(New York) – Burma’s parliament should amend a proposed law on public protest to better protect rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The Peaceful Processions and Peaceful Assembly Act improves upon existing Burmese law, but retains criminal penalties and contains overly broad and vague restrictions on speech contrary to international standards.
“The new Burmese government has moved quickly to replace the country’s flawed assembly law, which has been used to imprison numerous activists for years,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “However, the proposed law needs significant revisions to bring it up to international standards.”
The Bill Committee, in the National League for Democracy dominated Parliament, should consult with Burmese legal experts and nongovernmental organizations to ensure the draft law fully protects the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The bill greatly improves upon existing law by not requiring government consent for a demonstration, requiring instead that notice be given 48 hours in advance. Additionally, the draft law, by requiring that any charges be brought within 15 days of the assembly and limiting them to where the assembly began, precludes two of the most abusive practices under current law – charging protesters months and even years after the protest and in multiple townships for the same offense.
However, the draft maintains the fundamental problem of existing law by allowing criminal penalties for violating any of the law’s broadly worded restrictions on speech, for deviating from the assembly’s specified location, and for failing to give notice. Current provisions have been used to arrest and prosecute over a hundred people since the law was enacted in 2012. The criminal penalties should be excised, since no one should be held criminally liable for merely organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly.
The draft law also allows the police to order the dispersal of an assembly for failure to give notice and for violation of minor rules, in violation of international legal standards. Dispersal should be a matter of last resort, and should only occur where there is an imminent threat of violence.
The law’s notification system, while a major improvement over the “consent” requirement of the existing law, is overly burdensome and should be simplified. By requiring information on the “topic” of the assembly and the “slogans” that will be used – and imposing criminal penalties on those who deviate from the specified slogans – the law contravenes international standards for protection of freedom of expression by giving the government control over the content of the assembly. It also fails to provide an exemption from the notice requirements for spontaneous assemblies for which it is impracticable to give advance notice.
“The National League for Democracy says there won’t be political prisoners during their government. But unless this proposed law is amended, peaceful protesters are likely to find themselves in jail,” Adams said. “The government needs legal reforms that don’t just weaken the tools of repression, but removes them entirely.”
The draft law also contains blanket prohibitions on speech at protests that “affects the State or the Union, race, or religion, human dignity, and moral principles.” Such overly broad prohibitions on speech violate the right to freedom of expression. Critical statements about “the State or the Union” are at the heart of internationally protected speech.
The prohibition on speech that may cause “disturbance” or “annoyance” is similarly problematic. Under international law, even speech that is deeply offensive remains protected. While incitement to violence is prohibited, the fact that others may be disturbed or offended by the speech is no basis for restricting what is said at an assembly.
The draft retains other flaws from the existing law, including limits on the rights of non-citizens to assemble. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “everyone” has the right to peacefully assemble, which includes non-citizens. Successive Burmese governments have denied most ethnic Rohingya Muslims citizenship under the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law, meaning that the law denies many members of an already marginalized community the right to peacefully assemble.
“Burma’s parliament needs to plug some very big holes in an otherwise promising law on freedom of assembly,” Adams said. “They should not hesitate to turn to expertise both inside and outside of Burma to get it right and avoid the serious problems of the past.”