Are COVID-19 Measures Restricting Human Rights in Myanmar?

By The Irrawaddy 25 April 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! First of all, I wish you all mental and physical wellbeing amid the coronavirus pandemic. As we are required stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we have also adjusted our Dateline program to meet that requirement. Instead of holding it sitting around in The Irrawaddy studio, our guests will participate in the talks from their homes through videoconferencing. This week, we’ll discuss issues related to COVID-19.

By choosing to stay at home, we have willingly given up our freedom, so we will discuss the issue of human rights amid COVID-19. Human rights trainer and Executive Director of Equality Myanmar U Aung Myo Min and Joint General Secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and former political prisoner U Bo Kyi join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor, Ye Ni.

Ko Aung Myo Min, we haven’t been able to enjoy such human rights as the rights of movement and assembly since COVID-19 cases were found in the country. As a human rights trainer, do you think human rights norms have been subjugated to the requirements of the COVID-19 response? What is your view?

Aung Myo Min: We can’t say it like that. Human rights are the birthright of people. No one can deny people those rights and no one can violate them. But given the current situation, we have to stay at home and a lockdown is in place due to fears over COVID-19. Some countries have imposed regulations and restrictions such as imposing bans on gatherings. But this is not a violation of human rights. International laws say some human rights have to be compromised in times of emergency. This is different from a violation of or inability to exercise human rights. People should understand that some rights can be restricted or suspended if there are strong reasons to do so.

But we can’t say people are being robbed of their rights during the COVID-19 period. International laws say some human rights can be restricted and suspended in times of health crises, public emergencies and in situations that can disturb the public morality and the rule of law. So some rights have been suspended due to the health crisis now.

But [governments] can’t just suspend those rights as they please. The public must be well-informed about how and why rights are restricted. Only then will people understand the risks and cooperate. Again, the restrictions should not be more than necessary. For example, the restriction of movement should be imposed only in seriously affected areas, but not on an entire country. In doing so, orders must be clear and specific and those who issue the orders must have the authority to do so.

The restriction should also be imposed only for a definite period. [The government] has to make sure people can again enjoy their rights afterwards. Though some rights can be restricted during this period, there are rights that can’t be violated. This includes torturing people. Under no circumstances should people be tortured. There must not be unlawful treatment and unlawful detention of people. If individuals are to be detained, they must be detained only in line with law. Freedom of religion must not be restricted. [The government] can restrict or suspend some rights. But if it is to do so, it also has the responsibility to make sure the restrictions do not affect the other rights of the people.

YN: We are willingly giving up our rights in light of the public health situation. Many people here understand that the orders issued by the government are for the sake of public health and are thus following the instructions of the government. But taking a look at the history of our country, we have just started to enjoy these rights only after a hard-fought struggle for democracy and human rights against dictatorship. But as we have to give up these rights now, this has become a cause for concern for some. Ko Bo Kyi, are you concerned that our country, when this pandemic is over, will not move forward to democracy, but make a U-turn to dictatorship?

Bo Kyi: It depends on individuals, government and defense forces. There are two things the government and defense forces of a nation have a responsibility to ensure: freedom from fear and freedom from want. As Ko Aung Myo Min pointed out, there must be clarity and precision in fulfilling that duty, so there is a need to monitor defense forces personnel or those assigned to that duty to see if their performance of the duty is in line with law, and to see what can be done to fix it if their performance is not in line with law. There must be procedures for that.

Suppose a lockdown is imposed on a street: we should start with a request in the first stage, requesting the people not to go out. If people don’t accept that, it is better to take action against them in line with law, but not punishment that harms human dignity—say, forcing them to squat in public and beating them, like in the cases in India and Bangladesh. Such punishment amounts to torture and harms human dignity. Leaders should systematically monitor to prevent such punishment and take action against those who hand out such punishment. [Leaders] also need to clearly tell those on duty that giving such punishment violates the law.

At the same time, [the government] needs to focus more on educating the people and requesting their cooperation. To do so, [the government] needs to win the trust of people and guarantee a sense of security. This is very important. If people have trust and a sense of security, they will cooperate. But if [the government] focuses on punishment, there can be more chaos in the country. This will give greater opportunities for defense forces to intervene. Here, I’d like to quote a former US president [Bill Clinton]: “Governments alone are not responsible for maintaining freedom, but individual citizens are also responsible. So people must cooperate. If we can’t protect freedom, a dictator may replace this freedom.” So it is important that we don’t give way for dictatorship to replace freedom.

People themselves must maintain freedom. The government must explain properly that people are losing their rights just temporarily because of their health or public health. Civil society organizations, health organizations and defense force agencies must also keep on reassuring the public, reminding them that the situation is just temporary. If so, then there won’t be a U-turn to dictatorship.

YN: Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure [a curfew] has been imposed in some areas. To the people who went through the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, their understanding of this section is that it is dreadful. Ko Aung Myo Min, could you define the role of human rights at a time when tighter restrictions are being imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

AMM: Human rights contribute to the rule of law. It is the balanced combination of being responsible and the assumption of responsibility by the government and the people for the sake of the rule of law. The government is responsible for educating the people to prevent the spread of the virus. The government needs to provide clear and precise instructions and dos and don’ts, which must be the same across the country. People are responsible for following the government instructions out of consideration for public health. Authorities responsible for the rule of law and security should clearly understand the extent of their authority and should not overstep their authority. I’d also suggest establishing a mechanism for the people to be able to file complaints if there are blatant violations of their rights. This will guarantee their rights in compliance with the rule of law. Both the government and the people should share this responsibility.

YN: What else would you like to point out Ko Bo Kyi?

BK: As Ko Aung Myo Min said, rights go together with responsibilities. It is unfair of us to take rights only. Individuals should take their fair share of responsibilities. Only the rights that accompany responsibilities can be sustained long-term. I want everyone to understand well that with rights come responsibilities. I want them to try to understand that.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

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