Anti-coup demonstrators display placards supporting the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the group representing Myanmar's elected government ousted in the February 2021 military coup, in Mandalay, March 17, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar military junta’s designation of the group representing Myanmar’s elected government as an “unlawful association” raises the risks of arrest for anti-coup activists and journalists reporting on the group, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling State Administration Council should immediately repeal the abusive 1957 Unlawful Associations Act.

On March 21, 2021, the State Administration Council issued an order declaring the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and “its affiliated committees” to be an unlawful association under the country’s Unlawful Associations Act. Under the colonial-era law, Myanmar’s president can declare illegal any association he believes “has as its object interference with the administration of the law or with the maintenance of law and order,” or “constitutes a danger to the public peace.” Once a group has been designated unlawful, the law criminalizes almost any contact with or support of the group.

“The Unlawful Associations Act has an unsavory history of being used to prosecute political activists and journalists reporting on opposition groups,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “By making the CRPH illegal, Myanmar’s junta is raising the stakes not only for its members, but for anyone supporting, writing on, or even just contacting the group.”

Under section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, anyone who “is a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association, or in any way assists the operations of any such association” faces a minimum of two years and a maximum of three years in prison.

Under section 17(2), anyone who “manages or assists in the management of an unlawful association, or promotes or assists in promoting a meeting of any such association, or of any members thereof” faces a minimum of three years and a maximum of five years in prison.

The Unlawful Associations Act was frequently used in the 1990s to arbitrarily detain political activists. It has also been used to arrest and detain ethnic minority civilians in conflict-affected areas. After the Arakan Army was designated an unlawful association in March 2020, the law was used to arrest and prosecute dozens of people in Rakhine State for allegedly supporting the ethnic armed group.

The law has also been used to arrest and prosecute people for mere contact with an ethnic armed group, including two interfaith activists who were sentenced to two years at hard labor for allegedly visiting the Kachin Independence Army, and three reporters who traveled to cover and report on a drug burning ceremony held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

Aung Marm Oo, the chief editor of the Development Media Group, has been in hiding since learning, in May 2019, that police filed charges against him under the Unlawful Associations Act. Although the police never provided him with any written notice detailing the grounds for the charges, he believes the charges are linked to the media group’s reporting on the conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. Past practice indicates a high likelihood that the law will be used against journalists and others reporting on CRPH activities, Human Rights Watch said.

Journalists in Myanmar are already under serious threat from the military junta. Since the February 1 coup, the State Administration Council has banned five media outlets and arrested and detained nearly 40 journalists. Ten journalists have been charged with violating section 505A of the Penal Code, a broad new provision adopted by the junta. Under section 505A, anyone who makes comments that “cause fear,” spreads “false news,” or “agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a Government employee” faces up to three years in prison.

“The Unlawful Associations Act is an abusive colonial relic that should have been consigned to the dustbin years ago,” Lakhdhir said. “The junta should repeal the law and drop all charges under it that are currently pending.”