While election campaigns get underway in Myanmar, government authorities are waging their own campaign to round up and silence activists and political opponents. The law is on their side. Myanmar’s legal code provides the necessary tools to harass, arrest and imprison those who threaten the status quo.
Myanmar has a long history of undemocratic governance. Burmese kings, British colonial authorities, military dictators and the leaders of the current quasi-civilian government have trampled on political rights and freedoms and left their stamp on the country’s laws and judicial processes.
In March, my colleagues and I at Fortify Rights published a 47-page report on human rights abuses stemming from the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law of 2012, which requires all residents in Myanmar to inform local government officials when visitors spend the night in their homes. The law also empowers authorities to enforce guest registration through warrantless household inspections. These inspections, notorious among communities across the country, are often carried out by local government administrators, police officers and others after midnight, when residents are assumed to be asleep in their homes.
Our report, “Midnight Intrusions,” describes how the guest registration requirement and its enforcement through household inspections violate the rights to privacy and freedom of movement, residency and association. It describes how past military regimes and the current government have used the guest registration requirement to intimidate and arrest activists and obstruct civil society activities. Hundreds of former political prisoners in Myanmar were arrested during midnight inspections ostensibly conducted to search for unregistered guests. My colleagues and I documented how government authorities have used this law to round up and detain activists in advance of planned protests or events.
While the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law was enacted by the current government, it recodifies two colonial-era laws that contained a similar requirement to register household guests.
This is not the only problematic law deriving from the colonial era. Human rights defenders in Myanmar have told me about the use of antiquated and overly broad loitering prohibitions—contained in various “Police Acts” promulgated during British rule—to arrest and detain activists during periods of pro-democracy activism. Over the years, Myanmar’s courts have convicted hundreds of political prisoners under various provisions of the Myanmar Penal Code, first drafted in 1860. Activists, journalists and others have been charged under the 1908 Unlawful Association Act, the 1923 Official Secrets Act, and the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, which grant the state excessively broad powers to protect vaguely defined national security interests.
Some new laws are no better. The 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law—amended in 2014—provides prison sentences for those who fail to obtain the “consent” of local authorities before holding a protest. Consent, if given at all, is often accompanied by restrictions on the location, timing and type of protest activities, which are often incompatible with international law and standards relating to the rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
Despite Myanmar’s much-lauded reforms, the recent trend has been toward more vigorous enforcement of these laws against human rights defenders, journalists, and political opponents. During the past two years, authorities have used the Penal Code and the Peacefully Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law to prosecute student protesters and others who have defied government restrictions on their right to peaceful assembly. Land rights and interfaith activists have been charged under the Unlawful Association Act, and journalists have been charged under the Official Secrets Act. Late-night warrantless inspections and arrests have been used to harass student leaders and other activists.
The selective application of these laws has created a new class of political prisoners in Myanmar, currently numbering more than 100. More than 400 more await trial.
Unfortunately, it is too late to repeal or reform these laws before the November elections. Nevertheless, the government can bolster the legitimacy of the polls by halting the use of these laws to target activists and political opponents in the coming months.
The reform of these dangerous and undemocratic laws should be a top priority for the new government.
Matthew Bugher is a human rights researcher and consultant with Fortify Rights. This commentary first appeared on the website of Myanmar Now.