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Violations expose Myanmar reforms as a sham

The changes have made little difference in reality

  • Renato G. Mabunga, Manila
  • International
  • November 6, 2012
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Myanmar’s parliament was to debate on Monday a proposal to abolish a provision in the 1975 State Protection Act that allows the government to restrict the fundamental rights of people suspected of "endangering state sovereignty and security, public peace and tranquility."

The proposal is the latest among legislative initiatives that are part of Myanmar's "reform process," although freedoms of expression, assembly and association continue to be systematically violated.

The purported legislative reforms, with the enactment of several new laws and the review of existing ones, have largely resulted in new forms of controls and restrictions that are applied selectively.

Myanmar's reform process has resulted in little, if any, improvement on the respect for fundamental freedoms on the ground. It has become largely an empty showcase to appease the international community.

A fact finding mission conducted by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) from October 24 to 30 discovered that the rights to peaceful assembly and of association of particular groups, including former political prisoners, labor rights activists, student unions, and members of ethnic nationalities, are still being denied.

An array of laws that restrict the fundamental freedoms of the rights to expression, assembly and association, including the Emergency Act, the Unlawful Association Act, and the 1988 law relating to the formation of associations, remain.

The right to freedom of assembly, in particular, has been denied to groups that are considered "sensitive" or threatening to the government.

In the last two months alone, scores of individuals have been arrested for organizing and participating in peaceful assemblies.

In September, 13 leaders, organizers, and participants of peaceful assemblies to mark International Peace Day were summoned and subsequently charged under the 2012 Decree on the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession after their application for a permit was rejected by the government.

Leaders and organizers of peaceful demonstrations, including protest actions against a mining project in the Letpadaung region, are also facing threats and harassment from authorities.

However, some street demonstrations were allowed to proceed, including the anti-Rohingya protest actions of Buddhist monks and university students in Rakhine state.

These double standards in the implementation of the law call into question the universal principles of Buddhism on peace, harmony, wisdom and understanding.

The continued violations of fundamental freedoms and new forms of control expose the empty façade of Myanmar's reform process. Human rights protection in Myanmar will remain illusory if fundamental freedoms are not properly safeguarded in the current legal reforms.

Renato Mabunga is chairman of Human Rights Defenders, a lobbyist at the UN Human Rights Council and a regional educator on human rights. He was in Myanmar last week to assess freedoms of expression, assembly and association in the country on behalf of FORUM-ASIA
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