A Burmese ministry’s ban on assemblies and processions in central Yangon deprives people of their basic right to peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s friends and donors should remind the government of its stated commitments to protect basic rights such as freedom of assembly, association, and expression.
The ban, reportedly set forth in a directive issued in early November 2017 by Yangon Region Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Aung Soe Moe, instructs police in 11 townships in Yangon to deny all applications for processions or assemblies to avoid “public annoyance and anxiety.” The directive sets aside one small area of Yangon for all protests.
“There is no legitimate reason for imposing a ban on all protests in major sections of Burma’s largest city,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This directive was issued by a military officer and should be seen by the civilian government as a direct challenge to its commitment to basic rights for Burmese citizens. The government needs to reverse this ban and uphold the rule of law and refuse to capitulate to arbitrary actions by the military.”
Under international human rights law, governments are obligated to facilitate peaceful assemblies within sight and sound of their target audience.
The directive, which precludes protests near Yangon’s City Hall, most government offices, and many foreign embassies, makes it impossible for those protesting against government policies or acts of foreign governments to demonstrate anywhere near the target of their protests.
While governments can impose reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions on specific assemblies, they have the burden of showing that doing so is necessary to protect a legitimate interest, and that the restriction is a proportionate response to the perceived risk. The stated justifications for the ban, which include public nuisance and traffic congestion, are insufficient to justify the broad and open-ended burden placed on the right to peaceful assembly. As United Nations human rights experts have made clear, a certain level of disruption to ordinary life caused by assemblies, including disruption of traffic, annoyance, and even harm to commercial activities, must be tolerated if the right to peaceful assembly is not to be deprived of substance.
More importantly, a blanket ban on all assemblies in a given area is by nature disproportionate because it precludes consideration of the specific circumstances of each proposed assembly.
The directive also appears to conflict with Burma’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, enacted in October 2016. That law, while flawed, was a step forward in protection of freedom of assembly in Burma. Unlike the assembly law it replaced, which required organizers to get government “consent” for any assembly or procession, the 2016 law requires only that organizers give notice of a planned assembly or procession 48 hours in advance. It does not authorize the police to deny permission for the protest or procession, and only the Ministry of Home Affairs – also controlled by the military – is authorized to issue bylaws, regulations, and orders governing the implementation of the law.
“Central Yangon should not become a protest-free zone,” Adams said. “The directive should be withdrawn and the police should instead be instructed to ensure that assemblies take place in safety, and to manage traffic to minimize any disruption.”