Burma Activists Urge Protest Law Reform

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 25 November 2013

RANGOON — More than 50 activist groups have called on lawmakers to amend a controversial provision of Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law that has put scores of people behind bars since its enactment two years ago.

The coalition, including the influential 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and the youth-oriented Generation Wave, convened a meeting on Sunday at which they drafted a letter urging Parliament to repeal the law’s Section 18, which requires would-be demonstrators to get permission from government authorities before staging a protest. The letter will be sent to Parliament and President Thein Sein.

Activists who allegedly organized a candle-lit protest against plans to raise electricity rates in Rangoon were Burma’s latest Section 18 casualties, with eight people charged and four on trial last week in connection with a demonstration on Nov. 6.

Pyone Cho, a member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, said 52 civil society groups had signed on to the letter against Section 18, which they contend has been used to imprison peaceful activists and repress dissenting voices.

“At yesterday’s meeting, there were people who are facing trial under Section 18 as well,” Pyone Cho told The Irrawaddy on Monday. “We all want the government to release all people convicted under Section 18 and to release people who are facing trail too.

“In a democracy, the law … shouldn’t restrict people who want to exercise their rights,” he added.

Last week also saw six people sentenced to one month in jail each under Section 18, for their role in demonstrations in Rangoon on Dec. 1, 2012, against a brutal police crackdown the previous month on peaceful protesters camped near the Letpadaung copper mine in central Burma.

Individuals convicted under Section 18 face prison time of up to one year and a maximum fine of 30,000 kyats (US$30).

“Regarding these cases, the judiciary, general administration and police departments should study why exactly these cases happened and what were their aims,” Pyone Cho said.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says 130 activists have been charged under the protest law adopted in December 2011. A total of 57 activists have been jailed for protesting without permission, according to the association.

Bo Bo, an activist from Generation Wave, said the civil society groups were calling for a parliamentary review of the law as soon as possible.

“We are not saying to wipe out this law, but we want Parliament to amend it, because the government is using this law as a tool to oppress all democracy activists,” he said.

“Most people who are facing Section 18 have at least 10 similar cases—even myself, I have 10 cases. We will continue this activism in future,” he said.

In Parliament, Lower House representative Thura U Aung Ko submitted a draft proposal to amend the Peaceful Assembly Law earlier this month. The lawmaker argues that the current statute goes against Burma’s Constitution, which guarantees a right to freedom of assembly except if “contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality.”