Upper House Debates Presidential Protection, Immunity Bill

By San Yamin Aung 13 January 2016

RANGOON — A bill that would offer physical security and legal immunity to presidents after they leave office was debated by Burma’s Upper House on Wednesday.

The Former Presidents Security Bill raised eyebrows when it was introduced in mid-December, as it appeared to have been designed for the benefit of outgoing President Thein Sein, whose term will expire in March.

The draft was approved by the Lower House on Dec. 31 with only minor amendments to a draft previously published in state media, drawing sharp criticism over provisions that appeared to offer blanket immunity to former heads of state. The bill also provides a personal bodyguard to be selected by the Home Affairs Ministry.

The original draft granted the power of appointment to either the Defense Ministry or Home Affairs Ministry, mandating that whichever made the appointment would incur all costs related to the former president’s security. The Lower House amended the clause, limiting the charge to Home Affairs, but Upper House military lawmakers argued on Wednesday to reverse the amendment.

Lt-Col Myint Win, a lawmaker representing the military, said the clause gives the outgoing president more control over his personal security, as he or she would have the right to decide which ministry would ultimately select the bodyguard.

“We will always respect and value our ex-presidents,” Myint Win said. “To be able to live peacefully with his family and to choose his bodyguard, the law should be changed back to the original so he can appoint as he wishes either the defense or home affairs ministry.”

While the bill drew criticism outside of Parliament, it moved through the Lower House with relative ease. Only one lawmaker resisted approval of the expedited draft, hinging on the issue of immunity. The bill would ensure that a former president be “immune from any prosecution for his actions during his term.”

Lower House lawmaker Pe Than, a member of the Arakan National Party who was reelected in November, proposed striking the provision but the suggested was voted down. Home Affairs Minister Ko Ko countered with a suggestion to add the proviso “in accordance with the law,” which was accepted.

Pe Than denounced the modification as “unnecessary,” reasoning that if a president’s actions are in accordance with the law, there would be no reason to prosecute him, hence the clause ought to be removed altogether.

“If he has weaknesses or is corrupt, he shouldn’t be free,” Pe Than told The Irrawaddy. “This law should have one purpose—the protecting the president from danger.”

The bill is expected to come to a vote during the current session of Parliament, which will close on Jan. 31. The new legislature, which will convene the following day, will be dominated by the National League for Democracy (NLD) after its landslide win against the current military-backed assembly.