Posted in Ideas & Impacts on Oct 19, 2020

Freedoms of expression, assembly, association

Twenty-five civil society organisations have outlined some of the most pressing reforms necessary to protect human rights and democracy in Myanmar. An [online platform]( will be launched on 9th October 2020, where election candidates from all parties will be able to sign up to these pledges and commit to taking action in the Hluttaw or in government, if elected. Members of the public will be able to see which candidates support the various legislative or policy reforms, helping to inform their choice at the ballot box. After the election, the platform will be used to monitor progress with reforms. To mark the launch of the platform we will be publishing a series of articles on the pledges between now and the elections on 8th November.

As a signatory of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), Myanmar is committed to protecting freedoms of expression, assembly and association. Article 19 means that Myanmar has an obligation under international law to ensure everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to hold opinions without interference, and the right to share ideas and information through any media. Article 20 says that everyone has the right to freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

It is a point of great disappointment and sadness for many in civil society that under the first freely elected civilian government for decades, freedom of speech has declined. In particular, defamation clauses, to be found in a number of laws, have been increasingly mis-used to prosecute against anyone who criticises the government. The objectives of combatting ‘hate speech’ and ensuring ‘stability of the state’ are twisted by the authorities into providing excuses for silencing those freely expressing their views. Rights are also routinely compromised under the pretence of preventing crime, combatting ‘fake news’ and controlling so-called terrorist groups.

It has been found that there are more than 30 laws violating freedom of expression. Aside from suppressing a fundamental human right, this runs contrary to the principles of democracy, which require that a government is open and accountable to criticism from the electorate and the media. Far from being open to criticism, the egos of many leaders in government or politics seem so fragile that even the slightest challenge or criticism can result in a lawsuit. These actions are facilitated by overbroad provisions that allow too much room for deliberate misinterpretation by the authorities if they wish to silence their critics. Instead of removing these laws, this government seems to want to introduce more laws to restrict freedom of expression. Civil society is concerned about the current drafting of a ‘hate speech’ law, and fears that this may become yet another piece of legislation that will have a defamation clause and will be abused by figures in power whenever they feel offended.

Democracy depends on a thriving independent media. During the term of the current government, over 1000 journalists, activists, human rights defenders, citizens, protestors, farmers and workers have been jailed or sued. As well as jailing journalists, government has also been proactive in censoring the websites of media outlets deemed critical to the regime. The problem is closely linked to the lack of a right to information law (discussed under theme 6). The strength of the state media and the control of information by the government extends to the persecution of any media outlets that challenge the state propaganda machine. The government has even used COVID-19 restrictions to close down independent media whilst state-controlled outlets remain free to work.

In the era of digital information, restricting access to the internet for certain groups or by blocking particular websites, is equivalent to restrictive censorship rules under former regimes. There are two ways the current government has restricted internet freedom – by blocking content or by restricting infrastructure. In terms of content, five orders have been issued that in total have blocked 2,000 websites since March 2020. Legitimate news media like Nirijiara, VOM and Karen News have been immediate victims of this, shut down because they dared to criticise the government.

Myanmar has put in place the longest internet shutdown anywhere in the world in Rakhine and Chin states, a particularly callous move during the COVID-19 epidemic when many people rely on the web to access information about public health in order to keep their families safe. This is still to be lifted, even though completely ineffective 2G services have been reinstated. New rules for mandatory SIM card registration requiring presentation of a National Registration Card (NRC) also severely limits internet access for the many people in Myanmar who are unable to get an NRC, and in areas where multiple SIMs may be needed due to patchy network coverage. Even during the current COVID-19 pandemic, many people have been cut off since the introduction of these rules in July 2020.

Freedom of assembly is also under attack, and the authorities continue to routinely deny people’s right to peaceful protest. Civil society is incredulous over this, given the role that protest played vital in the ruling party’s democracy movement. That the very same party now seeks to limit people’s freedoms in this way is deeply saddening. In 2019, nearly 100 protesters were charged for engaging in protests, such as anti-war protesters recently charged under the Penal Code. The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law is vaguely worded, and in practice local authorities still think protesters require permission to protest. When peaceful protests do take place, the authorities primarily seek to control and/or shut them down, rather than protect and facilitate citizens’ right to protect.

Whist on paper, the Registration of Associations Law introduced at the end of the previous government stated that registration is voluntary for national civil society organisations, in reality organisations find it extremely difficult to operate unless they are formally registered. For example, government officials or politicians refuse meetings with unregistered organisations, they cannot open bank accounts to receive funds, and many CSOs are fearful that the next wave of laws to address money-laundering or terrorism will contain new overboard provisions that could be used to restrict their activities. This restrictive environment adds up to a restriction on the freedom of association.

In order to reverse recent trends curtailing freedoms of expression, assembly and association, the pledge platform launched on 9th October will invite prospective Hluttaw candidates to agree with or commit to the following statements:

  • Laws that violate freedom of expression – in particular laws containing defamation clauses – should be reviewed and amended or repealed.
  • The Hluttaw should be required to undertake a human rights impact assessment of all new draft laws, including freedom of expression.
  • State-owned and run media outlets are a legacy of the propaganda machine used by former authoritarian regimes to control information and should be closed - including the abolition of the Ministry of Information.
  • The government should prioritise support for a free and independent media sector as essential to democracy.
  • Internet shutdown by government must be prevented, including by revoking clauses 77 and 78 of the Telecommunications Law.
  • Blocking of websites will only be done in accordance with international human rights law for clearly defined and published reasons, such as for materials inciting violence, child pornography or copyright infringement.
  • SIM-card registration rules requiring the NRC will be withdrawn.
  • The government will be urged to use the Union Service Fund for its original purpose only, to improve internet access, and not to introduce biometric surveillance technology.
  • Legal frameworks will be reviewed to emphasise the responsibility of government to facilitate and protect protesters, not control or punish them.
  • Police and local authorities need to be trained to understand their role as defenders of democratic freedom to protest, not defenders of the authorities’ perceived right to not be criticised.
  • All local regulations banning protests should be revoked and measures taken to ensure that they are not reinstated for any reason.
  • The rules on registration of associations will be reviewed and amended to ensure they are not abused to restrict civil society.
  • Wide consultation should be undertaken with civil society before introducing any new laws that will further restrict civil society activities. The government objective should be to empower and enable civil society to operate, not to control and restrict.