Myanmar Amends Privacy Law to Protect Citizens From State Intrusion

By San Yamin Aung 27 August 2020

YANGON—Amendments to the controversial Privacy Law approved by the Union Parliament on Wednesday will end abuse of the legislation by individuals targeting each other with lawsuits, and by authorities looking to muzzle their critics, according to Parliament’s Joint Bill Committee.

Myanmar’s Union Parliament on Wednesday amended the Privacy Law, officially named the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, to fully ensure the protection of individuals’ privacy and security, which was its original aim.

The legislation was enacted in March 2017 to provide legal protection for ordinary citizens, allowing them to file lawsuits against authorities, including members of the state security apparatus, if they are being stalked or otherwise having their privacy intruded upon.

The law prohibits unwarranted intrusions into households to make arrests or inspections, as well as surveillance of individuals and their private communications in a manner that harms their privacy or dignity, barring the approval of the President or Union ministers.

It states that no one can request or provide private communications logged by telecom operators, unseal private letters and parcels, intrude on an individual’s private affairs and family life, or seize or destroy citizens’ moveable or immoveable property.

Yet, the law’s vague prescription that “whoever” breaches its provisions shall face up to three years’ imprisonment led to its exploitation. For example, its most controversial statute, Article 8(f), which criminalizes defamation, was widely used to stifle criticism of the state, state leaders and individuals by authorities over the past three years.

According to the Joint Bill Committee, more than 900 lawsuits have been filed under the law, both by citizens against each other and by authorities against their critics.

“That was not the law’s original aim. We enacted it to protect citizens from power abuses by authorities, including lawmakers, and from being stalked or subject to other intrusive behavior by military intelligence or special branch officers,” committee secretary and National League for Democracy lawmaker Dr. Myat Nyana Soe told The Irrawaddy.

Free speech advocates had long called for a review of the law. In particular, they sought the repeal of Article 8(f), which makes defamation a non-bailable offense, or a reduction in the maximum three-year imprisonment for violating the article, so that it would become a bailable offense.

Dr. Myat Nyana Soe said the Union Parliament kept the article and the harsh sentence in the law, but replaced the word “whoever” in the provision with “any public official”, so that prosecutions under the law will only target authorities, in cases opened against them by members of the public. The maximum three-year prison sentence was retained so that it can be imposed against authorities who abuse ordinary citizens, he said.

“We fixed it so that it is in line with its original aim,” Dr. Myat Nyana Soe said. He admitted that the changes should have been made earlier, after the law’s enactment.

He pointed out, however, that the changes should have been initiated by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is primarily responsible for implementing the law. Yet, as the ministry failed to do so, the Parliament’s Justice and Legal Affairs Committee submitted a bill to make changes to the law in February.

Despite the launch of democratic reforms in 2011 and the coming to power of an elected civilian government in 2016, Myanmar retains much of its surveillance and repressive security apparatus, which remains under the control of the military.

Political dissidents, civil society activists and journalists still face household inspections and are often closely followed by both Special Branch and military intelligence officers, who routinely take pictures, videos and sound recordings of communications, or collect material that can be used against them in legal suits.

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