Film producer Ma Aeint has been sentenced to three years of jail, with hard labor, by a court in Yangon, Myanmar.
Ma Aeint is the producer of the film “Money Has Four Legs,” which was directed by Maung Sun and began screening at festivals in 2020 before Myanmar suffered a military coup in early 2021.
The pair also co-wrote the script, which centers on a filmmaker coming to terms with the realities of making a debut film and facing down censorship authorities. The criminal case was not directly related to the film, though it may have made Ma Aeint a target for attention.
She was found guilty on Friday of breaching Article 505A of Myanmar’s criminal code, which penalizes “causing fear, spreading fake news or agitating against government employees.” She was alleged to have given money to an illegal organization that opposes the Feb. 1, 2021 coup and the return of the country to totalitarian military control.
Ma Aeint pleaded not guilty to the charges and had legal representation at the hearing at a prison court, held within the notoriously overcrowded and disease-ridden Insein Prison, near Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
Her sentence is the maximum available under the law, but the total may be reduced by the 10 months she has already been officially detained. She was arrested in early June 2021 in Yangon and was held for a month in judicial detention. She was then transferred to Insein, where she was treated as a political prisoner. COVID conditions may have delayed the trial.
“The human rights situation in Myanmar under its military regime have long been regarded as among the worst in the world,” says International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk board member and European Film Academy chairman Mike Downey. “This harsh sentencing of Ma Aeint is a clear example and representation of the cruelty of the current regime and its desire to clamp down [on] the basic rights of freedom of expression. The ICFR will continue to campaign for her release and we deplore this act of barbarous sentencing to the full extent of the law.”
Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization, recently explained how the law had been made tougher and all encompassing: “Section 505(a) [of Myanmar’s Criminal Code] previously made it a crime to publish or circulate any ‘statement, rumor or report’ ‘with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty,” the org wrote.
However, since the coup, it has been replaced by broader language that’s designed to “penalize those encouraging members of the civil service of the security services to join the Civil Disobedience Movement,” said Human Rights Watch. “Under the revised provision, any attempt to ‘hinder, disturb, damage the motivation, discipline, health and conduct’ of the military personnel and government employees and cause their hatred, disobedience or disloyalty toward the military and the government is punishable by up to three years in prison.”
Myanmar’s military had allowed a degree of civilian rule from 2011 onwards, but behind the scenes, the army retained most of the levers of power.
The military retook full control of the country early last year, after declaring that parliamentary elections held in November 2020 were rigged. The National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning civilian leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, had roundly defeated the military’s political proxies and obtained 83% of the vote.
In the 15 months that have followed the coup, the military junta has used brutal means, including shootings and bombings, to dominate politics, finance, the media and civilian life in those areas that it is able to control. Writers and activists have been targeted and several hundred protestors have been shot and killed.
However, the backwards lurch has also sparked a reaction from numerous separatist groups and rebel militia that may now amount to a civil war.
Since her government was removed, Aung San Suu Kyi has been hit with 17 criminal charges and potentially faces 163 years in prison. This week she was given a five-year jail sentence after being found guilty of corruption for accepting some $1.3 million in gold bars and cash from a former political ally.