Protest Bill Passes Upper House, Disappoints Rights Groups

By Tin Htet Paing 1 June 2016

RANGOON — A revised version of a bill replacing Burma’s controversial Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law was approved by the Upper House of Parliament on Tuesday, while retaining criminal penalties against violators of the legislation amid criticism from rights groups.

The Upper House Bill Committee submitted the amended bill to lawmakers after the chamber decided last week to review the proposed legislation, which was submitted in early May, as it faced criticisms from rights groups critical of several provisions that have been used to suppress political activists in recent years.

Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia and Pacific director, Rafendi Djamin, sent an open letter to Burma’s Parliament last month, urging it to revise proposed amendments that “fall far short of bringing the Act into line with international human rights law and standards.”

“International human rights law and standards are clear that failure to notify the authorities must not be subject to criminal sanctions which result in fines or imprisonment,” he stated in the letter.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) echoed those concerns in a statement on Friday, criticizing “overly broad and vague restrictions on speech,” among other flaws.

“The new Burmese government has moved quickly to replace the country’s flawed assembly law, which has been used to imprison numerous activists for years,” said Brad Adams, the director of HRW’s Asia region. “However, the proposed [draft] law needs significant revisions to bring it up to international standards.”

Members of the Upper House Bill Committee last week discussed the proposed bill with representatives from the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). The advocacy group said changes in the new bill were insufficient, since peaceful protests could still entail jail terms and impromptu demonstrations were not accounted for.

Despite these consultations, Tuesday’s revised version did not succeed in meeting the rights groups’ recommendations, retaining criminal punishments against violators and not including any provisions that related to impromptu demonstrations.

Several provisions from the original proposal have been accepted: Demonstrators need to notify local authorities 48 hours in advance of any protest; a 15-day statute of limitations on prosecuting violators will be enforced; and demonstrators will be protected from prosecutions in multiple townships.

However, the revised draft law would still allow the prosecution of three months imprisonment or a penalty of 30,000 kyats (US$25), or both, for protestors who fail to follow the rules. Repeat offenders may be charged with a one-year jail term or a penalty of 100,000 kyats, or both.

Any protester who fails to follow their demonstration agenda, which specifies times, locations, and slogans they intend to use, shall be charged with a one-month jail sentence instead of three months, unlike in the committee’s first proposed version of the draft law.

The revised bill still retains the limit on the rights of non-citizens to assemble—denying the country’s many non-citizens, who are marginalized under its controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, the right to peacefully demonstrate in public areas and prohibitions on protest speeches that may cause disturbances to public safety and affect the Union, race, religion, human dignity and moral principles.

There are two other significant additions to the previous version: the redrafted bill would prohibit discriminatory and defamatory protests and any act of paying, bribing and threatening people to participate in demonstrations. Violators of these provisions would face a maximum one month in prison.

Zaw Min, who chairs the Upper House Bill Committee, said the bill had already loosened multiple restrictions on protestors after hearing recommendations from stakeholders and rights groups.

“Our committee has tried its best to modify the bill,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “We considered what law would be the most balanced and suitable for both the authorities and the demonstrators during this transitional period.”

The committee chairman also touted a clause restricting authorities from carrying out “excessive” police force against protestors who violate the rules.

The original controversial Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law was enacted in 2011 under the previous military-backed government. At the time, the law ostensibly bestowed new rights of protest and assembly. In the years that followed, however, the legislation was repeatedly used to arrest and imprison activists who flouted its harsh provisions. This included the need to seek “permission” from local authorities five days in advance of the protest and to supply detailed information on the content and intended location or route of any protest march.

The bill will now move onto the Lower House before becoming law.