Most of us get our ink without ever thinking of the consequences. Sure, we think of how the placement might affect our jobs, but that’s really it. We never really think whether our choice of design will land us in jail, because, let’s face it . . . it’s an unlikely scenario.
But for one poet in Myanmar that’s exactly what happened.
Maung Saungkha called attention to himself back in October of 2015 when he posted a short satirical poem on his Facebook page entitled Image. Written in his native language of Burmese, the now infamous poem read: “A tattoo of the president is on my penis, my wife felt detestation when she married me.” According to Saungkha, the poem stemmed from seeing others with political images tattooed on their bodies. In a phone interview with the New York Times, he said, “I thought, Where would they tattoo those whom people are embarrassed by?” The other influence? President Snow from The Hunger Games, hence the use of the term ‘President’ in the poem.
This thought inspired the legendary poem.
One month shy of the country’s recent landmark election, Saungkha posted the ditty. At the time, U Thein Sein was president and it has been assumed that the notorious poem was directed at him, despite the use of the vague terminology. As with most off-color, offensive things on the internet, the poem garnered widespread attention—and quite quickly.
But the attention received was not all good. While the phrase, “All press is good press,” is usually the case for most writers, in Saungkha’s case, this was not the way it went down. Just weeks after the poem hit the internet, the unlucky poet was arrested and detained. His charge? Defamation.
In an interview with Joe Freeman of the New Yorker, who managed to visit Saungkha during his detainment, Saungkha stated that he did not believe his words would stir up so much trouble. “Even though it is said we have freedom of expression, now they charged me because I wrote a poem,” Saungkha told Freeman. “So I was surprised.”
This is not the first time that a poet in Myanmar has faced trial for their words. Throughout Myanmar’s history, poets and writers have been extremely active in the political turmoil—even being voted into office upon occasion. Just in 2008, a poet by the name of Saw Wai was arrested and detained for two years for a poem entitled February 14th. The rise of democracy has brought some fantastic changes within the country, but it has left some murky waters behind. For example, before 2010, Saungkha wouldn’t have even dreamed of using the words “President” and “Penis” in a public post. But believing he was living in a democratic society, Saungkha never thought twice about it.
Shortly after the poem was posted, muu Zaw, the director of the office of the President Thein Sein, took to Facebook himself, publishing a post which stated Saungkha should be prepared to take responsibility for his words. Within several hours, police showed up on Saungkha’s front steps, only to find he was no longer there. The poet had fled, but continued to post on social media sites claiming that they could only arrest the poet, never the poem.
It was two weeks later that Saungkha was located by the authorities—a mere three days before the national election. He was arrested at a trial that was being held for student activists who had been detained themselves for protesting against a divisive education law. As the New Yorker reporter states, eyewitness accounts detail Saungkha being taken by plainclothes officers and moved into an unmarked vehicle.
“That day was a really noisy day,” one of Saungkha’s lawyers told Joe Freeman of the New Yorker. Freeman stated they described the officers as “Not police, just, like, mafia.”
Saungkha, and many other social media activists have been arrested and detained under the country’s Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. This crude law details violations for online defamation and grants a maximum penalty of three years in prison. The use of the internet has only recently become widespread in Myanmar as of 2014, when two foreign companies launched new telecommunication networks in the country. While the platform has been a blessing to many, it has led to multiple complications as it has clearly granted a new method for the government to monitor conversations.
Saungkha’s trial was long and drawn out—with many complications along the way, including a change of the presiding judge, rescheduling due to witnesses not being present, and more. In May of 2016, Saungkha was finally convicted of online defamation and sentenced to six months. While this would generally sound like a horrible outcome, it did have a silver lining, as Saungkha had previously served 6 months and 19 days awaiting trial. He was immediately released on time served.
The best part of the entire ordeal? Saungkha denies actually having the tattoo!