Burma’s Harsh Protest Law Likely to Be Replaced

By Tin Htet Paing 6 May 2016

RANGOON — A new version of Burma’s Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law was submitted to the Upper House of Parliament on Thursday, with proponents saying the legislation would loosen multiple restrictions on demonstrators and establish clear guidelines for legal procedures against unlawful protest.

The bill was submitted to the legislative chamber by the Upper House Bill Committee, which stated that the new version would be more in line with the country’s multi-party democratic system.

Under the new bill, demonstrators would only need to “inform” relevant police stations at least 48 hours before a protest, a change from the existing law which requires groups to receive “permission” from authorities.

Also, the new bill imposes limitations on the rights of authorities to charge demonstrators. If organizers of the protests are found breaking the law, they can only be prosecuted by the first township where they violate the law—not all of the townships they pass through—and the charges can only be filed within 15 days of the incident. The current law has no such provision, leaving demonstrators vulnerable to excessive legal action.

Zaw Min, a National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker and chairman of the bill committee, pointed to last year’s brutal crackdown on student activists peacefully demonstrating against the National Education Law, saying that some student leaders were charged with more than 50 counts of criminal activity as their protest march passed through several of Burma’s townships.

Zaw Min said that the committee didn’t propose amendments to the previous law but opted to submit a new bill because it would require too many revisions of the current law to make it acceptable.

“Our new bill was drafted based on the fundamental rights of citizens, according to the 2008 Constitution, which the previous [existing] law contradicted,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The new bill will help our people exercise their rights as citizens.”

Lawyer Ko Ni, a legal advisor to the NLD, said that the new bill was in step with international norms and would fully recognize the fundamental rights of the country’s citizens.

“It’s not a revision to the old law,” he said. “It’s a completely new bill, one that accords with democratic standards.”

The new bill, which has eight chapters and 25 articles, would ensconce legal protection for protesters and also reduce punishments for those who violate the law. People who interfere with or physically assault lawful, peaceful assemblies could be sentenced with up to one year in prison, a fined 100,000 kyats (US$85) or both. Protesters who organize without informing local authorities could be sentenced to three months in prison, fined 30,000 kyats or both.

The current law was frequently used to arrest and oppress political activists under the previous Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government. If the new bill is passed, it will supersede and automatically replace the 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law and its 2014 revision.

Lawmakers at the session unanimously agreed to discuss the bill, and recommendations on the bill are scheduled to be heard next week, according to Upper House Speaker Mahn Win Khaing Than. Passage is expected, given that it is backed by the NLD, which dominates both houses of the Union Parliament.