Activists have objected to a draft Association Bill that will soon go before the Lower House of Parliament for consideration, with critics saying the proposal would see Burma’s civil society whither under onerous regulations.
Despite widespread criticism over the proposed legislation by civil society activists, the Lower House agreed on Monday to deliberate the bill later this week or early next week.
Some 90 civil society groups in Rangoon and Mandalay had objected to the draft bill after a parliamentary committee asked for their suggestions last week.
“We object to the draft legislation because it is not clear even in its first section defining an ‘association,’ which says groups—either small or big—networks and unions need to inform the local authority about their formation,” said Moe Thway, leader of the Rangoon-based youth activist group Generation Wave.
He told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the bill “violates the right to freedom of association as well as violating Section 354[c] of the [2008 military-backed] Constitution.” Section 354(c) states that every citizen has a right “to form associations and organizations” as long as the group’s formation and activities are not “contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality.”
“It [the draft bill] says even a small group of philanthropists gathering to provide social assistance must submit information about their gathering to provide relief,” Moe Thway said. “That is unacceptable and directly violates our basic rights.”
According to the draft legislation, which was shared with the activists, any organization must inform a yet-to-be-established committee about the formation of any association and must provide the group’s name. Failure to register with the relevant authority could see both organizational leaders and members face jail terms as well as fines.
Leaders could be sentenced to up to three years’ imprisonment and fined 500,000 kyat (US$515), and members would face up to six months in prison and fines of 100,000 kyat.
Lower House lawmaker Ba Shein, a member of Parliament’s Bill Committee, said the bill was submitted because regulations governing associations were currently lacking. Ba Shein, a member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, argued that legislation was needed during Burma’s period of democratic transition to monitor the activities of organizations.
“It is true that administrative officials may want to restrict the associations’ activities, but we will have to see how much we [lawmakers] can relax those hindrances,” he added.
Activists say they agree that nongovernmental organizations, many of which accept financial assistance from foreign funders, should be required to register for the sake of financial transparency. However, they claim that passage of the proposed Association Bill would serve to deter smaller community-based groups seeking to provide a social service.
Min Htet Nyein Chan, a member of Mandalay’s Sein Yaung So environmental group, agreed that the draft legislation would discourage a vibrant community of civil society organizations (CSOs).
“We just want a law that will strengthen the role of the CSOs,” he said, adding that the input of people working in the field should be included in the bill’s drafting process.
NGOs and CSOs in Burma must register under guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs two decades ago, but the existing guidelines allow most small and less formal associations to operate without officially registering. Last August, a proposal for a new NGO registration bill was raised in Parliament, but it was rejected by the ministry and did not pass into law.
With Burma’s transition to democracy, small community-based groups have mushroomed since 2011, with organizations providing social, health and education services in the increasingly open society that has come about as a result of President Thein Sein’s political reforms.
Moe Thway of Generation Wave said burdensome registration requirements could actually cost lives, pointing to HIV/AIDS organizations that distribute critical antiretroviral drugs as one group that cannot afford to waste time sorting out bureaucratic red tape.
Civil society activists submitted their suggestions to Parliament’s Bill Committee in early July and will attempt to reach out to Shwe Mann, who acts as speaker of both houses, with their concerns next week.