A trial began Wednesday over a student play alleged to have defamed Myanmar’s powerful military through criticizing military clashes with ethnic armed groups.

A group of five university students and four high school students is accused of damaging the army’s reputation, said Myo Thu, a police officer in Pathein, a coastal town about 200 kilometers west of Myanmar’s former capital Yangon.

“The court starts hearing the students’ defamation case today,” he told Anadolu Agency by phone on Wednesday.

Aung Myo Khaing, general staff officer of Southwestern Military Command based in Pathein, the Ayeyawaddy region, filed a defamation case against the students on Jan. 17.

The students are charged with criminal defamation under Article 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code, said Myo Thu, and face up to two years in prison, or a fine, or both, if convicted.

According to a report posted Monday by online outlet Irrawaddy, the student performed a satirical comedy in which a news agency called “Oxygen” interviewed supporters of armed conflict in the country during a discussion of the peace process in Pathein.

“We did not want to harm either the military or ethnic armed groups,” Aung Khant Zaw, lead organizer of the drama, told Irrawaddy.

“We just mimicked demonstrators which supported armed clashes,” he said, referring to the recent demonstrations in Myanmar’s major cities to show support for the military’s war against the armed groups.

Internet defamation targeted

Though the once self-isolated country is now ruled by a civilian government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, rights groups said there has been an escalation in the suppression of opposition critics by state authorities.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday urged the government of Myanmar to end the prosecution of peaceful critics in violation of their right to free speech.

“Though Myanmar’s new government includes more than 100 former political prisoners, it has done little to eliminate the laws used to prosecute peaceful expression,” said HRW’s Asia Director Brad Adams.

“Instead, during the government’s first year there was an escalation in prosecutions of peaceful political speech,” he said in a statement.

Over the past year, Myanmar authorities have been particularly aggressive in the use of section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act which criminalizes defamation on the Internet with a penalty of up to three years in prison, said HRW.

At least 40 cases have been filed under section 66(d) during the first eight months the government has been in office, said HRW, citing a civil society group led by activists who campaigned to amend the section.

“Democratic governments don’t imprison those who criticize or somehow ‘insult’ government officials or the military,” Adams said.

“The Myanmar people expected the NLD government to bring an end to this kind of repression, not add to the ranks of political prisoners,” he added, speaking of the ruling National League for Democracy.

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