Athan (“voice” in Burmese) was founded on 15th January 2018. It was founded by young people who value and promote freedom of expression in Myanmar. Athan is a research-based activist organization. It has three branches – research, advocacy and education – to promote freedom of expression.
The poet Maung Saungkha is the executive director and one of the founders of Athan. He was one of the very first victims of the Telecommunications Law under the previous government. He was imprisoned for more than six months because he wrote a poem that was judged to be defaming a president. After his release, Maung Saungkha began fighting for freedom of expression. He founded the Research Team for the Telecommunications Law and We Support Journalists to document cases filed under controversial laws limiting freedom of expression, for example the notorious Telecommunications Law. Athan is a merger of the Research Team for the Telecommunications Law and We Support Journalists.
Athan is a reliable source for up to date information about freedom of expression in Myanmar. For example, Athan documents the number of cases under the Telecommunications Law, the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and Section 505b of the Penal Code as well as the number of journalists prosecuted or sued.
Research at Athan is comprised of three parts: monitoring, documenting and reporting. Its monitoring extends beyond day-to-day monitoring of risks of violation of freedom of expression. Athan monitors the processes of how long-term issues are being dealt with and legal changes. By documenting, Athan systematically turns observation into evidence which allows for a quantitative overview of the situation. Documentation and analysis allow for conclusions to be drawn.
Athan reports on the situation of freedom of expression in three different formats, statements, short analyses and full research reports. While short statements provide current figures, short analyses are meant as brief analyses, providing charts and graphs to illustrate the findings on up to eight pages. Full reports have a limited, in-depth focus on specific issues, gathering all the evidence, legal and historical context into a single document for everyone interested.
Athan launched its very first full report on the “Status of Freedom of Expression Within the First Two Years Under the Civilian Government” on 10th June 2018. . On 18th October 2018, Athan launched its second report, the “Mid-term Report on Freedom of Expression”. While the first report was only published in Burmese, the following have been published in both Burmese and English. Athan’s third report was launched in April 2019. It is a special report called “Promises Turn into a Statue: Unsettled Disputes about General Aung San Statue in a Land with Untold History”. This report relates a history of the independent Karenni States, reasons for the rejection of statues of General Aung San on their land by Karenni ethic people and the suppression on Karenni activists for exercising their right to free expression. Athan’s most recent report, a mid-year report on the current status of freedom of expression in Myanmar, was launched in September 2019.
These analyses and research have contributed to reports by other national and international organizations.
Athan started its advocacy and lobbying activities by participating in the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Midterm Report Meeting. Athan wrote about the status of freedom of expression in Myanmar together with PEN Myanmar and the Myanmar Journalists Network. In this process, Athan provided the figures related to the cases under the Telecommunications Law. Athan became a member of the ICCPR Myanmar – Working Group in 2019 too.
Protests and online campaigns are also part of Athan’s advocacy efforts. Most prominently, Athan organized protests for the release of the two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, since their time in custody. Athan continues to organize protests to promote freedom of expression.
Athan started operating its education branch with a pilot freedom of expression training in Mandalay on 7th July 2018. By now, Athan organized a total number of 10 trainings.
Being a freedom of expression activist organization, Athan has allied with some other civil society organizations such as Burma Monitor, Article 19 and PEN Myanmar, Phandeeyar, MIDO and Equality Myanmar. They aid each other not only on matters of freedom of expression but also on other things such as hate speech and fake news monitoring, media literacy, digital literacy and interfaith.
Maung Saungkha and Athan received the Human Rights Tulip Award of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in December 2018 for promoting freedom of expression in Myanmar.
Athan continues to document and research cases, to organize protests, to campaign, to collaborate, to participate in national and international panels, to meet government officials, to do other kinds of advocacy and to educate with the aim of legal reform to promote freedom of expression.