About 500 farmers, workers, and political activists marched in Yangon on Monday to oppose proposed changes to the country’s public assembly law, arguing that the amendments will limit free speech in the emerging democracy.
The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which was enacted in 2010 under a military-backed government, allows public demonstrations only if organizers first obtain permission from local authorities. Those who violate the law are subject to three to six months in prison and a 30,000-kyat (U.S. $22) fine.
When the law was passed, legalizing street rallies and demonstrations which had been outlawed under previous military juntas, it was embraced as an improvement.
But in recent years, rights groups have called for changes to the law, which they say is routinely used to jail activists, by adding amendments to better protect rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, while ditching criminal penalties and vague restrictions on speech contrary to international standards.
In February, the civilian government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party proposed adding a phrase that “anyone who instigates, tempts or persuades others intentionally or knowingly [joins a demonstration] to disrupt national security, the rule of law, tranquility and public morale” can be punished by up to three years in prison and a fine.
Those who participated in the march said they fear the loss of democratic gains under the current government should the amendments be approved.
“We are protesting today because we see the possibilities of losing our democratic values,” Naw Ohn Hla from the Democracy and Peace Women’s Group told RFA’s Myanmar Service during the march.
Nyo Nyo Thin, a former Yangon regional lawmaker who participated in the rally said two of the three amendments in the draft law contain unclear wording.
“If this law is approved, authorities can charge people easily whenever they want,” he said.
Nearly 200 Myanmar civil society organizations signed a petition against the proposed changes that would also require protest organizers to notify local authorities 48 hours before the event and to provide funding details and identify the person or organization financing their activities.
Myanmar’s upper house is discussing the proposed amendments which are expected to be submitted to the lower house for debate next week.
Three lawmakers from the NLD and two from the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, held an initial debate on the proposed changes on Monday at the parliament building in the capital Naypyidaw. Four of them rejected the document.
Htay Oo, an NLD member of the upper house, cited the broad definitions of concepts that could be used by authorities to prohibit legitimate demonstrations.
He also noted that some NLD members had been detained in the past under the law by the previous military regime simply because they were from the opposition party and had been accused of threatening state security and the rule of law.
“Protesters will be jailed if the authorities think the protest harms security, the rule of law and stability of the state, and public morale,” Htay Oo told lawmakers in the upper house. “The law also cannot protect people because it doesn’t reflect democratic standards and the NLD’s objectives. The NLD’s mission is to wipe out any act that supports a dictator and hurts the people.”
Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy stance and expectations that the NLD would enact further democratic standards in Myanmar after it came to power nearly two years ago, rights groups have noted indications that the government is backpedaling on freedom of expression and peaceful protest.
In January, police in the town of Mrauk U in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state shot dead seven people and wounded 13 others during a crackdown on demonstrators when authorities attempted to stop the celebration of a Buddhist anniversary.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.