Posted in Ideas & Impacts on Oct 12, 2020

Rights to privacy, safety and freedom of movement to enable family and community life, religious and cultural freedom

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.

Myanmar, by signing the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), has indicated to the world that as a nation, we are committed to personal security and freedom. Article 3 states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person; and Article 5 says that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Articles 12 to 16 include the right to privacy, freedom of movement, and freedoms of marriage and family life. Article 18 guarantees freedoms of thought, conscience and religion.

There is currently no effective legal protection for people in Myanmar against invasions of their privacy. The 2017 ‘Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens’, is inadequate for protecting people’s privacy and data. It has mainly been misused by state actors to take action against individuals who they perceive to have acted “in any way to slander or harm their reputation”. As we have seen with the mVoter app scandal or Facebook posts detailing the addresses of suspected COVID-19 sufferers, people have little control over how their personal data is used. The move to link SIM-card registration to National Registration Cards and plans to start collecting biometric data would suggest the government is more interested in data gathering and draconian surveillance than it is in protecting data privacy.

Too much family life is interfered with by the state, and people are punished for their faith or political views. A number of laws invasively restrict freedoms of religion, marital matters and private relationships. It remains a disappointment to civil society that government did not act to revoke the four ‘race and religion’ laws. Muslim Marriage and Christian Marriage laws are further invasive laws which limit citizens’, especially women’s, rights to live their family lives as they choose. The Constitution gives all people the right to ‘freely profess and practise religion’, yet in practice rules for the registration of religious organisations, or denials of approval to renovate religious buildings, for example, curb the rights of non-Buddhists to congregate and practice their faith. As well as religious beliefs, people are also routinely persecuted for expressing their political views. It should be unacceptable that there are still political prisoners in a country that professes to be a democracy. Contrary to expectations, during the current government the number of political prisoners has increased.

Lack of freedom of movement and peace is a severe risk to people’s survival, especially beyond the Bamar-majority regions of Myanmar where ongoing armed conflict continues to blight many peoples’ lives. At the heart of these conflicts are legitimate political grievances about the right of self-determination for non-Bamar peoples and the elusiveness of the federal settlement promised at independence. Civilians are caught between ever-shifting battlefronts, killed and injured, forcedly displaced from their land and homes, and denied the right to a peaceful existence. There is no end in sight, and government’s efforts at the peace process have fallen flat, in no small part because they have not been coupled with meaningful efforts at devolution/federalism. The Independent Rakhine Initiative (IRI) found in March 2020 that formal and informal restrictions are imposed on people in Rakhine State on the basis of their documentation, membership in an unrecognised ethnic group, identification with minority religious beliefs, for speaking a minority language; and even for simply having a darker complexion.

For many civil society organisations, a key step in the peace step in the process involves transitional or restorative justice, whereby state authorities openly acknowledge rights violations of the past and institute a process of justice and healing. In Myanmar it seems particularly difficult for military or civilian authorities to acknowledges past injustices, even though this has been instrumental in the peace processes of many other post-conflict societies. As one organisation consulted for this project put it: ‘without transitional justice there will be no rule of law in the country’. At the same time, the small steps taken in Myanmar over the past ten years to open up the security and justice sectors to greater civilian oversight and accountability, must be continued. ‘The very concept of security (loun-kyoun-yeh) is synonymous with ‘state security’ and the shadowy affairs of an invasive and coercive bureaucracy designed to maintain control and order’ (Saferworld, 2019).

The police in Myanmar are the little brother of the Tatmadaw resulting in a focus on ‘law and order’ rather than ‘rule of law’. Police forces are organised in a centralised hierarchy and are not devolved to States and Regions, hampering cooperation between regional and municipal authorities and law enforcement. Recruitment to policing is flawed and senior positions are often filled with ex-military men more likely to be informed by a command and control approach, as opposed to a community engagement approach. As such, protecting the safety and security of citizens takes a backseat to issues of ‘national security’ – which is frequently a term used as cover for protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

The evidence of the denial of rights to personal security and freedoms includes:

  • There are no laws that effectively protect privacy. Even the law that was drafted for this purpose seems more often used to protect the fragile egos of government officials unable to listen to criticism.
  • There remain laws in place that govern what happens inside people’s private homes, including who they can have relationships with and who they can marry, and these laws are usually heavily biased against the rights of women.
  • People remain, and continue to be, imprisoned for their political beliefs. Many representatives of the ruling government served time in prison for the political beliefs, so it perhaps surprising this government has not done more to correct this.
  • Especially outside central Bamar-majority regions, people’s movements are severely curtailed, often in the name of ‘security’. Especially in Rakhine, people are prevented from making a livelihood due to arbitrary movement restrictions that clearly target ethnic groups or religions.
  • The security sector, whose role it is to protect people’s freedoms, is more often accused of being often the perpetrator of violence and human rights abuses against civilians. The notion of ‘national security’ is frequently invoked, trumping any notion of individual security or rights.
  • The police are beyond oversight and accountability, and are militarised in the way they operate, which provides little incentive for them to reform to become a community-facing public service.

In order to begin to address widespread denial of these rights, the pledge platform launched on 9th October will invite prospective Hluttaw candidates to agree with or commit to the following statements:

  • The Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens should be reviewed and amended in line with international standards, to provide full and equal protection for all people in Myanmar, not just those defined as citizens under the Constitution or the Citizenship Law.
  • A data protection law is urgently required to protect people from invasions of their privacy by the state or the private sector, including misuse or harmful sharing of private and personal electronically held personal data.
  • An independent body should be formed, free from government influence, whose role is to uphold information rights in the public interest, promote openness by public bodies, and data privacy for individuals.
  • Laws that interfere with individual and family life, such as the freedom to choose who to marry regardless of their religion, must be revoked.
  • Any procedure or barriers against to Freedom of religion and belief will be revoked by the President’ power, in line with stated in the Constitution.
  • Government should release all political prisoners and commit unambiguously to end the practice of jailing people for expressing political views.
  • The government will work to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as soon as possible.
  • The government and the military should publicly acknowledge the long history of violations against human rights made by the state in Myanmar, and the suffering felt by generations of Myanmar people; and commit to a mechanism for transitional justice so the country has a chance to heal.
  • All stakeholders will be incorporated in the peace process.
  • The government will commit to a more equitable federal mechanism for revenue sharing of the profits from extractive industries.
  • The Hluttaw should assess all new laws for their potential impact on the peace process, especially laws that represent creeping accumulation of centralised power in Naypyidaw, through, for example, the creation of new hierarchies of committees under centralised control.
  • The education system must foster mutual trust and understanding between all ethnic nationalities, and ethnic minorities should not be prevented from teaching their young people about their culture, history and language. Freedom of movement will be restored to all people in Myanmar equally.
  • The term “security” should be re-defined more broadly than ‘national security’. This is a concept that is open to abuse by mythologising Myanmar as a nation ‘under threat’ and to justify campaigns of persecution and violence. Instead the primary duty of security forces is to protect all people’s personal safety and security.
  • Public and civil society oversight and participation in the security sector must be increased to ensure their responsibility to protect and serve communities is prioritised. This will be aided by moving the policy force under a civilian ministry and wide-ranging reforms to create a modern community-facing police force with human rights at its core.