NLD Lawmakers Debate Pros, Cons of Proposed Protest Law Amendments

By Htet Naing Zaw 9 March 2018

NAYPYITAW — The Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law needs to be amended because it does not comply with the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, said lawmaker U Tun Tun Hein, a Central Executive Committee member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD).

“This law is fine for people who want to stage a protest with good intentions. But if it is applied for destructive purposes, we have to do what it takes in the interests of the country,” U Tun Tun Hein told reporters in Naypyitaw.

Activists and rights groups have protested against the bill in recent weeks, complaining that proposed amendments contain broad and vague terms they worry could be exploited to stifle political dissent. On Friday, the Bill Committee presented its report on the bill to the Lower House, which is scheduled to discuss the amendments next week.

The bill amending the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law was passed by the Upper House on Wednesday with 113 lawmakers voting in favor and 78 voting against, despite the fact that some NLD lawmakers argued against the changes. Representatives of Myanmar’s military, which is guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats by the Constitution, also opposed the changes.

Though Article 354 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and assembly, hiring people to stage a demonstration with bad intents was not acceptable, argued U Tun Tun Hein, who represents Nawnghkio Township in Shan State.

The proposed amendment was identical to Article 354, he said, adding that existing laws had to comply with the Constitution or would otherwise be invalid.

“We heard that there are cases of people being hired for demonstrations. What we want is that citizens express their real wishes,” he said.

If the changes do make it into the law, Article 4 (d) will require would-be protesters planning peaceful assemblies and processions to inform police in advance of not only their agenda and estimated numbers, but also the estimated cost of the event and the identities of the people or organizations paying for it.

The most controversial part of the bill would stipulate jail terms for those convicted of provoking or exhorting others to organize or participate in demonstrations by bribing or paying them or doing anything else with the intention of harming the stability, rule of law, peace and tranquility of the community.

The provision has been criticized as being too broadly written; activists warn it could be exploited to stifle political dissent.

“The Constitution of the United States says that no law shall be enacted to restrict liberty and individual expression. The original Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law already restricts the freedom of an individual, and the new changes restrict it further,” Lower House NLD lawmaker U Aung Hlaing Win told The Irrawaddy.

U Ye Htun, a former lawmaker who represented Shan State’s Hsipaw Township, said the proposed amendments would also make it legal to fund demonstrations. He argued that funding should not be allowed at all and that demonstrations should be staged by people on their own accord.

“In Ukraine, demonstrators were paid through NGOs by foreign agencies. As a result, many took to the streets, and finally the president was toppled. That’s what we should restrict, but not the instigation [of protests] if it is not for violence.”

The NLD made amending the military-drafted Constitution one of its top priorities while campaigning for the 2015 election. Since winning the election, however, the party has made almost no effort to reform it in Parliament.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.