Exiled Burmese lawyers are among voices to demand an end to the draconian Unlawful Association Act in Burma, which has been used for decades by the regime to jail a sizeable cross-section of the country’s opposition movement.
Those calling for it to be abolished argue that the law, which dates from 1908, is no longer consistent with positive developments seen inside the country since a pseudo-civilian government came to power in March last year.
“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 (BLC), which was declared illegal by the former junta in April 2009. He says it is ironic that an organisation “working for the rule of law” in Burma should be deemed unlawful.
But 12 other organisations, all of which are exiled, also carry that distinction. Any Burmese alleged to have ties to one of these groups faces up to three years in prison, although the law is known to have been used arbitrarily – DVB reporter Sithu Zeya was jailed under the Act, despite DVB not being listed as an ‘unlawful association’ by the government.
A leader in the Karen National Union (KNU), Mahn Nyein Maung, is currently in court facing charges of unlawful association and treason, the latter of which could result in a life sentence.
Like the KNU, a number of other ethnic armies have been declared illegal, including the Shan State Army. Political parties have also fallen foul.
“There are still a lot of political prisoners in detention who were sentenced to lengthy terms under that law,” said Pho Than Chaung, spokesperson of the Burma Communist Party, which was declared illegal in 1953 by the civilian government of U Nu.
“The law was used to hurt farmers in areas with armed conflict, as well as civilians who didn’t see eye to eye with the government,” Pho Than Chaung continued. “The law has been used to oppress Burmese people’s political opinion for so many years and we are now making this call because we believe it should not exist anymore.”
As with many politically-motivated laws in Burma, the small print on the Unlawful Association Act is ambiguous, and leaves plenty of room for manoeuvring. The law states that anyone can be jailed if they are found guilty of “interference with the administration of the law or with the maintenance of law and order, or that it constitutes a danger to public peace” – a charge that has resulted in lengthy jail terms for people like Sithu Zeya who supplied video footage to DVB.