Proposal to Keep Punishment for Unauthorized Protest Draws Criticism

By Htet Naing Zaw 21 February 2014

RANGOON — Opposition politicians and human rights activists have criticized a proposal, put forth by ruling party lawmakers, to amend Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law and reduce the punishment for carrying out an unauthorized protest to 6 months imprisonment.

They called for the complete removal of the controversial article, which currently carries a one-year sentence and is routinely used to imprison and threaten activists and demonstrators across Burma.

On Wednesday, the Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee of the Lower House, which is dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), submitted a bill with amendments to the Peaceful Assembly Law.

The bill softened the wording of some articles carrying punishments and reduced Article 17’s maximum prison terms for violence and unrest during demonstrations from two year to one year imprisonment. It halved Article 18’s punishment for an unauthorized protest from one year to six months, while also reducing punishment for an offense under Article 19 from six months to three months imprisonment.

The proposal is due to be discussed in the Lower House in the coming weeks, but drew mostly negative reactions from opposition MPs and activists.

Phay Than, a Lower House MP for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said that in a democratic country there should be “no need to ask for government permission for a protest”, adding that he would suggest to the Lower House to remove all criminal punishment for holding an unauthorized protest.

Ye Htun, a Lower House MP from the Shan Nationalities Development Party, was more positive about the bill. “The authoritarian tone has been removed [from Article 18] … If there is enough and concrete reason to demonstrate [nobody] can deny it,” he said, adding that he was glad to see that prison terms under the article were halved.

Burma’s civil society groups have been campaigning in recent months for a complete removal of Article 18, which has been used to detain dozens of protesters last year, many of them poor farmers who are rising up against the rapid increase in land-grabs by politically well-connected companies.

Activists said that halving the prison terms for Article 18 was insufficient and called for the complete removal of punishments.

“Article 18 should not exist at all,” said well-known activist Naw Ohn Hla, who is facing numerous court cases in which Article 18 has been used against her. She added that the article violated freedom of assembly and freedom of expression as protected by the Constitution.

Tun Kyi, of the Former Political Prisoners Group, said more than 100 people are currently facing charges under Article 18, while 33 people are locked up because of the criminal clause, adding that the detained are political prisoners who should be set free.

Activist Tin Htut Paing from Generation Youth said, “Article 18 is used to suppress the public. We will work to abolish this law. It is impossible [for Burma] to become a democracy without abolishing this law.”