A leading rights groups has called on Myanmar’s government to immediately drop all criminal charges against three young street artists who were arrested for painting a mural that raises awareness about the coronavirus pandemic.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) made the appeal on April 8 five days after artists, Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai, and Naw Htun Aung, were charged for violating Myanmar’s law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion.
The three were arrested after hard-line Buddhist complained that the mural, portraying a grim reaper figure spreading the COVID-19 virus, looked like a Buddhist monk. The mural was painted on a wall in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State in the country’s north.
The artists posted a photo of their completed mural on social media the first week of April. They later painted over the mural after they were bombarded by hate speech online, HRW said.
Later via his Facebook page Zayar Hnaung said the mural was just about raising knowledge about COVID-19 and the red robe was about death, not about Buddhism.
Myanmar’s poor health care infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19.
Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director said that the charges against the three should be should be dropped immediately.
“Myanmar’s authorities caved to outrageous demands by Buddhist ultranationalists to prosecute three street artists for expressing their views,” Robertson said.
“At a time when the Myanmar government needs to be doing more to educate the populace about the coronavirus crisis, arresting those bringing attention to the issue is all the more ridiculous,” he said.
A statement put out by HRW said that the deputy director of Kachin State’s Religious Office formally filed the charges under article 295A of the Penal Code, which criminalizes speech that “with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings … insults or attempts to insult” religion or religious beliefs.
The three face up to two years in prison.
Article 295A effectively criminalizes speech that may offend others or be viewed as insulting to their religion.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression has specifically cited laws that prohibit “outraging religious feelings” as an example of overly broad laws that can be abused to censor discussion on matters of legitimate public interest.