When it comes to the issue of free speech, Myanmar and United States chose to handle it differently. While United States has the freedom of speech engrained in their constitution, Myanmar does not provide such a legal right to its citizens, instead it restricts any speech which questions government actions.
United Nations Declaration of Human Rights defines the freedom of speech in Article 19 as the ability to express own opinions without interference through all forms of media. John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle has been adopted as part of international law dictating the limitations of free speech. Opinions can only be expressed freely if they do not impede on citizens’ other rights.
Myanmar’s government history is dominated by civil war and military coups. The current constitution was drafted in 2008 by military leaders and has no provisions regarding free speech. The freedom of speech is highly restricted under penal code article 505 (a) forbidding criticism of any military officer or their actions. The article has been used liberally by the Burmese government to crack down on dissent. Earlier this month, Myo Naung made a Facebook post calling for resignation of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing due to the brutal police crackdown that happened in the north of Rakhine State. As a consequence, Myo received six months in prison. Besides punishing individuals for speaking out against the regime, the government of Myanmar went a step further-preventing citizens from being able to express their criticism by limiting the information that they can receive. Both television and the internet are heavily censored in the country and prior to 2012 all publications required an approval from ministry of information.
Citizens in United States are able to enjoy rights of freedom of speech, press, and assembly under the first amendment to the constitution and the courts have upheld these rights throughout history. United States allowed citizens to organize to express their disapproval of government policy. Women’s March took place shortly after president Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 and consisted of 4 million people gathered in cities all over the US protesting against the new administration wanting to defund Planned Parenthood, which offers affordable health care services to women. The police were there to regulate traffic flow and ensure citizen safety, not to restrict the protestors. United States citizens enjoy full internet access and the press and the media are independent from the government.
The opponents of Myanmar having the same freedom of speech rights as citizens of United States claim that it is not feasible due to the country’s military history and the coup’s firm grip on power. They also state that the level of corruption in Burma is very high, which hinders reform, especially one that allows questioning of existing political institutions. The proponents would disagree with the permanence of the status quo and would bring up the previous election where National League for Democracy party led by the former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi won the majority of the seats in the legislature in the country’s first democratic election in 2015. The people of Burma have taken meaningful steps from actions of resistance to using the political system to express that they are ready for change. Myanmar should allow its citizens the same freedom of speech protections as those in the United States to create greater transparency which will help battle corruption and military elites’ grip on power. Freedom of speech coupled with democratic institutions will allow the country to have full access to information and resources so its citizens can enjoy basic human rights and the country can flourish.