The Irrawaddy

Lower House Approves Bill to Protect Against State Surveillance

A Special Branch officer records as student activist Nanda Sit Aung talks to the Reuters news agency during an interview at Tharrawaddy court, during a mass trial of student protesters in Pegu Division, August 25, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House of Parliament approved a bill to protect citizens from state surveillance and intrusion on Tuesday, while military lawmakers resisted some clauses.

U Zaw Win, member of the Lower House Bill Committee, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that there were no major changes from the original draft of the bill which the committee submitted to parliament on Sept. 8.

During the parliamentary session on Tuesday, the bill committee, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Transport and Communications, Lower House parliamentarians, and military lawmakers discussed the minor changes on the proposed legislation.

The bill prohibits household arrests and inspections without a warrant as well as surveillance of individuals and their private communications in a manner that harms their privacy or dignity, barring the approval of the President or the cabinet.

The bill has been welcomed as an aid to protect the rights of the individual. The draft law also states that no one can request or provide private communication logged by telecom operators, unseal private letters and parcels, intrude on an individual’s private affairs and family life, or seize citizens’ moveable or immoveable property.

The bill prescribes a punishment to anyone who violates the law with prison terms of up to five years and a fine of 2,500,000 kyats (US$2,050).

Lt­-Col Moe Kyaw Oo submitted a proposal to alter the clause requiring approval from the President or cabinet to “the approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs,” reasoning that the home affairs ministry will be implementing the law.

“It will not be possible to obtain permission from the President or Union government in advance in emergency cases,” Moe Kyaw Oo said.

But the amendment was voted down in parliament with the commission explaining that laws allowing for household searches and arrests without a warrant in special circumstances already exist under the 1947 Public Order (Preservation) Act and for drug cases.

Burma retains much of its surveillance and repressive security apparatus which remains under the control of the military.

Plain-clothed “Special Branch” officers, a division of the police under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, can still freely intrude on people’s privacy—taking pictures, videos and sound recordings of ordinary citizens, collecting material that can be used against them in legal suits—and keep a particularly close watch on political and civil society activists.

The bill will now go to the Upper House for approval. When the law is enacted, it will allow citizens to file a complaint with the police if they suspect any state surveillance or intrusion.