The Kachin State-based Legal Aid Network (LAN) has demanded that the case against three Myitkyina-based painters be dismissed one month after they were charged with “insulting religion” over their COVID-19 awareness mural.
LAN made the statement on May 3, calling on the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to stop taking legal action against journalists and activists and to dismantle laws that restrict freedom of speech.
“The three young painters wanted to give a message to the people about how the virus is dangerous,” Lahpai Naw San, who works with LAN, told KNG, pointing to various international human rights conventions ratified by the government that are being violated through the action.
In its military-drafted Constitution, Burma has ensured a legal grey area that allows the state to continue to prosecute free speech, he explained.
“When we look at Article 354 of the 2008 Constitution, it says there is freedom of speech and freedom to publish, but it also says that these rights must not be contrary to the laws enacted for Union security, and the prevalence of law and order,” Lahpai Naw San said, adding, “it’s really difficult to understand.”
The three painters who made the work of art in question did so on the wall of a railway station in Myitkyina.
Tun Myint Aung, the deputy director of Kachin State’s religious affairs department, is prosecuting the painters for violating Article 295(a) of Burma’s penal code for “insulting religion,” because the grim reaper in their painting donned robes which he said were similar to those worn by Buddhist monks.
They were arrested on April 3—the same day the painting was covered up—and released nearly one month later on bail.
LAN has condemned the court which saw fit to accept the prosecution of this artwork rather than dismiss the charges.
Painter Zayyar Nawng said there was no insult to Buddhism intended in the painting, which is solely about the dangers of COVID-19 and encouraging people to stay home amid the pandemic.
“I am a Buddhist. I don’t want to insult any religion. I think the problem may be in the colors of the painting. My main objective in making this painting was to end this pandemic as soon as possible and to prevent this virus from spreading. I don’t have any other religious, social, or economic objectives,” he told KNG last month.
New York-based Human Rights Watch released a statement on April 8 calling on the charges against the painters to be dropped.
If the painters are found guilty, they could face a sentence of up to two years in prison and/or a fine.