Myanmar & COVID-19

Different Laws Applied to Myanmar COVID-19 Restrictions Lead to Inconsistent Punishments for Violators

By Zarni Mann 13 May 2020

MANDALAY—Myanmar’s courts have been widely criticized on social media in recent days over punishments handed down to those who organize religious gatherings and weddings in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, with critics saying different laws are being applied in different areas, and that offenders are not being punished equally.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of COVID-19 to be a global pandemic in March, the President’s Office on March 13 banned public events and mass gatherings, including weddings and religious events, until the end of April as a measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Depending on the location, those defying state and regional governments’ COVID-19 restrictions have been prosecuted under a range of laws including the Natural Disaster Management Law, the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law and Article 188 of the Penal Code. The Natural Disaster Management Law has been invoked most often, with relatively few people being charged under the Penal Code.

Lawsuits have been filed against members of the Buddhist, Christian and Muslim communities across the country. While some are facing prison terms, others have been given moderate fines.

Recently, the Thanintharyi regional government fined officials of a pagoda trustee committee 100,000 kyats (about US$70) for organizing the funeral of a Buddhist monk in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions. In this case, authorities took legal action under the Penal Code.

In April, more than 200 residents of Sinthay Village in Dawei District’s Yebyu Township attended Buddhist funeral rites for the 83-year-old monk, despite the COVID-19 prevention measures and restrictions set down by the regional government.

“The chairman and secretary of the pagoda trustee committee were fined 100,000 kyats under Article 188 of the Penal Code for defying an order issued by government officials,” U Kyaw Min, the regional minister of immigration and human resources and the spokesperson for the Thanintharyi regional government, told The Irrawaddy on Monday.

In a separate case in Mandalay, 12 Muslim men were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment under the Natural Disaster Management Law for holding a religious gathering at a house in the Aung Pin Lae quarter of Chanmyathazi Township. Two minors who attended the gathering are awaiting the juvenile court’s verdicts in their cases.

The courts’ use of different laws and the contrasting punishments handed down in the two cases have generated much discussion online, with critics saying the prison terms given to the group of Muslims were too harsh, while the fine imposed on the organizers of the monk’s funeral was too small.

A local official from Dawei Township told The Irrawaddy that the pagoda trustee committee’s fine was so low that locals will not be deterred from ignoring the law in the future.

“The pagoda trustee committee’s fine—only 100,000 kyats—is too low. In Mandalay, the person who organized the religious gathering and all the people who attended it were equally punished with prison terms. In this time of pandemic, the punishment should be harsh enough that the public will not break the law in the future,” he said.

He noted that a hotel that hosted a wedding in Thanintharyi’s Myeik Township on March 23 was placed in lockdown and the bride and groom were fined 50,000 kyats, after it was discovered on April 9 that the event had been attended by the country’s 25th confirmed COVID-19 patient.

“The pagoda trustees and the wedding organizers, and the locals who attended, broke the law and they knew it. They may have earlier obtained local authorities’ permission [to hold the events], but they must have been aware of the [potential] impact,” he said.

After two wedding ceremonies were held in Tamu and Kalay townships of Sagaing Region in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, the grooms were sentenced to six months in prison and fined 100,000 kyats each under the Natural Disaster Management Law.

The inconsistent way in which local authorities apply laws to sue those who defy COVID-19 prevention measures has been criticized.

“There are problems with the way laws are enforced in our country. How laws are used to sue people depends on the local authorities. And the degree of the punishment also depends on the court’s discretion,” said rights activist Ko Aung Myo Min, the director of Equality Myanmar, adding that either judges’ bias or pressure from upstairs may contribute to inconsistent decisions.

On April 14, the Yangon regional COVID-19 control and emergency response committee announced that a lawsuit had been filed against four people including a Christian pastor, Rev. Saw David Lah for holding a religious gathering in late March in defiance of the government’s instructions.

They are being sued under Article 25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law, which states that a person convicted of defying such instructions shall be punished by up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both.

The religious gathering, which was held on March 22, has been linked to at least 80 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Yangon, including two deaths, making it the largest cluster found in the country so far. Confirmed cases in this cluster began to be reported on April 12.

Saw David Lah was himself infected. He recovered and is currently quarantined at a hotel.

Lawsuits were filed against Rev. Saw David Lah and U Wai Tun at Mayangone Township Police Station, while lawsuits were filed against Pastor Saw Kwae Wah and Saw Raygandi at Insein Township Police Station.

Police Colonel Tin Hla of Insein Township station told The Irrawaddy that the lawsuits against Saw Kwae Wah and Saw Raygandi are ready to be submitted as soon as the two finish quarantine.

“The accused pair are recovering and currently under quarantine in Phaung Gyi [treatment center] and Waibargi [Hospital]. Once they have finished their quarantine, we will bring them to the police station for questioning and will submit the cases to the court right away,” the police colonel said.

When The Irrawaddy contacted the police station in Mayangone Township, the duty officer said Saw David Lah had recently been questioned regarding the case but refused to provide further details, saying he is not permitted to discuss the case with reporters.

According to rights activist and lawyer U Thein Than Oo, decisions about which laws to use to restrict public activities during pandemics are made by regional governments and their legal advisers.

“A person who defies the restrictions could be charged under any related law. However, in this time of pandemic, the states and regional governments may apply any law that is deemed suitable to their respective region and situation. I think the Union government has given full authority to the states and regional governments during this COVID-19 period to take legal action against people who defy the rules,” he said.

Under Article 188 of the Penal Code, anyone who defies a government order or instruction shall be sentenced to one to six months in prison or a fine.

Under the Natural Disaster Management law, a person who defies such an order faces three months to three years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both.

And under the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law, anyone who fails to comply with prevention measures issued by the Department of Health shall be punished with a fine or a maximum of six months in prison.

U Thein Than Oo said that in his opinion the most appropriate law under which to prosecute those who defy the COVID-19 restrictions is the Natural Disaster Management Law, even though the offenders may technically have violated Article 188 of the Penal Code.

“Charging [a violator] under Article 188 of the Penal Code is quite lenient in the context of a global pandemic. COVID-19 prevention measures are a concern not just for our country, but also for the whole region and the world. So, everyone must follow the law strictly,” he said.

In the case of the minors who attended the Muslim gathering in Mandalay, the lawyer explained that the children’s court would likely impose a light punishment such as a briefing on the need to follow the law.

“There may be differences in the degree of the punishment because of the different courts, different regions and different situations involved. We can’t say the sentences are right or wrong, because the decisions depend on the discretion of the court,” the lawyer said.

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