Burma’s new law on the right to peaceful assembly has been heavily criticized by a leading human rights organization.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday that the Law Relating to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession, signed by President Thein Sein on Dec. 2, falls well short of international standards.
The comments mirror accusations by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party concerning restrictions on campaign rallies. Access to prominent venues around Burma has repeatedly been denied as momentum grows in the run-up to the April 1 by-elections.
“Burma’s new law on assembly rejects the previous ban on demonstrations, but still allows the government to trump the Burmese people’s basic rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
“There is a lot of excitement about changes in Burma these days, but the government shouldn’t be given credit for allowing some freedom just because none existed before. Instead, it should be pressed to make sure its laws meet international standards.”
Despite assurances from the Union Election Commission on Feb. 20 that restrictions on venues would be lifted, the NLD complained once again on March 9 that Suu Kyi had been blocked from speaking at Than Lwin Garden in the Mon State capital Moulmein. The party was instead offered a football field a third of the size six miles (10 km) outside of the city.
HRW urged the Thein Sein administration to repeal certain provisions that fail to meet international human rights standards, such as imprisonment as a penalty for permit violations.
The new assembly law requires anyone planning a demonstration to seek permission from the township police chief five days in advance. Permission is required for any gathering of “more than one person in a public area … in order to express their opinions.”
Holding an assembly without permission can result in a one-year prison sentence under the new legislation. Even if permission is granted, the assembly law provides criminal penalties of up to six months in prison for various types of conduct—such as giving speeches that contain false information, saying anything that could hurt the state and union, or “doing anything that causes fear, a disturbance or blocks roads, vehicles or the public.” These offenses are articulated in vague and uncertain terms, claims HRW.
“Requiring approval for the content of slogans shows just how far the government needs to go to understand basic freedoms,” said Adams. “Peaceful protesters shouldn’t go to jail just because a police officer may not like what they said.”
Burma has a long history of repression of peaceful protests. Pro-democracy marches in 1988 were put down by the authorities with lethal force. Security forces killed an estimated 3,000 protesters. Peaceful marches led by the opposition 88 Generation Students group in August 2007 and Buddhist monks in September 2007 were also violently crushed.
In 2011, the police forcibly dispersed several protests in the former capital Rangoon. One small protest on Oct. 27 led to the arrest of eight landless farmers and their activist lawyer Phoe Phyu for illegal assembly after they protested the forcible acquisition of their land by government-backed companies.
“The real test of new laws will be to see what happens when Burmese attempt to use them,” said Adams. “Burma’s government will deserve kudos for legal reform only when people are allowed to exercise their basic rights.”