Myanmar: Welcome proposal to abolish repressive emergency law

ARTICLE 19 welcomes a new bill to repeal the Emergency Provisions Act (1950), which has been used for decades to sentence media workers and human rights defenders to lengthy prison terms. The bill was proposed in parliament by the governing National League for Democracy and has already been adopted in the lower house. The new bill is the new government’s first step to address the vast legislative framework criminalising freedom of expression in Myanmar.

“We welcome the NLD’s first step to reforming Myanmar’s draconian censorship laws that have been used for decades to repress media workers, political activists and human rights defenders. We urge Myanmar’s parliamentarians to adopt the bill and put an end to one of the most repressive laws in the country,” said Oliver Spencer, Head of Asia at ARTICLE 19.

The Emergency Provisions Act (the Act) was one of the military government’s most frequently used laws, and under it, media workers, human rights defenders, opposition political activists, monks and other clerics, school children, students, writers, and trade unionists were sentenced to long prison terms. Prison terms of seven-years were handed out to human rights defenders just for shouting “long live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”. 

In one notorious case in 1998, Ko Thein and Khin Hlaing, two student activists, were sentenced to death for attempting to hand over a letter to Alvaro de Soto, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Myanmar, a precursor to today’s UN Special Rapporteur.

ARTICLE 19’s 1999 publication Acts of Oppression argued that, contrary to what its title may suggest, the Act has little to do with states of emergency; rather, it is a law which confers sweeping powers on the authorities to silence and punish any act of real or perceived dissent, even in the absence of a proclaimed state of emergency.

The Act makes it an offence, punishable with imprisonment for up to seven years, to commit any act which “violates or infringes upon the integrity, health, conduct and respect of State military organisations and government employees towards the … government”, or “causes or intends to spread false news about the government”, or “causes or intends to disrupt the morality or the behaviour of a group of people or the general public.”

ARTICLE 19 has been calling for repeal of the Act since publishing detailed reports in 1995 and in 1996 detailing the many abuses of the law.