(New York) – The authorities in Burma should stop arresting peaceful protesters and immediately and unconditionally free those imprisoned, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s donors should press for amendments to Burmese law so that it protects the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression.

“Burmese authorities are escalating arrests of people protesting peacefully over things like land and education,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Many have been sentenced to ridiculous prison sentences, undercutting government claims that it is genuinely reformist.”

Despite the passage of supposed reforms to the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (“the Peaceful Assembly Law”) in June 2014, Human Rights Watch said that Burmese authorities have arrested dozens of people for peaceful protests in recent months. Among those arrested for “unauthorized” assemblies were:

  • On December 31, 2014, Tin Tun Aung, a land rights activist, was sentenced to one month in prison for violating the Peaceful Assembly Law during a protest by thousands of farmers about land takings he organized in Magwe region in September. At sentencing he was given the choice of paying a 10,000 Kyat (US$10) fine or a one-month prison term. He chose the prison term, arguing that paying any fine was an admission of guilt.
  • On December 30, 2014, Naw Ohn Hla, Sein Htwe, Nay Myo Zin, and Ko Tin Htut Paing were arrested outside the Chinese embassy in Rangoon when they were peacefully protesting against the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Monywa and the killing by police of an unarmed protester at the mine site on December 22. The four were charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law and several provisions of the penal code, including rioting, obscenity, preventing a public servant from the discharge of his duty, offenses against public tranquillity, and intimidation. In two court appearances on January 13 and 20, additional section 18 charges were laid by other township authorities. All four have been denied bail. The authorities have since arrested and charged several other individuals involved in the protest.
  • On December 22, 2014, 14 people who participated in a two-week peaceful protest against land evictions outside Rangoon’s Town Hall building  were arrested and charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law and for obstructing the sidewalk (section 341) under the Penal Code. They were released on bail and appeared in court in early January. The case is ongoing.
  • On December 21, 2014, five leaders of a peaceful protest in Rangoon, including prominent former political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi, were charged by South Okkalapa township police under the Peaceful Assembly Law for relocating a demonstration away from the site approved by authorities. The group of about 100 were protesting the acquisition of a sports field by authorities for a construction project.
  • Also in December, more than 30 student protesters, most from the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), were charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law for a series of protests throughout Burma against the controversial National Education Bill being considered by the national parliament. The protesters were granted bail.
  • The authorities have also used the Peaceful Assembly Law to arrest solo protesters, even though it defines a “peaceful assembly” as one comprised of “more than one person.” For example, Zaw Mying was arrested on International Peace Day and charged under the law for a solo protest in which he held signs with slogans such as, “Please let hate and grudges end in the 20th century,” and “We want to be proud of our country in the international community.”

Burdensome Process and Onerous Terms
Protesters can be charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law for violating one of a variety of limitations that the law places on freedom of speech and assembly. Those wishing to hold an assembly must apply for “consent” to do so five days in advance. The organizer of an assembly held without a permit is criminally liable even if the assembly was peaceful and caused no disruption of public order. 

The application process not only requires basic date, time, and place information about the planned assembly, but seeks unnecessarily invasive information about the assembly’s purpose and schedule, the names and addresses of organizers and speakers, and even the chants they wish to use. Those who recite or shout chants “other than the ones approved” may be jailed for up to three months. In a country with a long history of repression of protests under military rule, such provisions can easily intimidate protest organizers and participants.
The authorities have often consented to protests with onerous terms and then arrested demonstrators for failing to comply with those terms, even if the protests passed off peacefully and there was no reasonable basis for imposing those terms. Consent for protests in Rangoon, for instance, have sometimes limited the protest site to Kyaikkasan Race Track, which is nowhere near the government offices that are often a target of the protests and out of public view. Protesters who have then held their assembly in a more appropriate location have been arrested.

Protesters can also be arrested for violating various vague and broadly phrased limits placed on speech by the statute. They must not “talk or behave in a way to cause any disturbance or obstruction, annoyance, danger or a concern that these might take place.” They “must not say things... that could affect the country or the Union, race, or religion, human dignity and moral principles.” Finally, they “must not spread rumors or incorrect information.” Violation of any of these restrictions can result in a sentence of up to three months in jail.

Under international law, restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly must be formulated with sufficient precision to enable an individual to regulate his or her conduct accordingly. People participating in an assembly cannot know what might be considered to cause “annoyance” or affect “human dignity and moral principles,” nor can they know what the police might consider “incorrect” information.  Moreover, the vague and subjective terms in the statute facilitate abuse by officials looking for a way to silence government critics or others saying things the government does not like.

The restriction on speech that may “disturb” or “annoy” others is particularly troublesome. As the European Court of Human Rights concluded in 1976, freedom of expression is applicable not only to information or ideas “that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” The fact that others may be offended by the speech is not a basis on which to restrict what is said at the assembly, but rather a reason to facilitate and protect the assembly.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, has stressed that those wishing to exercise their right to peaceful assembly should not be required to obtain permission to do so. The imposition of criminal penalties on individuals who fail to ask the government for consent to exercise their right to peaceful assembly is an unacceptable interference with their right to freedom of assembly under international law. The government has an obligation to facilitate peaceful assemblies “within sight and sound” of their intended target. When it fails to meet that obligation, arresting and prosecuting those who seek to assemble in a more appropriate venue is a disproportionate and inappropriate response.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Burma to immediately and unconditionally release all those arrested for participating in peaceful protests. The Peaceful Assembly Law and the Penal Code should be amended to:

  • Require only notification, not prior government approval, for holding peaceful protests;
  • Eliminate criminal sanctions for unauthorized peaceful protests;
  • Significantly narrow the overly broad statutory restrictions on free expression, including by removing the ban on “incorrect” information and limits on political speech, and ending the requirement to identify chants in advance.

“The arrest of peaceful protesters does not augur well as Burma heads towards elections later this year,” Adams said. “Election season will see many protests, which must be permitted and protected if the process is going to be truly democratic. There is no reason parliament can’t promptly amend the laws to allow protests in line with international standards.”