The Lower House passed amendments to Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law on Wednesday, dropping a provision that allows local authorities to deny would-be protestors permission to carry out a demonstration.
The proposed changes will now go to the Upper House’s Bill Committee, and if the proposed legislation is passed in its current form, protesters would no longer need to seek permission from local authorities to stage a protest, and would be required only “to inform” township administrators about any planned demonstration.
“The authorities cannot deny permission under [the amended] Section 5 of the [Peaceful Assembly Law] if the protesters inform them,” said Phay Than, an Arakanese lawmaker. “It would be very convenient for the protesters.”
According to Phay Than, protesters must still inform authorities of any planned demonstration “so that unnecessary or unexpected situations—such as riots, or other disturbances or crimes—can be prevented.”
“We have reduced many of the restrictions so that it would work for the protesters,” added Thein Nyunt, a legislator from the New National Democracy Party.
The amendments approved by the Lower House represent a liberalization of the Peaceful Assembly Law’s controversial Section 18. The provision has riled freedom of expression advocates since the law’s passage in December 2011, because it allows for the imprisonment of protestors who fail to obtain local authorities’ permission to stage a demonstration.
The maximum punishment under Section 18 of the original law is one year in prison. Lawmakers in the Lower House this week agreed to reduce that to six months, and make it a charge that activists would face only if they fail to inform local authorities of a planned protest.
Thein Nyunt was reluctant to declare a victory for free speech on Wednesday.
“We have to wait and see what will be the Upper House’s decision,” he said.
Under Section 17 of the amended law, violence and unrest caused during demonstrations would carry with it a maximum sentence of one year in prison, a halving of the law’s current two-year sentence that was put before the Lower House by the chamber’s Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee last month. The Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee’s proposal, however, maintained the requirement that protestors receive local authorities’ permission before carrying out the action—the provision that the bill passed Wednesday was stripped of.
The Home Affairs Ministry has signed off on a reduction in the law’s punishments, but has been reluctant to accept removal of the requirement that local authorities’ permission be received.
More than 100 people were facing trials on charges of violating Section 18 at the end of last year, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. An amnesty from President Thein Sein on Dec. 31 saw all of those pending charges dropped, but since that time, another 21 people have been charged under the provision and are awaiting trial, while five others have been found guilty of the charge and given sentences ranging from three to six months, AAPP said.