RANGOON — The Myanmar Human Rights Commission (MHRC) chairman has expressed concern over the growing number of arrests under the Peaceful Assembly Law, but disagrees with civil society groups who want to repeal the need to obtain prior government permission for a demonstration.
Under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Act, activists need government permission to hold a protest. Organizing a protest without permission can result in a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment.
In the past year, Article 18 has been frequently used by authorities to detain protestors who were demonstrating against land-grabbing and other human rights abuses.
In recent months, civil society groups have begun a campaign calling for the removal of all criminal punishments from the Assembly Law and the need for a government permit for a demonstration.
Win Mra, chairman of the MHRC, said the growing number of arrests under Article 18 is a serious human rights concern that the government should address. “I am not a political expert, but the government should not arrest them under Article 18,” he said during a recent interview in Rangoon.
Win Mra said the arrests of activists under the Assembly Law was at odds with the reforms and the release of political prisoners under President Thein Sein. “That’s why I asked them to reconsider this issue,” he said. “We will have to find a solution that is somewhere between taking a hard line and a soft line.”
The MHRC chairman, however, stopped short of suggesting what amendments should be made to the Assembly Law and said he disagreed with civil society demands to scrap the need for prior government permission for demonstrations.
“I do not accept this demand because there is no country that has such kind of laws. Protestors have to obtain permission,” he said, “But when activists submit a letter for a demonstration permit it should be granted without delay.”
The MHRC was set up 2011 under executive order of President Thein Sein and has been criticized for not being sufficiently independent. The commission has not been approved by Parliament, lacks a legislative text with a clearly defined broad mandate, and is not based on universal human rights standards. Win Mra, the commission chairman, was a diplomat under the former military regime.
A civil society coalition, which includes the influential 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, Paung Ku and youth activists Generation Wave, has launched a campaign to amend the Assembly Law and sent a letter urging Parliament to repeal Article 18.
Moe Thway, president of Generation Wave, dismissed the MHRC chairman’s assertion that prior government permission for a protest should remain a provision in the law.
Moe Thway said protesting is “a fundamental right” that could not be curtailed by the government, adding that activists should only be required to inform authorities of their planned protests, while all criminal punishments should be removed from the law.
“I do not accept that we need to obtain permission from the government for our protests, that’s why we want Article 18 to be eliminated,” he said. “The government is still arresting protestors under several laws, so we want them stop to arresting activists.”
Moe Thway said civil society groups were planning to stage campaign activities in 2014 in order to push their demands, adding that on Jan. 5 Generation Wave, Generation Youth, the Laiza Peace Marching Group, the Women Networks and Paung Ku would hold a protest in front of Rangoon City Hall.
In February, the groups planned to hold a number of workshops with lawmakers from all parties to discuss the suggested amendments to the Assembly Law, he said.
Thein Nyunt, a Lower House opposition lawmaker with the New National Democracy Party chairman, said MPs were considering amending the Assembly Law in accordance with changes suggested by the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party, which is affiliated with the Burma Army.
Thein Nyunt said he expected this draft to be discussed in the Lower House early next year, but he made no mention of the civil society’s demands regarding the Assembly Law.
“I had the idea to abolish Article 18 before. But now, I am reconsidering after some activists burned the Chinese flag, it’s horrible. I do not accept that kind of protest. So I am thinking about whether to completely eliminate Article 18 or just to amend some words, for example just fine to such people,” he said.
“I am now observing how other Asean countries handle this kind of protests.”