Naing is a writer, activist, and member of PEN Myanmar. He began writing as a student, with his first short story being published in Teen Magazine at the age of 13. His writing has since been published in several literary outlets, including Khit Yanantthit Magazine and Pae Tin Tharn Journal.
Prior to the military coup in February 2021, Wai Moe Naing had already developed a reputation as a committed non-violent activist due to his long-standing involvement student unions and youth groups, which included his affiliation with the Peacock Generation, a satirical poetry troupe who had several of its members detained in 2019 for allegedly criticising the military during a performance.
In the immediate aftermath of the military coup, Wai Moe Naing rose to prominence as a leader of the anti-coup protest movement and was among those who popularised the idea of banging pots and pans as a non-violent act of resistance to the military junta’s rule.
Wai Moe Naing was arrested on 15 April 2021 by junta forces after they reportedly used an unmarked vehicle to ram Wai Moe Naing while he was driving on a moped as part of a protest rally in the Monywa district. When he tried to escape on foot, a group of armed men disembarked and attacked him and a female protestor before detaining them both.
On 12 August 2022, Wai Moe Naing was found guilty of multiple counts of incitement under section 505(A) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which has been routinely used by the military junta to target critics of the regime. Following his conviction, Wai Moe Naing was initially sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. According to reports, Wai Moe Naing did not appeal the court’s ruling, stating that the allegations were not committed by him, so there was nothing to appeal.
On 20 October 2022, Wai Moe Naing was sentenced to a further four years’ imprisonment on an additional count of incitement and for violating Article 25 of Natural Disaster Management Law, a charge that has been cynically used to clamp down on public rallies following the authorities’ classification of COVID-19 as a ‘natural disaster’.
On 5 April 2023, Wai Moe Naing was convicted of several charges, including rioting, robbery and incitement, and sentenced to a further 20 years’ imprisonment, resulting in a cumulative total of 34 years in prison.
For more information about PEN International’s work on Myanmar please see Impunity Reigns – Writers resist, PEN International’s 2022 Case List, which documents 115 cases of persecuted writers worldwide, including Wai Moe Naing.
For further information please contact Ross Holder, Head of Asia/ Pacific Region at PEN International. Email: email@example.com
Regressive changes to education policy undermine linguistic rights and exacerbate ethnic divisions
PEN International is concerned by the military junta’s recent amendments to Myanmar’s education system, which seek to promote the use of Burmese at the expense of other languages. In a country riven by conflict, these exclusionary amendments risk exacerbating ethnic divisions by infringing upon the linguistic rights of ethnic minority communities and increasing educational barriers for non-native Burmese speakers.
On 30 October 2022, amendments to Myanmar’s 2014 National Education Law (NEL) were published in the junta-controlled Myanmar Alin Daily, the country’s longest-running newspaper. The amendments, which came into force on 29 October, significantly weaken the linguistic rights of the country’s ethnic minority communities by promoting Burmese as the sole language of instruction in public education. In doing so, these discriminatory amendments will significantly disadvantage ethnic minority students by undermining their ability to learn using their mother tongue.
In response to the military junta’s amendments, Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, Chair of the PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, said: ‘By undoing efforts to develop an inclusive education system that respects linguistic rights and reflects Myanmar’s rich multilingual heritage, the military junta will only further marginalise the country’s ethnic minority communities, deepening the divisions that have been a key source of the country’s entrenched ethnic conflicts.’
Myanmar is a country of rich linguistic diversity, which is reflected in the over 100 different languages and dialects spoken across the country. Burmese is the official language of Myanmar and is the primary language used by the Bamar, the country’s largest ethnic group. Burmese also serves as a lingua franca for many of the country’s ethnic minority communities.
During previous decades of repressive military rule (1962-2011), the promotion of a majoritarian national identity that elevated Burmese at the expense of other languages resulted in the marginalisation and suppression of the use of ethnic minority languages in public life. The military’s failure to embrace the country’s ethnic diversity has been a central grievance of non-Bamar ethnic communities, exacerbating the divisions that have fuelled the country’s protracted cycle of conflict.
Following the end of formal military rule in 2011, the enactment of the 2014 NEL, and its 2015 amendments, was a significant milestone in the development of a more inclusive national education system that better catered to the needs of Myanmar’s diverse ethnolinguistic groups. The 2014-2015 NEL included provisions which stated that ethnic minority languages could be used alongside Burmese as a classroom language (Article 43[B]) and that regional and state governments could implement the teaching of ethnic minority languages and literatures at the primary level and eventually higher grades (Article 44).
While the development of the NEL proved controversial, resulting in protests from student unions and a violent crackdown by the police, it was the first time that non-dominant ethnic language teaching was formally recognised by law in Myanmar, representing a positive step towards the integration of ethnic minority languages into the national education curriculum.
However, October’s announcement by the military junta undermines this burgeoning progress by imposing amendments that exclude ethnic minority languages from being used as a classroom language at the primary level (Article 43[B]), while also limiting the teaching of ethnic minority languages and literatures to the primary level (Article 44).
PEN International urges the military junta to annul these amendments and to ensure that Myanmar’s education system supports the linguistic rights of non-Burmese speakers and respects the country’s rich linguistic diversity.
We also continue our ongoing call for the release of all those unjustly detained for their peaceful expression. For more on our work on Myanmar, click here.
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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.