RANGOON — It was once the feared weapon of a military junta, ruthlessly deployed to restrict Burma’s nascent Internet and throw journalists, students, monks and other political opponents behind bars.
The junta is gone, but the Electronic Transactions Law and other draconian legislation remain on Burma’s books. Attempts to revamp them are stirring debate over the reformist credentials of the semi-civilian government that took power in 2011 and how far it will loosen tough state controls.
Other junta-era laws have been scrapped or amended, only to be replaced by contentious alternatives that rights advocates regard as a threat to the emergence of a free media and civil society after nearly half a century of dictatorship.
Burma’s former military junta imposed the Electronic Transactions Act in 2004 to counter the growing influence of the Internet, which had been introduced to Burma a few years earlier. Offenders can be jailed for up to 15 years for sending an e-mail containing information deemed detrimental to the nation’s security, economy, culture or “peace and tranquility”.
In January, a motion to abolish the law was rejected by the lower house of parliament, which is packed with active and former military officers. A revised motion to amend the law, replacing its long prison terms with shorter ones or fines, will be debated when parliament resumes in October.
A member of the drafting committee told Reuters the law was being changed to focus on supporting e-commerce and fighting cyber crime such as credit card fraud.
“The existing law is concerned with the power and stability of the previous regime to detain those who opposed them,” said the committee member, who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to media.
“We are changing the aims and objectives.”
Remnants of a Brutal Past
But prominent victims of the law say the new draft version they’ve seen contains language that would still allow the government to target activists in Burma, also known as Burma.
“The proposed amendments are not much different from the original law,” said Ko Ko Gyi, 52, a former political prisoner sentenced to 65 years in jail after leading anti-government protests in 2007. His term included four 15-year sentences under the Electronic Transactions Law.
Aung Thein, a veteran lawyer who has represented Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and other celebrated democrats, said the law was an unwanted remnant of a dark past.
“There was a time when we had to apply for a license to own a radio,” he said. “Now things have changed a lot in telecommunications and electronic technology. I don’t think this law should exist.”
Even if its penalties were amended, the law would remain vague and arbitrary, he said.
President Thein Sein is a retired general and many of his ministers were high-ranking members of the old junta. Last year, his government won international plaudits for abolishing strict censorship of newspapers and magazines.
But a new Printing and Publishing Enterprises Law, already passed by parliament, has been criticized by Burma’s journalists. Thiha Saw, editor of the English-language Burma Freedom Daily, said the revised law differed little from the original one, introduced after the military seized power in 1962.
“Most journalists hate it,” he said.
Also causing outrage is a draft law on associations made public in July, which activists say could give the government arbitrary powers to crack down on any groups it does not like.
If passed, the law would require domestic and international non-governmental organizations to register with the government. Members of organizations that fail to register can be imprisoned for up to three years.
The law would be “a serious setback for the development of a strong and vibrant civil society”, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said in an August 21 statement.
Look to Neighbors?
The government is taking some criticism on board, said Nay Phone Latt, a blogger who was convicted under the Electronic Transactions Law and spent four years in prison.
He said members of the committee drafting the new associations law met last month with civil society delegates in the capital, Naypyitaw.
“After our discussion, they will make amendments so the government cannot silence civil society organizations,” said Nay Phone Latt, now executive director of Burma ICT for Development Organization, which promotes internet access and freedom.
Former political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi said Burma should “study the laws of other countries”, although many Southeast Asian governments already impose severe restrictions on the Internet and freedoms of speech and association.
In Vietnam, a decree took effect this month that makes it a crime to share news via blogs and social networks. Reporters Without Borders, which says 35 bloggers and internet activists languish in Vietnam’s jails, called it “nonsensical and extremely dangerous”.
Thailand has prosecuted hundreds of people under strict laws governing cyber-crime and the monarchy while in Malaysia last year, bloggers and opposition politicians staged a one-day “internet blackout” to protest against a law they said threatened online expression.
Singapore also enforces tough controls on the Internet, introducing this year new regulations on websites that regularly report on the city state, sparking debate over whether the measure was a new attempt to stifle online criticism of the government.