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The protest paradox

Renewed scrutiny of Burma’s vaunted peaceful assembly bill is underway in the wake of charges leveled against ethnic Kachin protestors this week. Two demonstrators among nearly 1,000 who took to Rangoon’s streets in September have been charged with breaching the peace; 11 more were also arrested and await further action.

It comes less than a year after the quasi-democratic government announced new laws it said would give Burmese an unprecedented right to peaceful protest, a move hailed by the international community but eyed with suspicion by rights’ groups. Their skepticism now appears warranted: Jaw Gun and May Sabae Phyu face up to 10 years in prison for their role in organising the protests against ongoing military offensives in the northern state – one year for each of the 10 townships they marched in.

To be sure, the two were not granted prior permission by the government in accordance with one of the main clauses in the new “Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession” law. They would have known the risks in pushing ahead with the demonstration. But perhaps they were victim to the ambiguity surrounding the use of the law, given that no one involved in the mass rally against the Rohingya minority in mid-September – which was also not legally permitted – has met with similar fate. That was the largest gathering of the public since the infamous 2007 Saffron Revolution, and attempts by the police to disperse it were feeble.

It shows the double standards that are at play, congruent with the watchdog Article 19’s conclusion of the bill that “guarantees to the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly … allow a wide scope for interpretation”.

In essence, the anti-Rohingya demonstrators were marching in support of President Thein Sein’s bid to deport the Muslim group, while the Kachin protestors demanded his troops cease attacks on civilians – one effectively sides with the government, the other challenges it. No surprise that the grounds for penalizing rest not on the legality of the action, but on the reputational threat to officialdom.

Compare also the rhetoric that accompanied each protest, given another clause that bans slogans that “do anything that causes fear”. The Kachin demonstrators held aloft signs that read “Stop Civil War”, a reasonable request given what has resulted from this most debased of conflicts in the north. Monks who joined the rallies in mid-September however held placards that read, “Not our race, not our blood, not our children — Drive out the lowlife Bengali Kalars from our country”, a pejorative reference to the Rohingya. None subsequently faced legal action.

[pullquote] “A government that outlaws criticism is bordering on dictatorial.” [/pullquote]

Authorities delayed a separate anti-Rohingya demonstration scheduled for this week on the grounds that the slogans submitted for vetting were too strong. One protestor who had hoped to compare the Rohingya to dogs was forced to change their placard to one that effectively called for their mass deportation. Surely this conflicts with the bill’s demand that protestors not “do anything that causes fear”.

If the government were to be consistent in its application of the law, it would also arrest the hundreds who gathered recently outside Yangon Airport to welcome Thein Sein back from his tour of the US, given that gatherings of more than five people without prior consent are illegal in Burma. This would obviously be ridiculous, but so too are the contradictory ways in which power is wielded by an administration masquerading as progressive.

Human Rights Watch correctly noted in March that the law, despite its democratic gleam, “makes the right [to protest] subject to the overbroad control and the discretion of the authorities”. Included in the law is a ruling barring any action that “could hurt the State” – this should be construed as anything deemed critical of the government, surely a key tenet of any political protest and a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. A government that outlaws criticism is bordering on dictatorial.

Protest organisers must also hand over their personal details to authorities when they apply for permission – meaning Burma’s broad surveillance database continues to grow one opponent at a time. It was most likely this that led to the Kachin Peace Network activists’ homes being visited by intelligence officials a day before the protest. Having foreseen this, they made sure they were out at the time.

The new law could then be read in two ways: the rosy reaction from many western countries proffers that the bill allows Burmese a degree of openness not seen for years, and should therefore be celebrated. The years under military rule witnessed horrific responses to public displays of disquiet – several massacres and the jailing of dissidents on a mass scale. Few would argue with the view that things have changed for the better.

Yet what the bill also does is enshrine into law tight restrictions on the ability to protest, which carries potentially severe ramifications for those involved. This becomes ever more dangerous given that one-time critics of the regime now appear content with mere improvement, rather than the actual overhaul of the legal system that is desperately needed for Burma to take substantial steps forward. Aung San Suu Kyi’s appointment as head of the parliamentary Rule of Law committee provides a good opportunity to press for further reform of the protest bill, given her intimate relationship with activism, although her recent comments on dissidence are cause for concern.

There are multiple examples that show that intolerance of the political opposition persists despite government claims to the contrary: lawyer Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min is serving a six-month jail term after returning to Burma from exile, having fled after representing activists involved in the 2007 uprising; a peace activist was detained for a stunt in Mandalay last month; and two journalists have been hit with a defamation suit after reporting on corruption in the mining ministry.

The Kachin protestors, like the two journalists, provide an antidote to the widely held belief that Burma is moving full steam ahead toward democracy – a narrative skillfully engineered by the Thein Sein administration and helped along by former critics like Britain and the US who are now eager to do business there. Only time will tell what happens to activists whose targets lie at the intersection of Burmese and western business interests, but the crackdown on recent protests at a copper mine in the north provides some clues.

Suu Kyi’s comment last month that dissidence is just a phase, like adolescence, is ultimately dangerous at a time when protesting against, and spotlighting, the ongoing crises that plague the country – corruption, civil war, ethno-religious hostility, and so on – is highly necessary.


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