August 4, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry must uphold freedom of expression as requisite to foreign and trade relations with Southeast Asia, PEN American Center and PEN Myanmar said this morning in a joint statement.

On Friday, global leaders including Secretary Kerry will come together for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting in the Myanmar capital of Nay Pyi Taw.

“The location of the ASEAN summit should cause international leaders to take pause before welcoming their host country into the discussion with open arms,” said Deji Olukotun, Freedom to Write Fellow at PEN American Center. “While Myanmar has made significant progress toward an open society in recent years, the apparatus for repression clearly remains firmly in place. The curtain could drop again at any moment.”

Myanmar, currently the chair of ASEAN, loosened restrictions on free expression in 2011, and in 2012 disbanded the official censorship board that had terrorized journalists. But writers who were released as part of a presidential pardon for political prisoners in 2012 remain on permanent probation, their sentences never commuted. Just last month, the government cracked down again on free expression, sentencing five journalists from the Unity Journal to 10 years in prison for reporting on the displacement of villagers for the construction of an alleged weapons factory.

“The government thinks the majority of journalists lack skill, but punishing journalists will not improve their ability to report,” said Dr. Ma Thida, President of PEN Myanmar, the newest branch of PEN International. “Only by letting all journalists work freely to become more responsible and skillful can the government expect the media to be able to work more professionally. The logic is simple. Let’s give journalists more of a chance to practice their trade.”

Nearby Thailand, also present at the summit, has an even more worrying record on free expression over the past few months, having detained dozens of journalists since the May 2014 coup d’etat that unseated Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. PEN has called on Thai authorities to release any writers currently detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression.


PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of PEN International, the world’s only international association of writers working to defend free expression and protect persecuted writers. PEN works to advance literature, to defend free expression, and to foster international literary fellowship. Its 3,500 distinguished members carry on the achievements in literature and advancement of human rights of such past members as James Baldwin, Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, and John Steinbeck.

PEN Myanmar, founded in 2013, has vociferously pressed for an end to censorship in Myanmar. Comprised of the country’s top authors, journalists, and bloggers, the center also promotes literature through interactive workshops and will announce the inaugural winners of its new Literary Peace Awards in September 2014.

Deji Olukotun, Freedom to Write Fellow,, t. +1 (212) 334-1660 x106

Sarah Edkins, Communications Manager,, t. +1 (212) 334-1660 x116, m. +1 (617) 947-6512