Thet Mon Htun
Yangon - For many decades, Myanmar’s comedians have used their spaces, limited as they were, to reflect on the country’s political situation, personalities, and public sentiments.
It would be an exaggeration to say that comedians played a watchdog role on freedom of speech as it was by and large suppressed. But satiric shows of state mismanagement did come through – humorously and full of cynicism.
Recently, the Har Style comedian group posted a series of comedy skit footage on Facebook starring the group leader, Star Kaung Htet. It went viral but was met with scorn by pro-government supporters – seeing it as insulting to the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
The three skits put up on Har Style’s Facebook page included one satirising Parliament’s voting trends under the influence of the ruling party National League for Democracy, and another suggesting that Suu Kyi’s many foreign trips thwart many unresolved internal issues.
In one popular skit, Star Kaung Htet dressed up as Suu Kyi as she left for a trip overseas in her typical fashion of traditional dress and scarf. The impersonator took on a role of a mother, while her daughter and sons (Har Style comedians) emerged to complain about high commodity prices, loss of opportunity by small businesses, squatters persecutions by authorities and shortcomings on human rights issues.
Within just a few hours after posting the video, pro-government groups began attacking Star Kaung Htet online. His personal Facebook was bombarded with scoldings for not giving the government—then just six months in office—a chance to work.
Har Style leader Star Kaung Htet
Star Kaung Htet responded by saying: “It is not insulting, but satirical. I dressed like a woman which makes it funny. All remaining parts of our skit are to inform the government of what is happening on the ground.”
“Of course, it was only six months. But how much is the price of gold now? We’ve been hearing the public, including trishaw riders and shop owners, complain about their struggles to make ends meet. People are suffering from the high prices in that six month period,” he said.
Kaung Htet said over 8,700 comments agreed with the situation reflected while some 1,300 comments were against with many using obscene language to mark their displeasure.
One other video on Har Style’s channel was mocking the trend of parliament’s voting results. Regardless of the details, proposals were all passed by the majority of NLD lawmakers. Some comics poked fun of a minister's fake PhD certificate and some MPs with little education.
Criticising the government has been permitted since Thein Sein’s government. Prior to that during the military dictatorship era, several comedians were jailed for their satire.
Today, pro-government groups’ hot-tempered reactions to those criticizing the NLD government have been on the rise. They have also raised funds to file lawsuits against those who criticize or make fun of the State Counselor or the government.
Just this week, a 19-year old girl in Bago Region was charged by the police under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law over her Facebook posts allegedly insulting State Counsellor Suu Kyi.
The Section 66(d) states that anyone extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming or being disturbing online can be jailed for three years or be subjected to fines.
Indeed, critiques of heads of states during Thein Sein’s presidency were many times worse than today.
Kaung Htet said: “I’ve been making parodies both during U Thein Sein term and in U Than Shwe’s era. I’m just telling the truth. If I were to be jailed by this government, I’d be speechless.”