Myanmar Ruling Council Amends Treason, Sedition Laws to Protect Coup Makers

By The Irrawaddy 16 February 2021

YANGON—The State Administrative Council led by coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has amended the country’s high treason and sedition laws in an attempt to guarantee impunity for the Myanmar military leaders who seized power in a coup two weeks ago.

The council amended sections 121, 124 and 505 of the colonial-era Penal Code, which define high treason and sedition.

“It is too risky to amend the Penal Code. Even the Mother Law [Constitution] has to refer to the Penal Code. He can’t just amend it like that. To approve and apply a law, there must be public consensus. He made the amendment to use it for himself; it is not the law,” said legal adviser Sai Aung Myint Oo.

The 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the military itself, sets out the procedures for amending laws, and Snr-Gen Ming Aung Hlaing has breached the Constitution by amending the law arbitrarily, Sai Aung Myint Oo said.

According to the legal procedures to amend a law, a bill must first be drafted, followed by consultation on whether the proposed change can actually be practiced by the people. The bill should then be debated in Parliament, and signed into law by the President, he explained.

While the original Article 121 says anyone who “attempts or otherwise prepares by force of arms or other violent means to overthrow the organs of the Union or of its constituent units established by the Constitution” is guilty of high treason, the coup leader has amended it so that only unconstitutional use of force of arms constitutes high treason, meaning it is acceptable to use force of arms as long as it is done in line with the Constitution.

The amendment comes amid claims by lawyers that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing could be charged with high treason, and as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw prepares to prosecute the military council under high treason and other charges. The committee was formed by lawmakers from the National League for Democracy who were elected to the Union Parliament that was dissolved when the military staged a coup.

“They amended the law to prevent the next government or authorities from prosecuting them. But in fact, they can still be prosecuted retrospectively,” Sai Aung Myint Oo said.

While the original Section 124 of the Penal Code criminalizes “any attempt to bring into hatred or contempt, or excite disaffection towards the government,” the coup leader has amended the provision to prohibit “any attempt to cause hatred, contempt and disaffection toward the military and military personnel, besides the government.”

It also increased the penalty for the crime—currently three years—to a minimum of seven years up to a maximum of 20 years.

The military council has also changed Section 124(c) and (d), criminalizing any attempt “to sabotage or hinder the success of the Defense Services and law enforcement organizations engaged in preserving the stability of the state” and “to hinder or disrupt Defense Services personnel and government employees in their duties.”

It also increased the punishment from a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment to a minimum of 10 to 20 years for breaching Section 124(c); and to a maximum of seven years for breaching Section 124(d).

It also made changes to Section 505 of the Penal Code regarding sedition, to criminalize “any attempt to hinder, disturb, damage the motivation, discipline, health and conduct of the military personnel and government employees and cause their hatred, disobedience, or disloyalty toward the military and the government.”

It also added a new sub-section to Section 505 that criminalizes “any attempt to cause fear, spread false news, or agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a government employee,” and provides a punishment of three years’ imprisonment.

Since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1, tens of thousands of civil servants across the country have boycotted the regime, with more and more civil servants engaging in a civil disobedience movement, and anti-coup protesters calling for more civil servants to join the movement to bring the regime’s administrative functions to a halt.

“The reason they amended the Penal Code is simple. They want to control the emergency situation. They amended the law in the hope that it would serve as a deterrent to some extent. But people didn’t notice that. And people don’t care,” said lawyer U Aye Min.

People do not need to be afraid of amended laws, the lawyer said.

On Feb. 13, the military council also amended the Ward and Village-tract Administration Law, re-activating mandatory overnight guest registration, which enables the military to conduct midnight raids on households.

“What people should be worried about is late-night inspections for guests. Previously, arrests could not be made without a warrant, and there must be at least a police officer, a ward administrator and a community elder present in order to inspect a house for overnight guests. The military does not bother to do these, and thus amended the law so that so it can make arrests at any time. People must be careful about that,” U Aye Min said.

The military council has also suspended some provisions in the Citizens’ Privacy Law, enabling authorities to enter private properties to conduct searches, seize evidence and make arrests without a warrant; intercept phone calls; and demand personal telephonic and electronic communications data from telecoms providers.

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