Debate Over Burma’s Household Guest Registration Law Intensifies

By Tin Htet Paing 27 May 2016

RANGOON — A bill to amend and repeal sections of Burma’s colonial-era law requiring citizens to report overnight guests continues to face hurdles in Parliament.

Drafted and submitted to the Upper House of Parliament by the Bill Committee in early May, a bill revoking all sections of the original Ward or Village Tract Administration Law referring to overnight guest registration was tabled by elected parliamentarians and military lawmakers from May 20 until May 24. It was met with divided opinions.

Maintaining that there was no need for the new bill, military lawmakers said that national security would be in jeopardy if the bill were approved, while National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers argued that the new bill aligned with democratic norms and preserved freedom of movement for citizens.

During a legislative session on Tuesday, Upper House Speaker Mahn Win Khaing Than said the Bill Committee would take the lawmakers’ discussions under consideration when reviewing the draft law.

Originating in 1907, modified by the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs in 2012 and most recently updated in January 2016, the law requires citizens to inform local government officials when guests spend the night in their homes, regardless of how long the guests stay. Homeowners who rent their houses are also required to follow the same procedure.

International human rights watchdogs have criticized the law saying that it gives authorities the right to carry out warrantless household inspections. The human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights issued a report called “Midnight Intrusions” last year, calling on the government to dismantle the law.

The report stated that the law represents a systematic and nationwide breach of privacy that was used to hunt down political activists under the military regime and the quasi-civilian government.

The new bill proposes removing articles 13(g) and 17 from the original law, which demand that citizens report overnight guests or get penalized for disobeying.

The Bill Committee invited delegations from more than 40 local civil society organizations (CSOs) and the Ministry of Home Affairs on Thursday in Naypyidaw to hear stakeholders’ recommendations.

Tin Myint, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs told The Irrawaddy that repealing these articles would be a big concern for national security because of a lack of stability in remote and border areas.

“Instead of removing these sections, we suggest loosening restrictions,” he said.

The new bill would also amend one of the qualifications for ward and village administrators— the candidates must have resided in the ward or village where they run for election for at least five years, altering the original law’s 10-year minimum. The bill would also specify that candidates must have graduated from middle school, instead of the vague “appropriate education” required under the old law.

Thant Zin Aung, chairman of the Forward Institute and consultant to the Rain Maker CSO, said he supported the guest-reporting requirement, citing unstable security in some remote areas of the country. However, he argued that the new bill still lacked details.

“Current modifications of the new bill are not enough,” he said. “It has to be completely changed.”

Zaw Min, chairman of the Upper House Bill Committee, told The Irrawaddy that the committee promised CSOs it would take their recommendations into account.

“The [practice of the] government is different now. We will respect suggestions from individuals and will not use veto power,” he said.

Many local CSOs that observed the election process for ward and village tract administrators in January 2016 joined the debate and urged the government to revamp or amend the law in order to ensure more transparency and accountability in the election process.

A report issued last week by the Peace and Justice Myanmar (PJM) highlighted that the public’s understanding of ward and village administrator elections was “extremely weak,” based on a survey it compiled by interviewing more than 10,000 residents from over 2,000 households in different states and divisions around the country.

“Only 58 percent of the interviewees were aware of the existence of the law, and a majority of them didn’t understand the law,” the survey stated.