We call on the government to address two major issues with governance, the lack of respect for the right to information and the continued existence of unjust and undemocratic laws.
The government has a responsibility to improve access to information. The right to information is a vital part of a democracy and it is critical for civil society to keep an eye on those in power. Despite working on prison issues for almost two decades, I cannot get information on prisons from the government. Information such as prisoner numbers, the location of labor camps and even the recently announced standard operating procedures should not be secret. It is in the public interest that this information is shared with civil society and the public. Not having such information makes it much harder to analyze the situation and see changes in the prison system. Transparency and accountability are all part of good governance.
The lack of information is not just related to government institutions and developments but also laws. Article 505(b) of the widely used Penal Code has a section that states “whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumor or report, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offense against the State or against the public tranquility.”
Yet there are no criteria as to what constitutes fear or alarm to the public. Which words go against public tranquility and which don’t? What can be said and what cannot? How does not knowing what a criminal act is benefit society or lead to a stronger rule of law?
These laws are vague and their ambiguity allows for a wide interpretation with the result being a stifling of media and investigative reporting. These laws are inherently wrong and completely out of touch with modern day international standards.
The main reason for this is because Myanmar’s penal system is a hangover from the British colonial system, and as such is not a system designed for justice, but rather a system designed to repress and maintain the status quo. Now, 70 years since Myanmar gained independence in 1947, the unjust system remains. How can people follow unjust laws? How do they protect the people?
Reform is long overdue. In 1989, the UK repealed the Official Secrets Act of 1911, which was similar to our own 1923 Secret Act, in order to make it more equitable and to bring it up to date. Their new act still ensures state secrets are kept secret, but it stops abuses of power and the curtailment of basic freedoms under vague notions of national security. It is high time Myanmar’s lawmakers do the same.
Reform is not limited to the Official Secrets Act; there is a whole list of colonial-era laws that are out of date and not fit for a democracy. For example, the Unlawful Association Act was designed to suppress rebellion by a colonial power, not with the aim of protecting the public and law and order.
Another issue is that reform takes so long. Talk of reform of the 1894 prison law has been floated, with a draft amended bill being brought to Parliament in 2015, but since then, little has been heard. Moreover, the tabled amendments still fall down short of human rights standards and leave much to be desired. Revamps of the law addressed minor concerns, leaving the anti-democratic norms of it untouched. Parliament and lawmakers must update these laws systematically. They must be updated in a timely and holistic fashion. Minor adjustments cannot turn an undemocratic law into a democratic law.
Bo Kyi is the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).