Robert Sann Aung’s business card tells you all you need to know about the Yangon-based advocate. “6th time former political prisoner [sic],” reads the calling card of the man who defends almost all activists brought to court in Myanmar. He is kept most busy by the country’s 2011 Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law — since the start of 2013, he has taken on 60 cases where people were charged under this law. Other lawyers are “too afraid” to take on such cases, said the advocate, who works pro-bono for activists. More cases keep adding to the stacks of paper filling his small first-floor office. They attest to the failure of a recent amendment backed by opposition lawmakers that activists had hoped would finally ensure the right to demonstrate ahead of all-important elections next year. Myanmar’s law governing all public gatherings — introduced by the reforming administration that had taken over from the military government earlier in 2011 — allowed people to take to the streets to press for change for the first time in decades. However, the law included the controversial Article 18, which required demonstrators to obtain permission from local authorities before protesting. It also set out punishments of up to one year in prison, and has become the most commonly laid charge in the jailing of activists in post-junta Myanmar.
Thank you. You are now
signed up to our Daily Full
The amendment put forward by National Democratic Force and National League for Democracy (NLD) members of parliament, which finally passed into law on June 24, was initially celebrated for cutting potential jail terms by half, and for seemingly removing the option for authorities to deny permission to protest. In reality, little has changed. Robert Sann Aung already has four cases on his books involving people who demonstrated — having given notice to authorities — while the amended law was in force. They include political activists, two lawyers who oppose a plan to change Myanmar’s electoral system to proportional representation, and a woman who demonstrated to demand that police prosecute her alleged rapist. “The amendment says ‘no denial’, but police still deny [permission] and set up these cases,” he told ucanews.com
. “Before [the amendment] it was actually easier to protest in downtown [Yangon].” Robert Sann Aung reads from a legal text at his office in Yangon (Photo by Simon Lewis) 'There are only ghosts there'
Authorities around the country have reportedly continued to reject protest applications, sometimes citing arbitrary rules about the application process or the period of notice required. Robert Sann Aung said some township authorities in the former capital’s busy downtown area have begun telling prospective demonstrators that they must instead stage rallies at a former horse racing stadium outside of the center. Kyaikkasan, the British colonial-era hippodrome, is mostly vacant and far from any foot traffic. “A protest is a message to the public, but Kyaikkasan is not a public place — there are only ghosts there,” Robert Sann Aung said, adding sardonically that if the authorities insisted on forcing protests into such a location, they should at least broadcast them. “If they show it on TV, then we would protest there,” he said. Some local authorities have defended their continued use of Article 18 to reject protest requests and subsequently charge peaceful protesters by referring to bylaws that have apparently not been replaced. But an analysis
by London-based freedom of expression campaigners ARTICLE 19 found that the law’s new wording is itself unclear, leaving it open to abuse by authorities. Andrew Smith, a legal officer for ARTICLE 19, said the way the law was amended — chiefly taking out a part saying authorities must decide whether or not to grant permission and then inform the applicants of the decision — had left the legislation with “very uncertain scope”. “Because the provisions that were left in it still give vague and discretionary powers to law enforcement, in effect what remains is a permission-based system, without the police and local authorities having any obligation to communicate a decision back to the people making the request, which at least existed in the previous version,” Smith said. “So you could basically make the argument that the amendments have made the law less clear than it was previously.” The law still requires demonstrators to tell authorities the reason for their gathering, inviting censorship of controversial protests, Smith said. “It implies that the police have this broad power to only give permission to those assemblies that are on topics that they see as in compliance with those requirements in the law, which are so vague that the police can basically reject any request for permission on the basis of what they agree with and not agree with,” he said. Government spokesman Ye Htut, who has previously defended
the right of authorities to deny permission for some protests, did not respond to a request for comment. Election concerns
With general elections expected in late October or early November 2015, rights groups said it was unclear how the authorities will respond to the inevitable spontaneous gatherings around the polls. Kyaw Thu, director of the Paung Ku consortium of local NGOs, said that authorities could also misuse the amended law by insisting that it disallows them from intervening in non-peaceful protests. The law “can be easily misused and manipulated by authorities who could readily allow counter protests by thugs in the period ahead of the election and during the election campaign, or to instigate targeted violence in communal conflicts,” he said, recalling the Depayin massacre of 2003, in which a pro-government mob attacked a convoy carrying opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. “This gap also readily allows good excuse for religious, racial and nationalist campaigns which are already happening at different scales that could be intensified towards the election.” The elections are expected to be the first time the vastly popular NLD participates in a nationwide vote since the military handed over power. With much at stake, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Myanmar, Laura Haigh, said it was of particular concern that authorities were continuing the tactic of locking up demonstrators. Some 80 people are incarcerated in the country and 130 more are awaiting trial for political acts including protesting, according to the latest tally
. “General elections are just over a year away and we’re seeing actually this quite large number of people being arrested and imprisoned, and for peaceful protests,” Haigh said. “Coming up to an election I would be extremely concerned about further restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”