US urges Myanmar to release two activists charged over Facebook posts

Patrick Khum Jaa Lee's wife said that he wasn't the originator of the post and that he was simply tagged in it.
Patrick Khum Jaa Lee's wife said that he wasn't the originator of the post and that he was simply tagged in it.PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - The United States has called for the immediate release of two Myanmar activists charged over Facebook posts about the military, expressing alarm over curbs on free speech weeks before crucial elections.

The arrests come as political tensions rise in the former junta-ruled nation ahead of Nov 8 parliamentary elections that could sweep Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition into office.

"Freedom of speech, including speech that discusses the military and other government institutions, is integral to a democratic society," said US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby Thursday in Washington.

In a statement of his comments released by the US Embassy in Yangon, he urged authorities to "immediately" release the two detainees.

Opposition activist Chaw Sandi Tun, 25, was arrested in Yangon on Monday (Oct 12) after questioning the similarity of the colour of the new uniform for army officers with that of a "longyi", or sarong, worn by Suu Kyi.

She has been detained at a prison in the Irrawaddy delta, awaiting trial on Oct 27.

In a separate incident, Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, an activist and husband of prominent rights campaigner May Sabe Phyu, was arrested over a different Facebook post, according to the US.

Agence France-Presse was unable to directly contact May Sabe Phyu, but a post on her Facebook page late on Thursday (Oct 15) said her husband was detained in Yangon's Insein prison and "nobody is allowed to meet him".

She added that he was not the originator of the problematic post - also believed to involve the army - but had simply been tagged, a Facebook feature in which users can be linked to a post without having written it.

David Scott Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said the arrests would have a "chilling" effect on other activists.

"People are scared. They are basically doing what hundreds of thousands of Burmese people do everyday on social media, which is posting, reposting or sharing," he told Agence France-Presse. "We all knew the military didn't have a sense of humour, but we didn't know they would be vindictive about it."

The quasi-civilian government which replaced outright military rule in Myanmar in 2011 has been praised for its raft of political and economic reforms leading to the removal of most Western sanctions.

But the state has increasingly been accused of resorting to junta-era tactics by rights groups, with widespread criticism of a violent police crackdown on student protesters earlier this year.