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A judge in Pathein Township has handed down fines to eight students who were charged with defamation under section 500 of the Burmese Penal Code after the youths staged an anti-war play at a hotel in Pathein town, the Irrawaddy Region capital.
Judge Win Aung’s ruling on Wednesday came after the Burmese military filed a lawsuit more than a year ago against a total of nine students who participated in the January 2017 theatrical production.
One of the nine students, Myo Ko Ko, was not present at Wednesday’s legal proceedings, where eight of his peers were given fines ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 kyats ($22.50 to $37.50).
“The court ruled that Aung Khant Zaw and Myat Thu Htet were convicted of violating section 500 of the Penal Code and the other six students were convicted of violating section 500/34,” the judge told the court, the latter referring to a provision in the Penal Code that, broadly speaking, covers associative criminality by penalising illegality committed “in furtherance of the common intention of all.”
Aung Khant Zaw and Myat Thu Htet were fined 50,000 kyats each and the other six students were fined 30,000 kyats each.
Speaking to DVB about a week after the charges were filed last year, Aung Khant Zaw said the nine were informed by the local police chief that the regional military base had initiated the lawsuit, accusing them of “using language deemed defamatory to servicemen and their families.”
Aung Khant Zaw said they were summoned to the township police station for questioning on 18 January 2017, at which time they denied the accusation, explaining that while the play carried an anti-war message, it was in no way meant to be anti-military.
“The message we tried to convey was that we were against war, but we did not intend to insult or question the integrity of the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces],” he said.
“We all dream of peace. We do not support conflict, and we believe it hinders the peace process.”
Legal proceedings in the case began on 25 January 2017, and an initial acquittal in May of that year was appealed to a higher court by the plaintiff Lieutenant Colonel Aung Myo Khaing, ultimately leading to Wednesday’s reversal of judicial fortunes for the eight students.
In recent years the military has established a reputation as one of the country’s thinnest-skinned institutions, relative to its formidable power. Soldiers from its ranks have acted as litigants in numerous defamation trials in which the defendants stood accused of having “violated the dignity” of the Tatmadaw.
In January, the Tatmadaw’s sensitivity was on full display as it strongly condemned a performance that organisers said was intended to promote peace, but which the military’s “True News Information Team” decried as an affront to its standing domestically and internationally.