By Phuong Nguyen
Since taking office in 2011, the reformist government of President Thein Sein has adopted several important laws that are fundamental in laying the institutional foundations for Myanmar’s young democracy. One of the most important of these is the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Law, signed into force in December 2011, which is designed to facilitate peaceful gatherings and processions for the people.
The new law allows citizens the unprecedented right to hold protests, but with two major caveats. First, every person who will take part in protests must obtain government permission five days in advance of the gatherings, and during protests the government can take action to stop them if they seem to be harmful to the state or disturb public order. Second, individuals who stage protests without permission, or take action that violates the law during protests, are subject to varying prison sentences. Despite criticism of vague language and limited scope, the law presents a framework for ordinary people to voice their opinions on important issues. However, many problems arise when it is actually put into practice.
The police allegedly pick and choose protests and protesters based on personal beliefs or favoritism. For example, while Buddhist-monk led protests against the opening of an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) liaison office were allowed to proceed in major cities, farmers protesting land grabs in rural areas or urban residents protesting power outages were given the cold shoulder. Last month, organizers of demonstrations against a copper mine in northwestern Myanmar became targets of police searches. Twelve protesters were detained and reportedly assaulted by local police.
Also alarming is the public’s propensity to resort to demonstrations as their first outlet to make their voices heard. On one hand, new rights and democratic institutions after five decades of isolation and repression have led to heightened public expectations toward exercising long-denied basic human rights and government responsiveness to public concerns. Causes of protests and assemblies have ranged from objecting to power cuts, to calling for an end to ethnic conflict, commemorating historic dates and events, and disagreement with government policies.
On the other hand, protests tend to spread quickly across the country. In the long term, this could push local authorities to adopt a firmer stance toward public gatherings in general in order to maintain stability and not seem weak. Myanmar has limited capacity to cope with problems new and existing, and it will take time for even the most well-meaning government to address all public grievances.
The people and government of Myanmar need to set reasonable expectations for each other. Government officials need to learn that protests, when conducted peacefully, provide timely and crucial feedback to the nascent democratic process, encourage various channels for people to express viewpoints and concerns, and can discourage violence as a response. Official press conferences, such as that held October 21 by President Thein Sein, could be an effective way to foster mutual understanding between the government and its constituents.
At the same time, the people need to show a degree of trust in the new government’s commitment to improving standards of living, and be willing to explore alternative ways to communicate and cooperate with the government in addressing important social issues. There is the option of amending the law in accordance with international standards, but doing so would first require the state and society to cultivate a tremendous amount of mutual trust where none existed before.
Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a Researcher with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.