MANDALAY — Burma’s Parliament has amended the Peaceful Assembly Act, a widely criticized law responsible for the imprisonment of many political activists, but lawyers say the amendments are largely cosmetic and will have little practical effect.
Enacted in 2011, the Peaceful Assembly Act required people to receive permission from authorities before staging public demonstrations, with penalties of up to one year in prison for violators. Protesters could also be imprisoned for up to two years for causing unrest during their demonstration.
State-run newspapers announced on Wednesday that Parliament had amended eight articles of the law, cutting in half the prison sentences for these offenses. But legal experts said other amendments were superficial—consisting of slight changes in wording to appease critics.
For example, lawmakers removed language from the law that described how authorities can “deny” permission for a public protest. Instead, the amended version says authorities can decide not to “issue” permission if applications are not in accordance with the law.
As with before, a protest will not be allowed if it might disturb pedestrians or if participants plan to “say things or behave in a way that could affect the country, union, race or religion, human dignity or moral principles.” Chants must be approved prior to protests.
The amended version also contains some changes that could make life more difficult for protesters. It says authorities no longer need to inform applicants in advance if they decide not to issue permission. Applicants also no longer have the right to submit an appeal.
Aung Thein, a veteran Burmese lawyer, accused lawmakers of playing word games and said the government has retained the power to restrict free expression.
“Since the law is in their hands, they can simply say the reasons for the protest are unlawful. It will be denied if they do not want to give permission,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Other lawyers and activists called on Parliament to abolish the law entirely.
“There are some reduction in penalties, but we cannot call this positive change or say the situation is improving,” said Robert San Aung, a prominent lawyer who has defended activists charged with violating the law, when asked about the amendments.
“If the government really wants to practice democracy, a law like this, which limits freedom of expression, must be abolished.”
Since President Thein Sein’s government enacted the Peaceful Assembly Act in December 2011, rights activists and protesters, especially those demonstrating against the confiscation of farmland, have been arrested and prosecuted under the act.
Naw Ohn Hla, a famous rights activist, was sentenced to two years in prison under the act.
“Every citizen must have the freedom of speech and the right to protest. Until now we have needed to request permission to protest. This is not genuine democracy,” she said.
“If the government truly wants change, they should abolish the law. But now they are just tricking the people by showing very small amendments.”