Protests as Myanmar parliament debates new curbs on demonstrations

Reuters , Monday 5 Mar 2018

Activists protest against government-backed amendments to Myanmar's protest law, in Yangon, Myanmar March 5, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

Hundreds of people marched through Myanmar's largest city Yangon on Monday to oppose changes to a protest law being discussed in parliament which activists warn would limit free speech.

Amendments to the 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law could bring three-year prison terms for those supporting, financially or otherwise, a demonstration that harms "security, rule of law and stability of the state, and the moral interests of the people".

The amendments would also require any protest organisers to provide details of the budget and source of their funds for a demonstration.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) is backing the changes, which come amid rising concern that her two-year-old administration is failing to protect human rights.

"If they are trying to make it difficult to protest, the authorities that rule the country - the parliament, judiciary and government - cannot hear the true opinions of the people," said Zaw Yan, a farmers' rights activist.

He was one of about 500 farmers, workers and political activists who marched through the former capital's downtown in a protest against the amendment.

Nearly 190 Myanmar civil society groups have signed a petition against the amendment.

NLD spokesman Nyan Win declined to comment. But at least one NLD member of parliament spoke in opposition to the changes in the capital, Naypyitaw, where the parliament's upper house held an initial debate on the proposed amendments.

The broad wording of the amendments - particularly the ill-defined concept of morality - could be used by authorities to block legitimate protests, said Hla Hla Soe, an NLD member of the upper house.

"The freedoms of assembly and expression are fundamental human rights," she told the assembly.

"It's not too long since people got those rights. If we constrict those rights, there will be worries about going back to the previous situation."

After the NLD came to power in 2016 - ending decades of military-led governments that regularly cracked down on protests - the party reduced restrictions on demonstrations, but left criminal punishments in the protest law.

But rights advocates point to worrying signs that gains made since a transition began in 2011 may be going into reverse.

Seven people were shot dead and at least 12 injured during a demonstration in the western state of Rakhine in January.

The amendment, proposed by an NLD-led committee last month, is seen as targeting nationalist protesters the ruling party believes are backed by opponents to reform who want to destabilise the young civilian government.

"It seems like they want to restrict lobbyists who pay money to people to protest, but it's not possible to only restrict one side," said Maung Maung Soe, a political analyst who said he had signed the petition against the amendments.

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