Concerns grow over freedom of expression in Myanmar

Activists fear changes to law on peaceful assembly could allow authorities to order arrests on security grounds
Concerns grow over freedom of expression in Myanmar

A portrait of Myanmar's state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is seen as activists demonstrate in Yangon on March 5 against what they believe are repressive additional sections in the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Act. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

Amendments to laws governing demonstrations could be used to curb freedom of expression in Myanmar, civil society groups have warned.

Thet Swe Win, an interfaith activist and director of the Centre for Youth and Social Harmony, complained that local authorities would be able to order arrests on security grounds.

Language used in the amendments to the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Act was not in line with democratic values, Thet Swe Win told ucanews.com.

He added that neither the government of Aung San Suu Kyi nor the parliament properly discussed the legal changes with rights groups.

Thet Swe Win expressed concern that Suu Kyi's incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) could itself become authoritarian.

Changes to the 2011 protest law provide for three-year jail terms for undermining security or "moral interests of the people" through financial support or otherwise.

The amended law would require demonstration organizers to reveal budget details and funding sources.

On March 5, hundreds of people took to the streets of former capital Yangon to protest the amendments and about 190 civil society groups have signed a petition against them.

Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, a Yangon-based NGO, acknowledged that the government's aim was to guard against ultra-nationalist unrest as well as religious or racial violence.

However, he said wording of the amendments was so far-reaching that local authorities could use them to arrest peaceful protesters.

Aung Myo Min told ucanews.com that the government should not fear legitimate criticism that, if heeded, could only make it stronger.

Suu Kyi's administration has backed the amendments despite the outcry.

But some of her NLD MPs objected to the new measures when they were debated in the Upper House on March 5.

Hla Hla Soe, an NLD Upper House lawmaker, agreed that the wording of the amendments could be used to stem legitimate dissent. "Freedoms of assembly and expression are fundamental human rights," he said.

NLD spokesman Nyan Win could not be reached for comment.

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The NLD government came to power in 2016, formally ending decades of repressive military rule.

The new government eased restrictions on demonstrations but criminal sanctions remained.

Rights advocates have expressed concern over potential for a reversal of gains made since the political transition to democracy began in 2011.

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