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Democracy Will Remain Illusory Unless Burma’s Oppressive Laws Are Repealed

By Burma Partnership  •  February 6, 2012

This past week United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, conducted a 6-day visit in the country to assess the human rights situation in light of recent developments. At the end of his visit, he delivered a statement in which, among other things, he underlines the necessity of further legislative reforms.

At the end of last year, the regime adopted the new Labor Organizations Law and the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Law. However, as noted by Quintana in the statement he delivered on Sunday, concerns remain about these laws.

The new Labor Organization Law still imposes restrictions on unions’ activities such as the complete suppression of strike activity for wages, hours, and working conditions. Additionally, the law was issued without any consultation with union representatives, independent scholars or employers. It also has not yet been implemented. As Quintana noted:

“Another concern is the insufficient attention being paid to ensure the effective implementation of the newly-promulgated and reformed laws.”

The Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Law requires demonstrators to inform authorities in advance of the time, place, and reason for the protest. They must indicate the planned route of the protest as well as provide details about slogans and speakers. The law prohibits protesters from blocking traffic or causing other types of disturbances during the gathering and those who protest without permission will be subject to one year of imprisonment.

This week the draft of the new Media Law was also introduced in Parliament under the name “The Printing Press and Publication Law.” In his statement, Quintana said:

“I note concerns regarding some of the provisions […] in draft laws, particularly the Printing Press and Publications Law. […] I also note concerns regarding the lack of adequate consultation with relevant stakeholders, including civil society, on some of the draft laws being prepared.”

The new draft Land Act also generated a growing feeling of fear among Burma’s farmers this week, as the new legislation will probably push small farmers off their land and consolidate ownership among a few large corporations.

In addition to the flaws of the newly adopted laws, the main concern is that they will all remain ineffective as long as the oppressive laws used by the regime haven’t been repealed. As stated by Quintana, laws such as the State Protection Law, which allows authorities to order detention without charge or trial, or the Unlawful Associations Act “impinge upon a broad range of human rights and have been used to convict prisoners of conscience. […] There is also a lack of clarity and progress on reviewing and reforming the laws.”

This issue was raised again this week by lawyers who demanded an end to the draconian Unlawful Association Act. “The government still uses that law today to jail opposition activists who stand up against them,” said U Myo from the Thailand-based Burma Lawyers’ Council. For instance, Mahn Nyein Maung, a top Karen National Union leader, is currently in court facing charges of unlawful association and treason.

The overarching concern is that any new law will be irrelevant as long as the regime is able to invoke the blanket “security” provisions of its existing draconian laws. Therefore, for any legal reform to be meaningful, Thein Sein’s government must first remove such laws otherwise self-censorship and fear will always prevail.

To change the first steps taken by Thein Sein’s government into real reforms towards democracy, the President and his government must work for the implementation of the rule of law in Burma and as a first step, must repeal all oppressive laws.

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