New Law Proposed to Protect Citizens Against State Surveillance

By San Yamin Aung 9 September 2016

RANGOON — A new bill to protect citizens’ privacy, security and freedom from state surveillance and intrusion was submitted to Parliament on Thursday by the Lower House Bill Committee.

Despite democratic reforms since 2011, and the coming to power of an elected civilian government in April of this year, Burma retains much its surveillance and repressive security apparatus, which remains under the control of the military.

Plain-clothed “Special Branch” officers, a division of the police under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, can still freely intrude on people’s privacy—taking pictures, videos and sound recordings of ordinary citizens, collecting material that can be used against them in legal suits—and keep a particularly close watch on political and civil society activists.

The bill prohibits unwarranted household arrests and inspections, and surveillance of individuals and their private communication in a manner that harms their privacy or dignity, barring the approval of the President or Union ministers.

The draft law also states that no one can request or provide private communication logged by telecom operators, unseal private letters and parcels, intrude on an individual’s private affairs and family life, and seize citizens’ moveable or immoveable property. These intrusions are permitted under the frequently vague provisions of Burma’s existing laws.

Under previous military and military-backed governments, political dissidents, student activists, and journalists routinely had their phones tapped and their movements closely followed by both Special Branch and Military Intelligence officers.

U Aung Myo Kyaw of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said he welcomed the bill because it would help protect the rights of the individual, which have been severely curtailed in Burma over a long period.

“Not only under the previous government but up till now, we have been facing these kinds of [abuses]. It is unchanged. In some areas, if we arrive to hold a public event, there is surveillance of our movements. Influential politicians and former political prisoners are still facing this,” he said.

He said that, during the military regime that ruled Burma over five decades, thousands of politicians, student activists and their associates were jailed or closely followed.

“If they want to know what we are doing, they can ask and take the information directly from us. But stalking and secretly taking pictures of us shouldn’t happen now. But since there was previously no legal protection from those kinds of things, they kept doing it. If the law is enacted, it will provide for the protection all citizens. But everyone, especially special branch officers, the police and administrators, need to follow it,” U Aung Myo Kyaw added.

The bill proscribes a punishment to anyone who violates the law with prison terms of up to five years and a fine of 2,500,000 kyats (US$2,050).

“In the past, we always felt insecure. We were anxious at night that we’d get a knock on our door and be arrested,” U Tun Tun Hein, chair of the Lower House Bill Committee and a former political prisoner, told reporters at the parliament on Thursday.

“But under democracy, citizens shall live and sleep without such anxiety,” he said, adding that the government “needs to be held responsible” for ensuring citizens’ privacy and security.

“After the law is enacted, you can file a complaint with the police if you suspect that your phone is being tapped or have experienced household inspections without a warrant,” he said.