Photo courtesy of AP

Sri Lanka and Myanmar were both once colonized by the British and gained independence in the same year, 1948. That is not the only similarity these two countries share; both enjoy strong historical and cultural ties, follow Theravada Buddhism and have a predominantly Buddhist population. In 2015, both countries were hailed internationally for their democratization process, with a military-backed political party losing in Myanmar’s election and a political dynasty of Rajapaksa’s government coming to an end in Sri Lanka’s election. Today they are both seeing their human rights and political records slip. This analysis report compares Myanmar and Sri Lanka’s space for freedom of expression between 2019 and 2023. Historic political and economic events that happened during those years, including the Myanmar military coup in 2021 and Sri’s Lanka economic crisis in 2022, have had a big impact on the enjoyment of freedom of expression with strictly controlled space for dissents in both countries.

According to Freedom House reports that assessed political and civil rights in Sri Lanka from 2019 to 2022, the level of freedom in Sri Lanka dropped from 56 out of 100 in 2019 to 54 out of 100 in 2022. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s record has drastically declined from 30 out of 100 in 2019 to 9 out of 100 in 2022. These are the consequences of the political and economic changes with more oppressive regimes and harsher laws and regulations restricting freedom of expression.

Laws and provisions regarding the right to freedom of expression

The constitutions of both Sri Lanka and Myanmar state that every citizen is entitled to freedom of expression. Also, both constitutions have restrictions to exercise the right. In Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, a broad set of limitations prohibit people from expressing their opinions freely if it violates laws established to protect national security, law and order and the peace and tranquility of the public. In 2019, Myanmar was under a civilian government after decades of being under military regimes. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 election and ruled the country for five years. However, freedom of expression remained limited under the civilian government.

In Sri Lanka’s constitution, article 14 (1) (a) allows the exercising of freedom of speech and expression. However, article 15 prohibits exercising the right if that causes defamation/incitement, national security and public order at risk and obstruction of duties of armed forces, police force and other forces. In 2019 Sri Lanka saw a big shift with the Rajapaksa family returning to power following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in the November presidential election. Since then, freedom of expression in the country has been in decline.

In 2020 February, Rajapaksa’s government withdrew from co-sponsoring the UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, which supports accountability, reconciliation, justice and human rights in Sri Lanka. This illustrates that the government was putting an end to the promise of investigating human rights violations and abuses stated in the resolution. The 20th amendment was approved under the Rajapaksa government in September 2020. The amendment gives almost absolute power to the president, which reversed the democratic gains of the 19th Amendment.

Both countries are well known for their draconian laws to suppress freedom of expression and speech. Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorist Act (PTA), introduced as a temporary measure to tackle terrorism, has been used to target political dissidents and critics since it became law in 1982. The government, with the excuse of protecting national security, has been using PTA to target those who stand up to its leadership, particularly minorities. PTA allows the authorities to arrest people without a warrant, detain them for long periods, subject them to torture or ill treatment and give them no access to a fair trial. Many human rights organizations have been calling for the repeal of the PTA but the latest amendment of PTA in 2022 still allows the authorities to detain people for up to one year (reduced from 18 months) without charge and without appeal in courts. From 2019 to 2021, more than 600 arrests were carried out by the government under the PTA. Many rights organizations claimed that most of those individuals were tortured in custody and were forced to confess their guilt under duress.

In Myanmar, the situation has been arguably worse. With both colonial era laws as well as newer laws enacted legislation being used to suppress the voices of dissent, critics and freedom of expression. The penal code 124/A, also known as the sedition law, states that anyone who encourages or tries to encourage hatred and disaffection towards the government can be punished with three years in prison. Articles 499-502 of the penal code criminalizes defamation; printing or selling printed materials about an individual, an organization, or a group that could damage their reputation. This is punishable by two years in prison. The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, although amended in 2016, still requires organizers of protests and assemblies to inform authorities 48 hours in advance. This is often used by government authorities either to deny people opportunities to protest if they do make a submission to authorities or to crack down on any unauthorized gatherings that do take place, limiting people’s ability to exercise their freedom of expression in Myanmar. In September 2019, a pair of Kachin activists who led anti-war protests in Kachin State was sentenced to 15 days in prison under the peaceful assembly law despite informing authorities about the protest in advance. The state filed the charge because the submission did not contain detailed information of the protest.

According to Athan, an organization that promotes freedom of expression, 539 lawsuits were filed related to criticism towards the government under the NLD government from April 2016 to March 2020. Among them, 251 lawsuits were filed by the NLD government.

COVID-19 and freedom of expression

With the arrival of COVID-19, both countries used measures to control the spreading of the disease that also inhibited free expression. On April 1, 2020, the acting Inspector General of Police Sri Lanka ordered the arrest of anyone who criticizes the state’s COVID-19 response or who shares fake information on the topic. In Myanmar, an additional natural disaster management law was implied to restrict freedom of expression amid COVID-19 pandemic. Section 25 of the law was used in September 2020 by authorities to arrest three students in Rakhine for protesting against the state’s internet shutdown. Referring to COVID-19 as a “natural disaster” enabled this law to be used and it carries a maximum three year prison sentence.

Freedom on the net before drastic changes

Along with increases in internet coverage and users in Myanmar, the control of cyberspace increased under the NLD government as well. More than 2,000 websites were blocked in March 2020 for allegedly spreading fake news. Independent and ethnic-based media including Karen News and Voice of Mandalay were among those that were blocked. The longest internet shutdown was imposed from June 2019 for more than a year in Rakhine and Chin states, ostensibly to prevent an ethnic armed organization, the Arakan Army, from using the internet platforms for propaganda purposes. This not only limits people in those areas from exercising their freedom of expression but also their access to information, which during the COVID-19 pandemic was especially concerning.

Expressing thoughts and opinions online comes at the risk of arrest for Sri Lanka as well. On January 11, 2021 a Muslim man was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for his post on Facebook criticizing the way the government uses excessive force in ruling the country. He remained in detention as of December 10, 2021. Although the government does not block websites and contents systematically, there are a few limitations online in Sri Lanka. For example, unlimited data packages introduced by the state-owned telecommunication company Sri Lanka Telecom in April 2021 blocked access to Telegram, virtual private networks (VPNs) and peer-to-peer applications. A few websites, including Tamil news website, showed signs of being blocked on Dialog and SLT connections until June 2021.

Freedom of expression amid political and economic turmoil

Early 2021 in Myanmar and 2022 in Sri Lanka saw the beginning of political and economic turmoil for both countries. Myanmar’s military overthrew the civilian NLD government on February 1, 2021, arrested opposition leaders including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and cracked down on people’s freedom of expression and other human rights. At least 21,000 people have been arrested and more than 3,000 people have been killed since the coup. Myanmar has been under a state of emergency since February 1, 2021. The regime has imprisoned, attacked and killed individuals who raised criticisms against the military coup. Random checks and searches by regime forces and their plain clothes informants happen across the country to suppress anti-coup dissents. Along with the military coup, the military regime ostensibly invalidated Myanmar’s 2008 constitution and the protections that came with it including freedom of expression as stated in article 354 of the 2008 constitution.

In March 2022, a historical democratic movement called Aragalaya unfolded in Sri Lanka. People went out on the streets to address the economic crisis and demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after experiencing the country’s worst economic crisis since independence from the British, with shortages of fuel and essential goods, and facing power blackouts. They were faced with heavy-handed tactics from security forces, experienced curfews and were put under a state of emergency. This aimed to suppress protesters and silence them from calling for changes amid the economic crisis. President Rajapaksa left the country and resigned after the protesters occupied the presidential palace in a peaceful manner in July 2022. Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in at the acting president on July 15 and elected president by parliament on July 21. As soon as Mr. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as acting president, he declared another state of emergency, which allowed security forces to arrest people and search private properties without warrants. As president he ordered the dismantling of the GotaGoGama protest site resulting dozens of people injured and nine people being arrested.

Additional provisions and tighter restrictions

Since the coup in Myanmar, the regime amended several sections of the penal code including 505A, 124A and 124D and expanded provisions that suppress freedom of expression. A new provision was added in 505A that criminalizes anyone who causes fear, shares fake news and causes anyone to commit crimes against government staff are punishable with three years in prison. More than 900 people were charged under 505A from February to October 2021. 124A of the penal code was expanded to include defense services and defense services personnel and anyone who encourages hate towards them can be punishable with 20 years in prison. 124 D was expanded to punish anyone who obstructs the duties of government staff up to seven years in prison.

Freedom of expression under President Wickremesinghe is not improving and it could be argued it is getting worse. In November 2022, he said he would not tolerate any protests that attempted to cause the collapse of the government and that he would deploy the military and declare a state of emergency if needed. He ordered the parliament to require that protesters would secure permitsfrom the police for organizing rallies. Although the country is experiencing the worst economic crisis in history and countless people are struggling to make a living, anyone who expresses their concerns or talks about the change they think was needed to improve the situation faced suppression from the authorities. In September 2022, Dr. Chamal Sanjeewa who expressed concerns about the grave issue of children malnutrition amid the economic crisis was charged with spreading false information and suspended from his work. 

Freedom on the net since historical shifts

Internet access has been severely restricted nationwide since February 1, 2021. At least 22 townships in Myanmar have been blocked from mobile access since the middle of 2021 by the military regime. A few months after the coup, the military took over the control of state-owned telecommunication service providers and pressured privately owned ones, which resulted in selling Telenor company’s operation to another company based in Lebanon. A nationwide internet shutdown was imposed by the regime twice since the coup and nightly internet blackout was enforced to restrict pro-democracy activities online.

The Myanmar military started blocking social media channels including Facebook and Twitter; these platforms were very important for organizing protests and promoting pro-democracy movements in the early days of protests. Censoring online content and surveilling activities online has intensified. The military regime arrested people who posted anti-coup content or supported the parallel civilian government, National Unity Government (NUG), on Facebook. An extra restriction was imposed to limit mobile and internet users to communicate secretly amid the coup. The military regime imposed regulations that pressured mobile users to register with their name, national ID card, address and ethnicity and said that foreigners must register with their passport numbers.

Media freedom has been severely restricted since the coup. In 2021 alone, 71 media houses, including big and small outlets, were closed, forcing at least 1,000 media professionals into exile to escape arrest, torture and death. As of Jan 2023, four journalists have been killed and about 130 journalists have been arrested. According to the Freedom House 2022 report, Myanmar’s freedom score is nine out 100 with no political rights being respected.

Sri Lanka’s freedom on the net has also declined since the Aragalaya. Freedom on the net index by Freedom House was 51 out of 100 in 2021 to 48 out of 100 in 2022. On April 3, 2022, with pressure from the defense ministry, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission ordered internet service providers in the country to block all social media platforms in an attempt to stop people from organizing protests against the government. Social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and messaging channels WhatsApp and Telegram were blocked for 16 hours. In March 2022 a TV presenter, Parami Nileptha Ranasinghe who worked for the national TV Rupavahini, was banned from reporting and entering television channel’s premises because of her Facebook post criticizing the government. On April 1, 2022 plain clothes police arrested Anuruddha Bandara who is a social media activist and administrator of the Go Home Gota page on Facebook and charged him under 120 of the penal code – “Excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the State”.

Both Myanmar and Sri Lanka share a similar history, culture and politics. They have been led by regimes who have oppressed freedom of expression. It is this freedom, this fundamental human right, that is one of the highest costs citizens must pay when living under a suppressive state who should be respecting, protecting and promoting their rights and freedoms. However, that should not stop people from fighting for their rights and for the rights of people whose voices are being silenced systematically by the state’s institutions. When that fight is conceded, when people cease to stand up for the most marginalized, then the battle against authoritarianism is lost.