By Joseph Allchin
A bill proposing that peaceful demonstrations in Burma be legalised has successfully reached the upper house of parliament, but faces strong opposition from a group of MPs who claim a cessation of armed conflicts must come first.
If approved, the “peaceful gathering and procession” bill, submitted in late September by Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko and passed through the lower house on 3 October, would make protests legal for the first time in nearly half a century.
Voices in the opposition say however that restrictions contained in the bill should be eased, while government-aligned MPs claim Burma is not ready for any such political freedoms.
Thein Nyunt, formerly of the National Democratic Force (NDF) and who now heads the New National Democratic Party, told DVB that he had proposed four amendments to the bill, which currently bans the chanting of slogans and demands that protest leaders hand over their personal details to authorities.
“Out of four amendments I suggested, one and a half were accepted,” he said, adding that the bill stated that protests would be legitimate providing they were done silently. “I suggested an amendment that chanting slogans should be allowed with pre-approval. The Home Affairs Minister agreed with that, because it was ‘in conformity with disciplined democratic values’, so it was approved.”
State media said today that parliament assigned the Bill Committee to rehear the proposal after it was reportedly discussed in the upper house, through which it must pass before being enshrined into law. The Bill Committee is two-thirds comprised of ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party members, and is led by the retired head of the Attorney General’s office, Mya Nyein.
The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said however that four MPs opposed the move on the grounds that “coordination for regional peace is still being made”. It said that the protest law should only be enacted “when the peace is restored in all regions or states”.
It is not clear how long the Bill Committee will deliberate the proposal for, but the issue of the multiple conflicts between the government and ethnic armies will likely play a role, with at least four of the committee’s 15 members from ethnic groups, including MP’s from war-torn Kachin and Karen states.
Equally unclear is the reasons for why violent conflicts in the country’s border regions should impact on the rights of Burmese to peacefully protest, as the New Light of Myanmar suggests.
Many countries have emergency legislation that is often controversially applied to specific areas on approval from a judge or police chief, aimed at restricting people’s rights to demonstrate.
Curtailment of the freedom to demonstrate in Burma was aggressively ramped up following the September 2007 uprising. In the weeks after the bloody crackdown by police and army, the government banned gatherings of more than five people in public.
A lower house MP earlier said that permission to protest must be submitted a week in advance. Thein Nyunt said that one of his rejected amendments had questioned the body assigned to permit or ban protests.
If the bill is rejected, it will then pass to a vote of both houses. If it passes, however, serious questions will be asked of the ongoing detention of activists, such as monk Ashin Gambira, who was jailed for his role in the September 2007 uprising and is reportedly being tortured.
A number other amendments to laws have successfully passed through, including a recent one that gave workers the legal right to strike and to join and form unions.