RANGOON — Activists have condemned a local ban on holding political gatherings without government permission in Burma’s former capital, with the restriction raising fears of backsliding on democratic reforms that the country has undertaken over the last two years.
An administrator of Rangoon’s Bahan Township summoned the owner of the Royal Rose restaurant to his office on July 31, ordering him to seek official permission 20 days in advance if he intended to rent his establishment out for any politically related gatherings. The local administrator gave no reason for the new requirement, according to the restaurant owner, except to say that his office was “doing as ordered by someone upstairs.”
Since President Thein Sein’s government came to power in 2011, the restaurant in Bahan has become a popular venue for the country’s activists, hosting gatherings on topics ranging from democracy and human rights to environmental issues. Royal Rose also hosted the first-ever national conference of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in March.
“Their order is sort of a limitation to our activities,” said Pyone Cho, an 88 Generation student leader. “We—and not just us—everyone who gathers there does so not to destabilize the country’s security but to discuss things for our country’s good.”
Soe Nyunt, the owner of the restaurant, told The Irrawaddy that the Rangoon divisional government on Aug. 5 ordered all restaurants, hotels, guesthouses, schools and religious centers in Bahan Township to ask for government permission 20 days in advance of any planned meeting of a political nature. Authorities warned that they would take action against an establishment’s failure to seek permission, though what form that action might take remains unclear.
“Before that [the Aug. 5 directive], my restaurant was the only one that was ordered to seek permission,” Soe Nyunt said. “I feel I’m being mistreated.” He added that seeking local government approval more than two weeks in advance would be a major burden on event organizers.
“It causes unnecessary delay,” he explained. “Plus, it occupies their time. Who wants to go through that kind of bureaucratic procedure while also paying money to use my venue?”
The Rangoon divisional government office and Bahan Township administrator were not available to comment on the new directive.
Kyee Myint from the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network said the restriction on gatherings was not in line with the country’s 2008 Constitution.
“They are violating the Constitution,” the lawyer said. “It’s against fundamental rights and duties of the citizens granted by the Constitution.”
Burma’s Constitution allows its citizens to assemble peacefully without arms and to hold demonstrations as long as participants are not contravening any laws.
“[Reform rhetoric] sounds meaningless—that those who are trumpeting themselves as moving toward democracy are imposing this kind of ban,” Kyee Myint said.
One of the NLD’s founders, Win Tin, said the restriction was a major blow to civil society organizations and political activists.
“I just want to request that anyone concerned talk about it until we have the best solution for all of us,” he said. “I have to say the restriction is an act to leash any democratic activities during the democratic transition we are going through.”
News of the local directive comes at a time of conflicting developments in Burma’s transition to a more open and democratic society. Last week saw an unprecedented, government authorized mass commemoration in Rangoon of the 1988 pro-democracy protests’ 25th anniversary. On the same day that the commemoration culminated, a peaceful march to honor victims of the military crackdown faced police resistance after organizers failed to get the necessary permission to stage the demonstration. The organizers of the illegal march say authorities will press charges against them.
Soe Nyunt on Tuesday said Royal Rose would abide by the new government order on political meet-ups, but would remain open to any type of gathering.
“We are still operating, functioning normally, but we have to ask anyone who wants to hire out our venue to get the permission first.”