What has Parliament Done so far?

By San Yamin Aung 25 October 2017

YANGON — Over the past one year and eight months, the Union Parliament has passed 46 laws—including the revocation of some oppressive legalization targeting political dissidents and amendments to a few controversial statutes. Lawmakers are set to discuss 29 new bills in the current parliamentary session.

Current Session

According to the Parliament’s Joint Bill Committee, 29 bills will be debated during the current parliamentary session, which reconvened on Oct. 17.

The bills cover areas such as early child care and development; anti-hate speech; intellectual property rights on trademark, copyright, patent and industrial design; and amendments to the 2012 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin lands Management Law as well as the 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law. The 1993 Child Law will also be revised.

Under the amendments of the 24-year-old narcotics law, drug users will no longer be punished with long-term imprisonment and the focus will instead be on ensuring an effective treatment plan and rehabilitation. It was approved in the Upper House and remains to be discussed in the Lower House.

The long awaited Prevention and Protection of Violence against Women Bill is also expected to submitted during the ongoing parliamentary session.

Significant Laws

State Protection Law

Soon after the new National League for Democracy (NLD)-dominated parliament convened on Feb. 1, 2016, a new bill that rescinded the 1975 State Protection Law, also known as the “Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts,” was approved.

Enacted during the country’s socialist era, the law was used to oppress political activists who disagreed with the government.

Junta-era Emergency Act

The 1950 Emergency Provisions Act was also widely used to jail individual political dissidents under the successive military administrations until it was revoked in Oct. 2016.

“As a significant thing over the period, the NLD Parliament quickly revoked the laws which had long been used to suppress political activists,” said Ko Htin Kyaw Aye, a research director of Open Myanmar Initiative, a think-tank and research center monitoring Parliament.

During ex-president U Thein Sein’s administration, the then leading opposition party NLD proposed scrapping the oppressive laws, but the move failed as the chamber was under the wider influence of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) majority at the time.

But there are some laws that failed to meet the expectation of rights’ groups and draft bills that have taken too long to arrive in Parliament, such as the bill tackling violence against women, said Ko Htin Kyaw Aye.

Telecoms Law

Despite calls to terminate Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, a notorious clause that critics say curbs free speech, the provision will remain in place under the proposed amendments. Article 66(d) has been used in recent years to prosecute and jail individuals—including media members—for “online defamation.”

Under the amendments, the maximum prison terms will be lowered from three to two years, a move that will guarantee bail.

The amending bill was passed in Aug, 2017. It banned third parties from filing cases, welcomed as a move to reduce the cases opened under the law.

Protest Law

The government replaced the country’s flawed Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law enacted in 2012 under the previous administration and long used to imprison activists.

Overnight Guest Registration

Parliament passed a bill abolishing provisions of the country’s Ward or Village Tract Administration Law which required citizens to report overnight guests to authorities. Under the military regime and the previous government, the provision was used to hunt down political activists.

Privacy and Security of Citizens

A new law to protect citizens’ privacy, security and freedom from state surveillance and intrusion was enacted in March, 2017.

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.

The law 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.

New Law for Over 60s

According to a UNFPA census report, the number of people aged 60 and over is projected to grow from 4.5 million to 13 million by 2050—20 percent of the population.

To protect the rights and well being of the elderly, senior citizens bill was passed in December, 2016. The law also carries a maximum two years prison sentence for abusing the elderly.

NLD Parliament vs USDP Parliament

The previous parliament passed and amended more than 100 laws, Ko Htin Kyaw Aye of Open Myanmar Initiative said.

“If we took comparison over the same period between the previous and current parliament, there is not much difference yet. But they need to speed up on more important laws as currently there are only 46 laws [enacted under the current government],” he said.

National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends Myanmar’s first Parliament meeting after the November 8 general elections, at the Lower House of Parliament in Naypyitaw November 16, 2015. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Under the previous government headed by the ex-military generals, most of the laws focused on investment, economics and administration matters, he said.

A controversial set of four so-called “Protection of Race and Religion Laws” were passed by the former government in 2015 despite opposition from women’s rights group, who argued the laws were discriminatory against women and religious minorities.

A group of hardline nationalists known by the Myanmar acronym Ma Ba Tha first proposed the laws. The group was denounced under the NLD government by the state Buddhist Sangha authority in July.

Another one of the more controversial laws passed under ex-president Thein Sein was the “Presidential Security Bill” or “Immunity Law,” put forward to Parliament just three months before the end of his term. It includes a provision granting blanket immunity to the head of state for actions taken while in office after he or she steps down.

“The bills will depend on what reforms the administration will focus on. The NLD had the political will to revoke the oppressive laws against the political dissidents even before they were sworn in. That’s why they did it soon after Parliament opened,” he said.

The most significant aspect of the NLD administration, he said, is that it has legislated to protect citizens’ rights, such as the enactment of a new law protecting privacy and security of citizens and the amendment to the telecoms law in response to rights’ groups and media campaigns.

“It seems they have the political objective to increase the citizens’ rights in general,” added Ko Htin Kyaw Aye.

The Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission headed by previous parliamentary speaker U Shwe Mann has recommended to Parliament 201 laws to be enacted, abolished or amended.

About 50 percent of the 46 enacted laws so far came from that list, said Ko Htin Kyaw Aye, adding that he expects more will come from the list.

“But it is questionable whether they’ll all be done in the remaining three years.”