RANGOON — A lack of clarity in Burma’s recently amended Law on Peaceful Assembly is sowing confusion among activists and advocates, as the country’s courts continue to charge people for demonstrating without permission.
The controversial Article 18 of the 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law originally stated that persons or groups who want to stage a demonstration must seek prior permission from local police, with those breaking the law facing punishments of up to a year in prison and fines of up to 30,000 kyat (about US$30).
However, in February, Parliament’s Public Complaints and Appeal Committee attempted to soften the law, submitted the “Bill Amending the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law” to the Lower House. The amendment was meant to remove authorities’ option to deny permission to demonstrate, as well as reducing the law’s penalties.
The amendment—passed by the Union Parliament in June and signed into force by Burmese President Thein Sein on July 24—was seen at the time as a milestone for human rights in Burma.
“The amended law reduced the prison sentences, but it’s now more complicated because of amendments,” said Robert San Aung, a prominent lawyer who has defended activists charged with Article 18 both before and after its amendment.
“There is complex language, unclear explanations and descriptions in the Law.”
Article 5 of the amended law states that township police chiefs must approve applications to demonstration “in accordance with the criteria for approval,” but the law itself does not specify clearly what these criteria are.
UK-based freedom of expression advocacy group ARTICLE 19 has said it is concerned that the reform has only introduced greater ambiguity to the legislation, and has not brought the law into compliance with international human rights standards.
“Following the amendments, it is unclear whether police authorities may still consider the content of proposed assemblies when determining whether the ‘criteria to get permission’ have been met,” ARTICLE 19 said in a statement.
“Given the broad range of content restrictions retained in the law, the police authorities are likely to continue to interpret their prior authorization powers expansively.”
Burmese activists are also confused about how the law now deals with permission to protest.
Kyaw San, from the Prome District branch of the Former Political Prisoners Society, was one of five people charged by police in Pegu Division on Aug. 6 under Article 18 after they demonstrated against a plan to change Burma’s electoral system. They applied for permission ahead of the protest, he said, expecting that permission could not be denied under the amended law.
“We requested permission four days before the date of the protest. But the authorities refused, saying we need to ask for permission at least five days ahead of the protest,” he said, adding that the criteria applied by police appeared to be arbitrary.
“In a different case, they granted approval for a protest against the jailing of journalists at the Unity journal, even though permission was sought only two days ahead of the protest.”
Kyaw San said that if the court sentences the five to fines or imprisonment for organizing the protest without permission, they will choose prison sentences since they believe they did not violate the law.
Myo Myint, police station officer from No. (2) Police Station in Prome Township, insisted that the charges were in line with an existing by-law to the Peaceful Assembly Law. Since no new by-law has been passed, he said, police were right to continue applying the old rules.
“Section 3 of the by-law of Article 18 states that protesters must apply for permission five days ahead, but they applied only four days ahead. So, we couldn’t accept it, and told them to reapply,” Myo Myint said.
“But they didn’t reapply and protested without permission. So we charged them with Article 18.”
Elsewhere, however, authorities have given no reason for continuing to refuse permission to protest.
Mass Movement Acceleration Network organized a protest outside Rangoon’s City Hall on Aug. 5, also against electoral change. They were opposing the Union Solidarity and Development Party-supported plan to change from the first-past-the-post electoral system to proportional representation (PR) ahead of all-important elections in late 2015.
“We submitted the permission request five days ahead. But the authorities refused to give permission. They asked us to protest in Tamwe Township, but we asked for permission to protest in Kyauktada Township. They were avoiding giving us permission,” said Myat Kyaw, spokesman for the activist group.
“We followed all procedures according to the law. But they still refused to grant permission, and [after we demonstrated] charged two activists from our network under Article 18 for demonstrating without permission.”
An update from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) this week said that in August alone, 13 activists were sentenced to prison under Article 18.
“The number of political prisoners has continued to rise since the beginning of this year, with the use of Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act accounting for many of the newly incarcerated individuals,” AAPP stated.
Advocate Robert San Aung—who is currently defending the five anti-PR protesters in Prome, as well as two people in Rangoon who demonstrated asking for justice in a rape case—said the law’s amendment had simply introduced more confusion.
“They should make the law together with experts. Now, the law is applied differently in each division because of unclear expressions,” he said.
Aung Thein, from the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network, said that it was important that a new by-law to clarify the amendment is completed swiftly.
“The authorities are using the by-law for the original law in some cases because they are saying the prior notification is not enough and protesters need to ask permission. While the protesters say they are asking for permission, they still refuse,” he said.
Jimmy, a leader of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, agreed that the new by-law must be accelerated to eliminate the ambiguity in the law.
“It should be established soon. It shouldn’t be delayed,” he said.