RANGOON — Burma President Thein Sein has approved the country’s first Consumer Protection Law, which it is hoped will address widespread concerns about unsafe ingredients in food and beverage products on sale in Burma.
State media said Monday that the law, which was submitted in September and finally passed by the Union Parliament on Friday, had been signed off by the president.
The law, which includes 12 chapters and 31 sections, covers the rights and responsibilities of both consumers and manufacturers, and lists prohibitions for manufacturers. It sets out how a Committee for Consumer Protection will function, and describes a dispute resolution and sanctions regime.
In the absence of any law up to now protecting consumers, there have been public fears about the safety of foodstuffs in Burma. A nongovernmental Consumer Protection Association (CPA) has conducted its own testing on products, and claims to have identified poor quality imported palm oil, fish paste with high urea content and a potentially dangerous fungus in locally made potato chips and soft drinks.
The government’s Ministry of Health has a Food and Drug Administration, but the poorly resourced agency has struggled to keep watch over the large number of local and imported good on sale in Burma.
Ba Oak Khine, chairman of the Rangoon-based CPA, told The Irrawaddy that it was a positive that the law had been passed, but said he was concerned about how it would be enforced.
“The Consumer Protection Law has been approved by the President now, so it’s better than nothing,” he said. “The government has been approved many laws in recent years, but we need better law enforcement rather than just approving many laws. We want the government to take action seriously about consumer protection issues.”
Ba Oak Khine said he was particularly concerned about products imported to Burma from China. There, he said, manufacturers may not be subject to stringent food safety standards, and therefore dangerous products could be making onto Burmese shelves.
The new law states that the Committee for Consumer Protection will include the Minister of Commerce, senior representatives of other relevant ministries, representatives of civil society and experts.
“If the government invites us to work with them for consumer protection affairs, we’re ready to work with them,” said Ba Oak Khine, adding that the government had not yet contacted his organization about sitting on the committee.
According to the law, consumers have a right to expect safe products from manufacturers, and can complain to the committee if they are not satisfied with a product. It also says consumers must not publicize concerns about a product without first having good evidence to back up their concerns, including on social media.
The law includes punishments of up to three years in jail and fines of up to 5 million kyat for manufacturers who distribute unsafe products.
Dr. Nyo Nyo Thin, a member of the Rangoon Regional Parliament, said consumers in Burma were worse off than other regional countries in terms of protections.
“With products and services here, we have no rights. We can’t compare the consumer protection situation with neighboring countries. But the law has been approved now, so it may gradually get better soon,” she said.
“But the law enforcement is more essential in Burma. Punishments should be serious for manufacturers who break the law. Even in China, the maximum sentence for [breaching] consumer protection rules is a life sentence. Here, the punishment is still really weak.”