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The new NLD-led government dropped the charges against him and released him from prison in April Even for those who are granted bail, the prolonged trial process can have severe consequences.

The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Burma | HRW

I could not do any work on those days. The court would say to be there at 9 a. I am the chief reporter for my journal. If there is a press conference in Naypyidaw, I would have to check with the court, and often they would say I could not go. There was psychological impact as well. Research for this report began in May and continued until just prior to this publication. The report also draws on court judgments and news reports concerning criminal proceedings in relevant cases, and public statements by the Thein Sein government. For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 lawyers, journalists, students, activists, and members of civil society organizations.

Email correspondence continued until the time of publication. Most interviews were conducted in Burmese, using an interpreter. All of those interviewed were told of the purpose of the interviews and given a choice regarding whether or not to be quoted in the public report. No incentives were offered or provided to interviewees. Where possible Human Rights Watch used official translations of Burmese laws. For these laws, Human Rights Watch used translations by reputable organizations.

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In some cases, Human Rights Watch used external translators. Given the vague language used in some of the laws and the difficulties in translating from Burmese to English, some of the legal provisions can be translated using slightly different words or sentence structures. We do not believe that these differences significantly affect the analysis of any of the laws offered here. This report is not meant to offer a comprehensive examination of all laws that criminalize free speech in Burma, but instead to focus on laws that have proven to be most prone to misuse.

Burma established its independence from British colonial rule in In March , after only 14 years of democratic civilian rule, Gen. Ne Win seized power in a military coup. Ne Win dissolved parliament and state legislatures, arrested political leaders, and effectively suspended the Constitution.

The new ruling council revoked habeas corpus and other legal rights, and dismantled the judicial system in favor of a Chief Court that lacked independence from the executive. With parliament suspended, Ne Win and the Revolutionary Council ruled through decree. In July , students held a mass meeting in the assembly hall of the Rangoon University student union building. As the meeting came to a conclusion, riot police appeared and took over the building. A melee resulted, and soldiers entered the campus.

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Aung San, the father of Burmese independence. The authorities subsequently closed the university for four months. In concert with shutting down protests on university campuses, the Revolutionary Council also took aim at press freedom. In , the Revolutionary Council passed the Printers and Publishers Registration Act—a law that remained in effect until , when parliament replaced it with a new Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law. The authorities used the law to pressure publications to restrict critical content and to include pro-junta editorials. In addition to taking control over news content distribution via News Agency Burma NAB , throughout the s the Revolutionary Council banned or nationalized most private news and book publications in Burma.


The Revolutionary Council limited freedom of expression among the religious class to rein in the political influence of Buddhist monks, who had a history of public protest. The government arrested all monks who refused to register and closed down any monasteries that fostered anti-government dissent. In , in the midst of a protracted economic downturn, Ne Win retired from the military and oversaw the transition from the military-led Revolutionary Council to a nominally civilian-led government run by the Burma Socialist Programme Party BSPP , of which he was the head.

After a strictly controlled public vote, the new Constitution went into effect at the beginning of Ne Win became president of the country. The military then imposed martial law over Rangoon, which remained in place until September Ne Win formally retired as president in , but continued to effectively run the country through his role as head of the BSPP. Ne Win resigned under pressure in July but the protests continued, culminating in mass street protests on August 8, calling for a transition to democracy and an end to military rule.

Saw Maung, acted with extreme force, killing at least 3, protesters and shutting down universities for months. Aung San, gained national prominence as a pro-democracy leader. Over the next six months, membership in the NLD soared and Suu Kyi spoke out repeatedly against the junta. In July , the military raided her house and placed her under house arrest on spurious charges that she was being manipulated by another political party and was involved in an international conspiracy.

Under pressure both domestically and abroad, the junta called a general election in In the run-up to the election it imposed numerous rules intended to thwart campaigning by the opposition, including prohibiting large meetings and assemblies, forbidding opposing parties from distributing party literature unless cleared by the Home Ministry, preventing parties from holding public talks, and denying parties access to television airtime until the final three months of the election. Despite the restrictions, the NLD scored an overwhelming electoral victory in , winning out of parliamentary seats, including all 59 seats in the Rangoon Division.

In the ensuing years, the SPDC oversaw a proliferation of laws restricting freedom of expression in new media, including the Internet Law , which imposed regulations on postings deemed detrimental to the country, its policies, or its security, [32] and the Electronic Transactions Law , which criminalized electronic transactions that compromised state security, the economy, national solidarity, culture, or community peace and tranquility.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in and went on a speaking tour around the country. On May 30, members of the pro-government Union Solidarity Development Association USDA viciously attacked her motorcade in Depayin in upper Burma, killing as many as 70 of her supporters in a possible attempted murder of the opposition leader.

But the reconvened National Convention was no more representative than the original body, particularly since the NLD delegates had been expelled in after the party announced its boycott of the process. In August , a massive increase in fuel prices sparked protests that the government quickly suppressed. Security forces shot into crowds using live ammunition and rubber bullets, beat marchers and monks before dragging them onto trucks, and arbitrarily detained thousands of people in official and unofficial places of detention.

Many monks, students, and others were killed. The authorities arrested many activists, who were sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials. At least 14 members of the 88 Generation Student Group, an activist group founded by students involved in the uprising, were sentenced to up to 65 years in prison under the Electronic Transactions Act, section b of the Penal Code, the Printing and Publishing Registration Law, the Video Act, and other repressive laws restricting freedom of expression.

Facing renewed criticism following the crackdown and international calls for democratic reform, the SPDC in October created a member Commission for Drafting the State Constitution. On May 2, , just eight days before the scheduled vote on the referendum, Cyclone Nargis slammed into the country, dragging thousands out to sea in the first few hours.

Four-meter waves reaching up to 30 kilometers inland ripped across the delta areas, destroying low-lying areas of the country in the Irrawaddy and parts of Rangoon Division, the economic heart of the nation. Following the storm, more than two million people were in desperate need of food, clothing, clean water, and shelter.

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Official estimates place the death toll at ,, but aid groups estimated the death toll to be over twice as high. The vote was denounced internationally as neither free nor fair. In other areas, authorities simply informed the villagers that they had already voted after recording their names.

Although the Constitution provides for a civilian-controlled democratic government, the military retains a significant role in running the country. The main conduit of this power is the commander-in-chief, the appointed leader of the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw. The Constitution establishes a tripartite system of government, with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

The laws passed by the Union Legislature have supremacy over those passed by the regional and state legislatures. This arrangement in the legislature gives the military certain powers over the civilian government. Passing constitutional amendments requires more than 75 percent of the votes in the Union Legislature. Control of 25 percent of those votes ensures that the military will have to consent to any fundamental changes.

With 25 percent of the seats, the military does not, however, have the ability to block normal legislation, which requires only a simple majority. The military also has significant power in the executive branch. The commander-in-chief has power to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs, [56] as well as regional ministers of security and border affairs. From the military coup until the present, Burmese courts have lacked independence, a fundamental requirement under international law.

Under pressure and orders from the authorities, judges have routinely convicted those charged by the government with political crimes, even when the accused have done nothing more than engage in peaceful criticism of the authorities. Sentences have often been extremely harsh. On November 8, , Burma held its first parliamentary elections in 20 years. There was considerable international condemnation of the elections for lack of fairness, [63] with monitors reporting a range of abuses, including fraud and coercion, on election day.

Following the election, the military-led junta nevertheless took steps to formally relinquish control of the administration of the country to a quasi-civilian government as it had promised. Significant changes with respect to government policies relating to the freedom of expression, assembly, and association followed close on the heels of the transition.

In August , the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department PSRD announced that reporters were no longer required to submit work to state censors prior to publishing, ending the year policy. Even as privately owned media organizations proliferated and some old restrictions fell away, the process of liberalization was uneven.

New laws that had positive aspects and represented a trend towards openness often failed to meet domestic and international expectations for protection of rights. Taking nearly 80 percent of the contested parliamentary seats, the NLD obtained a clear majority in both houses. On March 30, , the country swore in its first elected civilian president, Htin Kyaw, while Aung San Suu Kyi, who was barred from the presidency by the Constitution, [76] became State Counsellor.

One of the first acts of the new government was to order the release of dozens of political prisoners, including many of those whose prosecutions are documented in this report. While the release of the prisoners is an essential first step, it is crucial that the laws that were used to arrest and detain them be amended or repealed.

In the absence of legal reform, the potential for abusive arrests under overly broad laws— either by a police force not fully under the control of central government or by a future administration—remains unchecked. The rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly are universally protected under international human rights conventions and customary law. These rights are not only important liberties in themselves, but they are crucial for helping to ensure that all other rights—civil, political, economic, social, and cultural—are accessible to all persons.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has the endorsement of every UN member state, is considered broadly reflective of customary law. These treaties, declarations, and the court judgments deriving from them demonstrate the global acceptance of the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration, and provide useful perspectives on the appropriate interpretation of those rights. The rights to free expression, association, and assembly can be found in several widely ratified international human rights conventions, mostly notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ICCPR.

The ICCPR, in article 19 3 , permits governments to impose restrictions or limitations on freedom of expression only if such restrictions are provided by law and are necessary: a for respect of the rights or reputations of others; or b for the protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals. General Comment no. International law permits governments to take action against advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to violence, discrimination, or hostility.

When analyzed pursuant to these standards, a number of the laws currently in effect in Burma impose limitations on expression that go far beyond the restrictions that are permitted by international law. Successive governments in Burma have long used an arsenal of overly broad and vaguely worded laws to harass, arrest, and prosecute individuals for their peaceful expression. Some of these laws are carried over from the British colonial era while others are recently enacted.

This section describes those laws, identifying provisions that do not meet international standards for the protection of freedom of expression and assembly, and examines how they have been used to criminalize the peaceful exercise of those rights. The Peaceful Assembly Law required those wishing to hold a peaceful assembly to first obtain the consent of the government. The law, as passed by the upper house, [] eliminates the need for government consent, replacing it with a requirement that those planning an assembly give notice 48 hours in advance, in a move that places the law more in line with international standards.

However, the new law does not go far enough. The sole purpose of the notice requirement should be to allow the government to facilitate an assembly by, for example, closing roads or redirecting traffic. The new law continues to require, as the law did, that the applicant state not only the date, time, and place of the planned assembly and the approximate number of attendees, but also the purpose and topic of the assembly, the words or slogans that protesters will chant, the name and complete address of the leader and the speakers, and the agenda for the assembly.

The law also fails to providean explicit exception to the notice requirements where giving such notice is impracticable due to the spontaneous nature of the assembly. Both the and Peaceful Assembly Laws require those seeking to hold an assembly to specify not only information regarding location and size, which may be useful to the government in determining how best to facilitate or provide security for the assembly, but also information relating to the content of the assembly. By requiring information about the content of the proposed assembly, the law enabled the authorities to ban assemblies intended to convey messages with which the government disagreed.

For example, Phyo Wai Kyaw applied to the Myoma police three times, in April, July, and October , for consent to hold a solo protest calling for the elimination of bribery in the court system. While the notification regime set forth in the law makes prior censorship or control of content more difficult, it still includes criminal penalties for those who chant slogans not specified in the notice and authorizes the police to disperse an assembly for violation of any rules, including the rules prohibiting chanting slogans or displaying signs not specified in the notice.

Participants in assemblies should be free to choose and express the content of their message without government interference, as long as they do not advocate imminent violence or discrimination against an individual or clearly defined group of persons. In some cases under the law, the authorities gave consent for an assembly but limited the assembly to a location that was nowhere near the people or institutions the organizers sought to influence.

For example, authorities in Rangoon limited some assemblies to the Tamwae Protest Ground, an enclosed space far from any government offices and out of public view. They then arrested protesters who chose to hold their assembly in a more relevant location. Both the and assembly laws impose a number of vaguely defined and overly broad restrictions on the speech of the participants.

The use of vague terms leaves the law subject to abuse by officials looking for a way to silence critics of the government or others who are saying things the government does not like. Article 10 of the Peaceful Assembly Law authorizes the police to disperse an assembly for failure to follow any of the rules imposed by the law. The Peaceful Assembly Law permitted only citizens and organizations to apply for consent to hold an assembly, and the Peaceful Assembly Law allows only citizens and organizations to give notice of an assembly.

The most problematic and most abused provision in the Peaceful Assembly Law was article 18, which authorized the imposition of criminal penalties of up to six months in prison for carrying out peaceful assembly without prior consent. The Peaceful Assembly Law held the organizer of an assembly carried out without consent criminally liable even if the assembly was peaceful and caused no disruption of public order, and was repeatedly used to arrest the organizers of purely peaceful protests. International norms establish that no one should be held criminally liable for the mere act of organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly.

Articles 18 and 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law were used extensively to arrest and prosecute peaceful protesters speaking out on matters of public interest. Those who faced charges included students who protested against the new national education law, farmers who protested the confiscation of their land for mines or military barracks, individuals who protested about the role of the military in government, individuals who protested against the arrest and detention of students or journalists, the organizer of a silent communal prayer for detained journalists, and even individuals who staged solo protests.

A few examples of such prosecutions are discussed below. Win Cho is a long-time political activist whose more recent political activism was sparked by the passage of the Constitution. According to Win Cho:. As a result of his efforts to encourage others to exercise the rights enshrined in the Constitution, Win Cho was charged with violating article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law 34 times between and He was arrested on April 1, for organizing a protest in front of City Hall in Rangoon for ethnic Kachin farmers whose land had been confiscated.

According to Win Cho, they applied for permission for the protest, but permission was denied. Win Cho also served three months in prison for his involvement in a peaceful protest about rising electricity prices held in front of Rangoon City Hall in March He paid fines in four other cases, and the remaining charges against him were dropped as part of a presidential amnesty in December Shwe Hmone told the police that they would cancel the protest and just pray at Sule Pagoda if they were not given permission to protest near the pagoda.

We explained about World Impunity Day. We said we were not people trying to destabilize the country. We tried to convince him but he said no. So, rather than holding a protest with speeches and other activity, it was decided simply to gather and pray for the journalists arrested and imprisoned in , as she and others had done on several other occasions. This is a tradition of the country. The group of approximately people entered the pagoda from the east corner, went once around the pagoda, then stopped at the Sunday Corner to light candles and pray silently.

According to Shwe Hmone, the prayer lasted about three minutes; the entire event, from the time people started gathering to when they dispersed, lasted about an hour. About six months later, on May 16, , Shwe Hmone received a call informing her that there was an open case against her. She was charged with violating article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law by protesting at a place other than the one permitted. She refused to pay the fine, but others present in the courtroom collected money and paid the fine for her. She is appealing her conviction. She asked for right to information and media freedom and look what happened.

It is like putting a gun in the mouths of the people. Although the Peaceful Assembly Law defines a peaceful assembly or procession as a gathering of more than one person, [] the law has been repeatedly used to prosecute individuals engaged in solo protests. For example, Zaw Myint was arrested for holding a solo protest on International Peace Day, September 22, , calling for national unity. He had applied for permission to hold the protest in Naypyidaw, but permission was denied on the grounds that his protest might alarm the public. While these provisions appear to be directed at violent gatherings, the definition of unlawful assembly in section is overly broad.

By criminalizing such assemblies without regard to whether or not they are actually violent, the law violates international norms for protection of the right of peaceful assembly. Under international law, an assembly should be deemed peaceful so long as its organizers have not professed violent intentions and the conduct of the assembly is non-violent. Similarly, individuals who do not engage in violence or incitement to violence cannot, under international law, be held responsible for the actions of those who do.

A recent example of this practice was the treatment of students protesting against the National Education Law. After months of escalating tensions in between the Ministry of Education and student unions who said that students had been insufficiently consulted about the proposed national education law, a number of student groups throughout Burma staged marches from regional centers towards Rangoon. During the first week of March, police stopped one such group from advancing further south towards Rangoon. However, authorities gave students assurances that on March 10 at 11 a.

Although he agreed to be arrested peacefully, he was beaten with riot batons and kicked repeatedly. He was then made to pass through two lines of police officers, with his hands tied behind his back, while police kicked him in his legs. When he fell, they continued kicking him and beat him using riot batons. Min Thwe Thit said the beatings were so harsh that some of the batons were broken over the protesters and, when they were no longer useable, some police began beating the protesters with their fiberglass helmets. He was held in jail from the time of his arrest until charges against him were dropped by the new NLD-led government in April , despite being diagnosed with stomach cancer in January.

Law and Custom in Burma and the Burmese Family

Min Thwe Thit was one of over students arrested that day, many of whom suffered injuries from police violence. Ultimately 87 students and supporters were charged with criminal offenses, and as of the date when the new Parliament was sworn in, 48 remained. This gesture is taken so seriously, even waiters at a restaurant do it before passing your plate! Another part of social respect requires the use of titles before personal names.

If you are unsure how to address someone, it is safe to ask. The Burmese tend to be very understanding of foreigners and will do their best to make you feel at home. Not sure if volunteering in Myanmar is right for you? Save This Article. Tags Culture. Recommended Programs. Find Volunteer Abroad Programs in Myanmar. Why Volunteer Abroad in Myanmar? Read All Articles.

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