- Opening statement on the Hong Kong National Security Law
- Breaking news: Executions in Myanmar
- Writers and articles in focus
- Activities completed and achievements
- Upcoming activities
- Letter-writing campaign
Opening statement – 2 years into the Hong Kong National Security Law
When Britain handed Hong Kong to China in 1997, the expectation was that Beijing would honour the principle of “one country, two systems” as pledged in Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984) and Basic Law (1990). The central government would maintain the status quo of Hong Kong’s capitalist society and economic system after the handover and ensure that the new Special Administrative Region (SAR) was for the Hong Kongers to govern, irrespective of their political colours. Under the circumstances, press freedom was one of those original ways of life maintained after the handover, though self-censorship incrementally became more common in the media circle, particularly since Xi Jinping ascended to power in 2012. It was the relative press freedom and semi-democratic elections that made Hong Kong distinct from the mainland.
That is, until June 2020, when a draconian National Security Law (NSL) was imposed by the central government without consulting Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council and Chief Executive. A major consequence of the NSL present during its first proposal in 2019 is the capacity to extradite Hong Kong suspects to China for trial. The NSL led to the mass arrest and jailing of democracy activists and media figures including Jimmy Lai, owner of Apple Daily, the leading newspaper backing the anti-extradition protestors. After the Apple Daily was shut down (June 2021), two remaining online independent platforms, Stand News and Citizen News, were also forced to stop operation. According to World Press Freedom Index 2022, published by Reporters Without Borders, Hong Kong has plunged to 148th in press freedom rankings of the 180 surveyed countries/regions. It was still ranked 18th place in 2002, when the index began.
Two years into NSL, mainlandisation of Hong Kong is poised to go even faster: in May 2022, John Lee, the former security chief who oversaw the brutal crackdown in 2019, was the sole candidate in the Chief Executive election – and “won” the leadership poll by receiving 99.2% of the votes in a 1,500-strong Election Committee handpicked by Beijing, with promises of using NSL for more crackdowns on civil and political rights.
Thank you to Professor Jie Chen for his insightful statement.
Breaking news: executions in Myanmar
Earlier this week, Myanmar’s military junta executed four pro-democracy activists in the first judicial executions in decades. The decision to carry out the death sentences signifies a terrifying escalation in the military’s brutal campaign to suppress the people of Myanmar.
Since the February 2021 coup, the military has enacted widespread crackdowns on free expression and anti-coup activity. Almost 15,000 political prisoners have been arrested with 74 currently on death row. Increased surveillance, ramping up laws to criminalise online activity, internet and social media shutdowns and cutting off media outlets has had a chilling effect on public discourse. PEN’s Freedom to Write Index reported 26 writers and public intellectuals were detained in Myanmar in 2021.
PEN has publicly condemned the executions and has grave concerns about this escalation in the junta’s brutal regime of violence and suppression. Read the full statement here: bit.ly/3PEJ53R The four activists were Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung and Aug Thura Zaw. They were sentenced to death by a closed-door military court in January on counter-terrorism charges. All four were detained and tried under a veil of secrecy and in defiance of human rights and international standards for fair judicial process.
Kyaw Min Yu, 53, was a veteran democracy activist and acclaimed writer. He was a leader of the 88 Generations Student Group and was imprisoned from 1988 to 2005 for his role in organising pro-democracy protests. He was jailed a second time from 2007 to 2012. During his imprisonment, he wrote the novel The Moon in Inle Lake and translated two of Dan Brown’s novels into Burmese. In 2005 he released the bestselling self-help book Making Friends and has had several political postmodern short stories published in Japan under the pen name Pan Pu Lwin Pyin. In February 2021 Kyaw Min Yu posted anti-coup posts on social media, resulting in a warrant for his arrest. He was arrested during a raid on a housing complex, after eight months in hiding. Injuries sustained during and after his arrest resulted in admission to intensive care. He is survived by his wife Nilar Thein and their teenage daughter.
Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, first came to prominence as a member of Acid, a hip hop band who released Myanmar’s first rap album. He then co-founded Generation Wave, a pro-democracy youth and arts collective. Later, he turned to politics becoming an MP in 2012 in Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. He was arrested in November in 2021 and accused of planning attacks against the military junta.
Hla Myo Aung, 41, and Aung Thura Zaw, 27, were both from Hlaing Thayar, one of eleven townships under martial law. They were charged with killing a military informer and denied access to legal counsel.
Please see the newsletter section ‘Letter-writing campaign’ to see how you can help. Thank you to our intern Justine McGinnis for putting together this summary and letter-writing campaign about executions in Myanmar.
Writers and articles in focus
We focus on writers across Hong Kong, Vietnam, Myanmar and India who have been detained or are at-risk for asserting human rights in the face of totalitarian regimes. The articles selected are designed to cover press freedom issues in each country from both an academic/analytical frame and personal response. Unless indicated otherwise, Information on writers has primarily drawn from the PEN International Case Lists for 2020 and 2021.
PEN International is concerned by reports that Jimmy Lai, pro-democracy activist and owner of prominent Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, was on national security charges. Lai’s arrest, which coincides with raids on his media company, Next Digital, and the arrest of his two sons, marks the latest example of the newly enacted National Security Law being used in a manner that disproportionately targets voices critical of the Hong Kong government (for more see here)
‘Hong Kong Can Help Classrooms Have a Nuanced Discussion on Colonialism’ by Amy Lai, Heterodox Academy
‘A personal letter from Hong Kong’ by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Index on Censorship
Phạm Đoan Trang is an author, journalist, and democracy activist. Her works include Chính trị bình dân (Popular Politics), Cẩm nang nuôi tù (Handbook on Supporting Prisoners), Phản kháng phi bạo lực (Non-Violent Opposition), and numerous other works. Trang has sought to use her online presence, through her blog and social media, to overcome state censorship of traditional media and to raise awareness of human rights issues in Vietnam.
Tran is a prolific poet, writer and internet blogger. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Tran exposes government corruption, injustice and human rights abuses. Tran’s trial was originally scheduled for 30 November 2020, but was delayed due to his ill health. The rescheduled trial took place on 15 December, lasting just three hours before Tran was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and three years of probation for the crime of subversion.
Selected articles on Vietnam’s press freedom
‘Vietnam Briefing: Vietnam Continues Using Article 331 To Suppress Human Rights’, The Vietnamese Magazine
‘Pham Doan Trang’s 9-Year Sentence: An Outrageous Affront To Human Dignity’, by Frances An (PEN Perth member), The Vietnamese Magazine
Than Myint Aung is a philanthropist and established writer who used fiction as a medium to highlight many social issues. She was a member of the Yangon City Development Committee during the administration of the now-ousted National League for Democracy and also served as chairperson of a nursing home and vice chair of the Free Funeral Services Society of Yangon. She was arrested on the early morning of the February 1 coup and charged with violating Section 505a of the Penal Code shortly after being detained.
Please see Breaking News and Letter-Writing campaign sections in this newsletter for more Myanmar-related news.
Varavara Rao is a celebrated writer, poet and activist who has been detained without trial since 2018. Rao was arrested in his Hyderabad home along with other activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA) in 2018 for his alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence. Police claimed that speeches made at the gathering on December 31, 2017, were partially to blame for the escalation of violence. The Supreme Court on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, extended the interim protection allowed to 83-year-old activist-poet P. Varavara Rao in the Bhima Koregaon case and adjourned his plea for permanent bail on medical grounds to July 19. (See here for more)
Hany Babu MT has a PhD in Linguistics and is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at India’s premier, the University of Delhi. Babu has been detained by the Indian government under India’s counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Babu was arrested on July 2020 by India’s dreaded National Investigation Agency (NIA). He has been detained on charges that a speech he delivered on 31 December 2017 inflamed violence the following day. The riot on 1 January led to one death and a small number of injuries. The local police made several arrests soon after, including lawyers, journalists and activists.
Selected articles on India’s press freedom:
Hany Babu speaking on the question of Hindi and language rights in India.
Poems and more information about Varavara Rao
Activities completed and achievements
PEN Perth meeting with Lorraine Finlay, Human Rights Commissioner
On 7 July, 2022 members of the PerthPEN Committee met with Lorraine Finlay, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner. It was a very open, frank and productive meeting, with each explaining their aims. The work of the Human Rights Commission is much more widespread than PEN’s concern with responsible freedom of expression; the Commission is concerned with all human rights. Being a legal body its work is also more formally and legally organised.
The Commission’s office is based in Sydney, although the seven commissioners (Age, Sex, Children, Disability, Human, Race, First Nations) who cooperate and liaise with each other regularly, are based around the country. They come under the umbrella of a President/CEO (Rosalind Croucher). These rights overlap and part of Lorraine Finlay’s role (as with all Commissioners) is to ensure co-ordination in the Commission’s activities. Her own expertise is in modern slavery and people trafficking, and she has international experience. The Commission’s work has a national, Australian focus but of course it also requires dealing with State legislation (of which defamation law, central to PEN’s interest, is one) and they audit Australia’s compliance with United Nations covenants. The Commission is federally funded but operates independently of the Government. Lorraine said she liaises with state bodies concerned with Human Rights issues such as the WA Inspector of Prisons (e.g. she spoke about prisoners held in Roebourne cells where there is no air-conditioning).
Lorraine was friendly and seemed open to discussing any issues. We mentioned the Collaery case, Julian Assange’s situation (about which she said she feels conflicted – as we are), defamation laws, and our work for Australian writers wrongly imprisoned overseas such as Yang Henjun. Lorraine said that the Commission’s role basically concerned Australia but in cases such as Yang’s the Commissioners could make formal or informal representations to DFAT and other branches of government with respect to the human rights issues concerned. Altogether they receive about 15,000 individual emails from the public each year to the National Information Service and handle about 3,000 complaints through the Investigations & Conciliation Section. The resourcing of the Commission remains a considerable challenge. The Commission will soon publish a report on the human rights violations of asylum seekers incarcerated in hotels.
Lorraine discussed the human rights issues thrown up by Covid, and noted that all the pre-COVID plans drawn up to deal with pandemic responses made no mention of human rights, something the Commission is trying to correct in future plans for pandemics. She stressed (convincingly) that there is a great deal of public ignorance about just what human rights are and how they are protected. Obviously, their ambit is greater than ours but she was aware of the fundamental nature of Freedom of Expression as a human right and she is very willing to work with us, appear on a panel, and have us help her if we can. Thank you to Lorraine Finlay for generously offering her time to meet with PEN Perth.
The Commission’s website is humanrights.gov.au
PEN Perth joins YouTube
We’ve joined YouTube! Our first upload is a short and sweet introduction to PEN Perth with Caroline Wood. You can access our channel from the YouTube icon at the top of this page or https://bit.ly/3BnTQD2
Have a look and be sure to subscribe. Check back for new content coming soon, including a summary of issues in Myanmar with Chris Lin, a journey into the history of PEN Perth with Dennis Haskell, poetry readings and more! Thank you to our intern Justine McGinnis for creating content and setting up.
Donation to PEN Myanmar
In 2021, PEN Perth hosted a ‘Spotlight on Myanmar’, chaired by PEN Committee Member, Chris Lin. The event drew attention to the impact of the military coup d’etat in Myanmar on writers, artists, and journalists. Since February 2021, young writers and creatives have faced escalating violence, arbitrary imprisonment, and repression of their right to creative expression. This has stifled a vibrant creative culture that spans a variety of written, visual, and performative artistic forms.
The event was attended by over 40 PEN community members and was generously hosted by the Centre for Stories, which has been a firm supporter of PEN and Myanmar advocacy efforts over the years. Our PEN community helped raise $770 AUD, all of which was donated to colleagues in PEN Myanmar. The funds were crucial in supporting five Burmese writers who were most in need of assistance. PEN Perth and PEN Myanmar extend their thanks to members who attended the event. Support from our members, in the form of funds and participation at events, is crucial to our advocacy work for at-risk writers. A sincere thank you to all who attended this event, to our PEN committee, and the Centre for Stories.
PEN Myanmar sent the following message to our Perth members: “We are very glad to hear from PEN Perth. It’s such wonderful news and I really appreciate your efforts on behalf of our organization. 100% of monthly magazines have stopped publishing since the coup. Book publishing has a lot of barriers, not only political challenges but also the price of paper and printing. It means Myanmar writers have no income so far and they are struggling for their daily life. Writing on the internet is very sensitive and a lot of publishers and writers have been arrested. We are working with PEN Centers around the world. Please keep supporting our writers and please make the voice of our writers heard.”
Thank you to PEN Perth member Chris Lin for your efforts on this event and report.
Charges against Bernard Collaery dropped
Mark Dreyfus ordered the commonwealth DPP to discontinue case over alleged unlawful disclosure of classified information. Collaery was set to be tried in October on five counts of leaking classified information for allegedly helping his client, an ex-spy known only as Witness K, reveal a mission to spy on Timor-Leste, an impoverished ally, during negotiations over oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea in 2004. See The Guardian for more.
We urge you to join our letter campaign in response to the executions in Myanmar. We’ve provided templates you can use to write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Chargé d’Affaires to Myanmar and Myanmar’s Ambassador in Australia. You may also wish to write to your local MP. As a guide, we have provided three downloadable Word documents for letters.