Three Burmese street artists have been arrested after they created a mural urging people to stay home to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus. Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai and Naw Htun Aung were charged with insulting religious beliefs with the public art project which featured a Grim Reaper-like figure spreading coronavirus. Hardline Buddhist authorities claim the hooded subject resembled a Buddhist monk.
Violating article 295A of the Myanmar penal code, which relates to blasphemy, carries a punishment of up to two years in prison. Before being detained the artists painted over their work having been bombarded by hate speech online.
‘These charges demonstrate how dangerous laws that criminalize peaceful speech can be,’ said Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection project. ‘These artists are being censored and criminalized for posting a public health message, and authorities are allowing the law to be used as a de facto religious veto over public art. Laws like Article 295A are frequently used to silence speech that is of legitimate public concern. That is exactly what is happening here. These laws should be immediately amended or repealed to align with international guarantees of free expression, and the charges against Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai, and Naw Htun Aung should be dropped.’
COVID-19 was first detected in Myanmar on 20 March and has so far resulted in five deaths. An estimated 350,000 displaced people across the country are ‘sitting in the path of a public health catastrophe’ claimed rights group Human Rights Watch in a statement issued earlier this month.