RANGOON — After several months of discussions, Burmese civil society organizations (CSO) and ruling party lawmakers have agreed on a “progressive” draft Association Registration Law, according to CSO representatives.
They said the draft law provides simple, voluntary registration procedures for local and international CSOs and contains no restrictions or criminal punishments.
The law would form a key piece of legislative reform for the development of Burma’s civil society sector, which for decades remained stifled by a repressive, military junta-era law.
Kyaw Thu, director of Paung Ku Consortium, said CSO representatives held several rounds of discussions with groups of lawmakers since early August, until they recently agreed with the Lower House Public Affairs Administration Committee on a fourth and final draft law.
“To our surprise… they were receptive to the idea that it should be a voluntary-based registration law and that the process should be simple and effective,” said Kyaw Thu, whose organization comprises several CSOs that work to strengthen Burmese civil society.
Early in the discussions, Burmese CSOs voiced serious concerns about the initial proposed drafts. In early September, 500 CSOs issued statements condemning a clause in a draft that stipulated punishment of up to six months imprisonment for joining an unregistered organization.
In comments on a second draft in late September, the Washington-based International Center for Not-for-Profit Law warned of “vaguely worded grounds for terminating a registered organization.”
Kyaw Thu said the Lower House committee, which is dominated by MPs from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), had since accepted “many key changes” suggested by the CSOs.
“Everything is voluntary, nothing is mandatory anymore,” Kyaw Thu said. “There is a clear time frame for the registration process and it’s very clear about registration requirements, what type of information is required.”
The committee’s secretary, USDP lawmaker Tin Maung Oo, told The Irrawaddy that he expected both houses of Parliament to adopt the new draft legislation without amendment. “I think [this] week the bill will be explained in Parliament,” he added.
Tin Maung Oo said he was content with the final draft. “It was a good process; I got so many public opinions,” he said. “This law will be very important for my country.”
Triangle Women Support Group founder Khin Lay, who also attended discussions about the bill, praised the final draft, saying, “It will be a very progressive Association Registration Law.”
“Registration is voluntary. CSOs can register by their own wish, or not. The authorities cannot punish them for registering or not,” she said. “Another good point is that everyone can join CSO work—even political party members or civil servants can join. Previously, that was totally restricted.”
Khin Lay said the draft also allowed registered NGOs to accept funding from international NGOs, individual donors and local organizations.
“In a few days, it will be made public and sent to Parliament. It is expected to pass through Parliament… in this session,” she added.
An unofficial English translation of the draft states that registration of civil society organizations would be decentralized, with committees at township, district, regional and national levels handling the applications.
Local CSOs that apply will be issued a temporary registration certificate within seven days and gain a five-year registration certificate within 30 to 60 days. Registration fees for local CSOs are set at a maximum of 30,000 kyat (about US$30). International non-governmental organizations will be issued a certificate within 90 days and pay a registration fee of 100,000 kyat.
“An organization whose registration has not been approved shall receive the reasons in the written document and also has the right to appeal,” Article 8d of the draft said. Registration certificates are automatically renewed after five years, unless an organization fails to submit annual reports during this period.
The Association Registration Bill is set to replace the Law Relating to Forming of OrganizationsNo. 6/88, which was enacted by the military regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) shortly after it seized power through a coup in September 1988.
The draconian law contained broad, vaguely-defined restrictions that effectively banned any civil society organization from registering unless it maintained close ties to the government.
A member of an organization that was deemed to “disrupt law and order, peace and tranquility” could be sentenced of up to five years imprisonment, while those found to have any link to an unregistered organization could face up to three years in prison.
Following Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, Burma experienced an increase in the number of local CSOs and international NGOs, as the groups tried to address the cyclone’s devastating social and humanitarian impact. The military government gradually allowed the organizations some space to operate.
Under President Thein Sein’s government, the number of small community-based groups providing social, health and education services has grown rapidly. Yet, the groups continue to operate under the constant threat of repercussions for being officially unregistered.
In June, three activists from the Nattalin Social Network and the Meikhtila Social Network were detained in Pegu Division and charged under the junta-era association law with belonging to an unregistered CSO, after they had supported farmers protests against land-grabbing
Kyaw Thu of Paung Ku Consortium said the SLORC-era legislation was “intended to crack down on civil society groups.”
“Those who applied under it, they would never get their registration. The simple fact is, no [CSO] followed that law, and they were always at risk for operating activities with their organization—that created a risky environment for the whole civil society.”