RANGOON — Burma’s leading student activist group has staged a sit-in with nearly 1,000 supporters calling on the government to abolish and amend restrictive laws, including those that make it difficult to organize protests.
The sit-in on Sunday was the first protest organized by the 88 Generation Students group since its members were released in 2012 from prisons around the country, where they had been held by the former military regime as political prisoners for their pro-democracy activism.
The protest near Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon was attended by members of Parliament, students, farmers and leaders of civil society organizations, just one day after a separate demonstration was held in the city urging lawmakers to amend provisions in the Constitution that currently prevent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.
At the Sunday sit-in, protesters called on the government to abolish or amend laws that are widely seen as at odds with ongoing democratic reforms, including the Peaceful Assembly Law, which was passed under President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government and has led to the continuing arrests of many political activists over the past two years.
“We want the government to abolish Article 18, which bans people from peaceful gathering and expressing their wishes,” Htay Kywe, a student leader from the 88 Generation Students, told protesters, referring to a controversial article from the Peaceful Assembly Law that requires organizers to obtain government permission before a protest. This can often be a major feat, as Thein Sein’s government has not always been quick to issue permits for demonstrations.
The 88 Generation Students received permission to organize the sit-in.
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Under the former military regime, which ceded power to Thein Sein’s administration in 2011, gatherings of five or more people were illegal.
In an address to protesters, Min Ko Naing, one of the country’s most prominent activists and a leader of the 88 Generation Students, said the Burmese people had grown tired after living under oppressive legislation for decades. “Now we gather here boldly to express how much we dislike these laws,” he said. “Please be united. If we are, we can amend any law we do not like, not to mention the Constitution.”
The 88 Generation Students called for amendments to a number of additional controversial laws and regulations.
“They include Article 18, 505 [Section of the Penal Code], the Emergency Provisions Act 5(J), and the regulation that requires you to report to local authorities whenever you have a visitor at your house,” Makee, another member of the students group, told The Irrawaddy.
“We believe our movement today can put significant pressure on MPs to make changes or abolish the laws and regulations,” he added.
Also at the sit-in was D Nyein Lin, president of the organizing committee for the Federation of Student Unions. Joined by 19 members of his group, he said the event sent a message to the government about the wishes of the people.
“The government and MPs are responsible for making these a reality,” he said. “Whether or not our demands are met will depend on how seriously they take our demands into consideration.”