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Burma: Law Used to Stifle Dissent Abolished

(Oct. 10, 2016) On October 4, 2016, Htin Kyaw, the President of Burma (also known as Myanmar), signed legislation that abolishes a law in place since 1950 that has been used to imprison dissidents. (Justin Cosgrove, Myanmar Abolishes Law Used to Jail Dissidents, PAPER CHASE (Oct. 5, 2016); 1950 Emergency Provisions Act (Mar. 9, 1950), BURMA LIBRARY.)

The Emergency Provisions Act had allowed the military of the country to impose sentences of seven years of imprisonment and/or a fine on persons considered to be dissidents. (Cosgrove, supra; Emergency Provisions Act, art. 5(m).) The Act outlaws and punishes anyone who

(a) violates or infringes upon the integrity, health, conduct and respect of State Military Organizations and Government employees towards the elected Government, disrupts or hinders in one way or the other, those who are carrying out their duties; …

(d) causes or intends to cause fear to a group of citizens or to the public in general;

(e) causes or intends to spread false news, knowing beforehand that it is untrue; …

(j) causes or intends to disrupt the morality or the behavior of a group of people or the general public, or to disrupt the security or the reconstruction of stability of the Union; … .  (Emergency Provisions Act, art. 5.)

These and other provisions have been used to sanction such acts as following foreign news services, in print and other formats. U Aung Kyi, the chair of a parliamentary panel that drafted the new legislation, said “[w]e have abolished the Emergency Provisions Act because it was the tool used by military regimes to suppress political dissidents … [and it] does not fit with the current situation of democratization in the country.” (Cosgrove, supra.)

Background

The Emergency Provisions Act was adopted just two years after the country became independent from Great Britain, at a time when leaders felt its provisions were necessary to maintain unity. It has not been enforced since the democratically elected government of the National League for Democracy, the party of famed dissident Aung San Syuu Kyi, came into power in March 2016, ending decades of government by the Burmese military and its allies. (Wai Moe, Myanmar Repeals 1950 Law Long Used to Silence Dissidents, NEW YORK TIMES (Oct. 5, 2016); Wai Moe & Austin Ramzy, Myanmar Lawmakers Name Htin Kyaw President, Affirming Civilian Rule, NEW YORK TIMES (Mar. 15, 2016).)

Under the Myanmar Constitution, military-appointed members still comprise a portion of the legislature, and they had favored retaining the 1950 law for security reasons. The National League for Democracy had countered that concern, noting that other laws can be used to maintain order. (Wai Moe, supra; Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (May 29, 2008), art. 74, BURMA LIBRARY.)

Continuing Human Rights Issues

Other laws that remain in force, including the Electronic Transactions Law, have been used against journalists. That Law punishes with up to five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine anyone who digitally distributes information “detrimental to the interest of or to lower the dignity of any organization or any person.” (Wai Moe, supra; Electronic Transactions Law (Apr. 30, 2004), art. 34(d), UNITED NATIONS PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION NETWORK.)

U Bo Kyi, who had been imprisoned twice under the Emergency Provisions Act, stated on October 5 that by abolishing the Emergency Provisions Act Burma had acted positively, but he pointed out that there are still 200 political prisoners held under other provisions. Human Rights Watch researcher David Mathieson stated that Burma should repeal or amend “a whole raft of rights-abusing laws still on the books … .” (Wai Moe, supra.) Commenting on the human rights situation in general, Human Rights Watch noted that

Despite a significantly improved environment for freedom of expression and media, in key areas the government’s commitment to improving the human rights situation has faltered or failed, with an increasing number of political prisoners. Discrimination and threats against the Muslim minority in Burma, a manifestation of growing ultra-nationalism, has [sic] intensified. The Rohingya Muslim minority continues to face statelessness and systematic persecution. (Burma, Human Rights Watch website (last visited Oct. 6, 2016).)