Burma must reject or amend a draft association law which would allow the government to ban or impose criminal penalties on civil society groups for exercising free speech, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.
If passed in its current format, the law would require non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to register with a military-backed body that can arbitrarily reject applications, leaving activists vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.
HRW described the legislation as “contrary” to international law, including the right to freedom of association and speech, and accused the quasi-civilian regime of backtracking on its democratic reform programme.
“It seems the government wants to keep its stranglehold over civil society, effectively muzzling watchdog groups during this critical reform period,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
Activists who fail to register with the government board face up to three years in jail, and its decisions are not open to appeal. The legislation is likely to prevent exiled groups, set up by pro-democracy activists who fled Burma during decades of military-rule, from returning home.
Wong Aung from the Shwe Gas Movement, which campaigns for the sustainable use of Burma’s natural resources, described the law as “unconstitutional” and “repressive”.
“Because this law can control and punish civil society groups by means of various charges, it seems likely to create even more prisoners and exiles if abused by the authorities,” he told DVB on Monday. “There is already a huge commitment to civil society activity inside Burma, and we fear that these activities could disappear at any time.”
He added that the Thailand-based Shwe Gas Movement would like to set up formal operations inside Burma where it has become increasingly active, but the government could easily block these efforts.
“Because our organisation focuses on human rights and corporate accountability, we are concerned that the law could inhibit our work,” said Wong Aung. “We are also concerned that if this law passes we will not be able to obtain registered status due to the nature of our work.”
It comes amid growing pressure on Thailand-based groups to relocate back to Burma, as international donors continue to slash funding for exiled NGOs and step up diplomatic relations with Naypyidaw.
Under the new law, international organisations would also be required to sign a memorandum of understanding with the government, which according to HRW “could severely hamper their legitimate activities”.
The UN’s special rapporteur for human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has previously said the law would be “a serious setback for the development of a strong and vibrant civil society” in Burma.
The association draft is the latest example of legislation introduced since the nominal end of military rule in March 2011 that could be used to stifle democratic dissent. For example, a new printing and publishing law passed by the upper house of parliament on Monday includes some similar provisions to the regulation it is set to replace such as requiring media outlets to “register” with a government-backed board.
Meanwhile, dozens of peaceful activists have been prosecuted and jailed under a 2011 law, which criminalises the right to protest without permission.
“Burma is slowly emerging from decades of harsh authoritarian rule where many groups faced either control by the government or being forced into exile,” warned Robertson. “The draft Associations Law threatens the recent gains made by Burmese civil society groups and will undercut efforts to hold the government to account in the reform process.”