Rights Group Pushes for Freedom of Speech in Burma

By Lawi Weng 29 June 2016

RANGOON — Burma has undergone political reforms, but the government still needs to provide for more freedom of expression in order to bring true democracy and to protect human rights, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which held a press conference on Wednesday in Rangoon.

HRW recommended that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government amend, repeal and abolish laws restricting freedom of expression.

The rights group issued a report on Wednesday entitled “They Can Arrest You at Any Time: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Burma,” referring to the country’s laws that are still used to punish activists or journalists who try to exercise their freedom of speech.

Those laws need be further amended in order to meet international standards, said Linda Lakhdhir, a legal advisor at the Asia Division of HRW and a co-author of the new report.

The report revealed that 150 people were facing charges under Article 505(b) of Burma’s penal code—which allows for the arrest of those who cause or intend to cause “fear or alarm” to the public—when the country’s newly-elected lawmakers first took their oaths in Parliament in February of this year.

Lakhdhir emphasized that while some charges have since been dropped and the government has granted amnesty to certain political prisoners, the oppressive laws still remain on the books.

She added that since 505(b) has been used against students calling for the amendment of a controversial national education law, as well as to punish activists and journalists, HRW was recommending its repeal.

The report also documented the use and abuse of other vaguely worded laws that criminalize peaceful expression, and includes debates on matters of public interest, as well as specific recommendations to revoke or amend the laws in question. HRW draws on interviews with individuals prosecuted under these laws, as well as journalists, civil society activists and lawyers.

“We must recognize the previous government of U Thein Sein, and he did make some improvements in human rights conditions, like the open space for this meeting today,” said David Mathieson, HRW’s senior researcher on Burma. “The new government led by President U Htin Kyaw and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has further opened space for the promotion of human rights and has discussed freedom of expression in Myanmar. But, major problems and challenges remain throughout Myanmar. There are very serious human rights challenges.”

HRW called on the government to listen to the people of Burma and recommended that the authorities maintain transparency during the process of changing legal mechanisms.

“Freedom of speech is important in a democracy because it leads to the protection of other rights,” said Linda Lakhdhir. “We advise the government to protect the rights of people to speak freely, and criticize the government where that criticism is warranted, and do these things without fear of punishment.”

Correction: A previous version of this story reported that 150 people were charged under Article 505(b) since the new government took power. That has been changed to reflect the fact that the 150 people were already facing charges under the law when the National League for Democracy took over.