Protest bill readies for final hurdle

A bill that would enshrine into law the right of Burmese to peacefully protest has been passed by the country’s upper house, and is en route to the president for final approval.

If it gets the nod, the Peaceful Gathering and Procession Bill will make protests legal in Burma for the first time in nearly half a century. It would also have weathered criticism from hardline MPs who claim the country is not yet ready for such freedoms of expression.

Still, however, the proposed bill carries a number of restrictions. Thein Nyunt, a minister in the lower house, told DVB that those wanting to demonstrate would need to seek approval from authorities a week in advance, and hand over the organisers’ personal details.

“One also needs to provide a reason, route and date for the protest and [concerned officials] will decide whether to approve or reject it.”

Some opposition MPs say these regulations should be eased to allow greater mobility for activists, although a military-aligned faction in parliament says conflict in the border regions must be settled before Burmese are allowed to organise.

One potentially significant concession on the protest law was made by the Bill Committee, which is two-thirds comprised of ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members: it allowed a proposal made by Thein Nyunt to drop a ban on the chanting of slogans during rallies to go through.

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.

But with the arrival of a nominally civilian government in March, several laws restricting the rights of Burmese, including the freedom to form labour unions and a ban on accessing independent news websites, have been eased.

MPs have also reported a more open debating arena in parliament, despite both houses being dominated by pro-military ministers.

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