(Rangoon) – Burma’s new government should use its parliamentary majority to repeal or amend the many military and colonial-era laws used to criminalize peaceful speech and assembly, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

“Successive Burmese governments have enacted broad, vaguely worded laws to control and criminalize basic freedoms, creating thousands of political prisoners,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The new government, led by the National League for Democracy, has moved quickly to release many of those imprisoned for peaceful expression or protest and to drop charges against others. But it’s crucial that the legal infrastructure of repression be dismantled so that there is no chance Burma will ever hold political prisoners again.”

The 113-page report, “They Can Arrest You at Any Time’: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Burma,” documents the use and abuse of a range of broad and vaguely worded laws to criminalize peaceful expression, including debates on matters of public interest, and provides specific recommendations for the repeal or amendment of those laws.

The report is based on an in-depth analysis of provisions of Burma’s Penal Code, as well as laws such as the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law, the Telecommunications Act, and the News Media Law. It draws on interviews with individuals prosecuted under these laws, as well as journalists, civil society activists, and lawyers. Detailed recommendations spell out specific legislative reforms that the government should tackle without delay.

The past five years have been a time of liberalization and change in Burma, but under former President Thein Sein, those who embraced the new freedoms to vocally criticize the government or military often found themselves arrested and convicted. This backlash against critics was facilitated by laws that violate internationally protected rights to expression and peaceful assembly, some dating from the British colonial era, some enacted under successive military juntas, and others the products of ostensible reform efforts by the Thein Sein government. As Pang Long, an attorney in Rangoon, told Human Rights Watch in January 2016: “They can arrest you at any time under these laws. There is no guarantee.”

Laws penalizing assemblies.
 

Laws penalizing speech.

One of the most abused laws is the 2012 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law, which has been used to arrest and prosecute large numbers of peaceful protesters over the past few years, including students protesting the military’s involvement in government, farmers who protested the confiscation of their land for mines or military installations, journalists who protested the arrest of other journalists, and even a solo protester who called for national unity. Charges under the Peaceful Assembly Law were often combined with charges under section 505(b) of the Penal Code, a broadly worded provision that criminalizes speech “likely to cause alarm to the public.” For example, students Zeyar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, and Nan Lin were arrested, held without bail, and charged with two counts under each of those laws. As a result, they faced the possibility of up to five years in prison, until charges were dropped by new government.

The release of those arrested during Thein Sein’s presidency has been offset by new arrests of peaceful protesters in April and May 2016. While the new assembly law passed by parliament’s upper house in late May is a significant improvement over the 2012 act, it retains many of the same flaws and should be amended in line with international standards.

Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act has been used to arrest and prosecute those viewed as having “insulted” the government or military, or somehow casting them in a bad light. For example, both humanitarian worker Patrick Khum Jaa Lee and activist Chaw Sandi Tun served six months in jail for Facebook posts deemed “insulting” to the military commander-in-chief.

The criminal defamation provisions of the Penal Code and the News Media Law have been used to prosecute journalists for reports critical of the government. Five journalists from Unity Journal were sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014, later reduced to seven, under the Official Secrets Act. The journalists were among those released in April by the new government, but the law used to imprison them remains intact.

“After its landslide election victory, the new government has a mandate to overhaul Burmese law to ensure that everyone can peacefully express their views without a knock on the door from the police or being hauled into court and charged with a crime,” Adams said. “But the window for bold reforms will not stay open forever, so the government should put this at the top of its agenda when parliament reconvenes.”