Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides that “every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of expressing and publishing freely their convictions and opinions,” but it contains the broad and ambiguous caveat that exercise of these rights must “not be contrary to the laws enacted for national security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality.” Threats against and arrests of journalists increased.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, and imprisoned citizens for defaming religion and expressing political opinions critical of the government, the military, and ultranationalist Buddhist groups, generally under the charges of defamation, protesting without a permit, or violating national security laws. Freedom of expression was more restricted during the year compared with 2016. This included a higher number of detentions of journalists using various laws, including laws carrying more severe punishments than those used previously.
The criminal defamation clause under the Telecommunications Law, known as Section 66(d), was frequently used to restrict freedom of expression and press. There was a dramatic increase in Section 66(d) cases compared with prior years. According to the Research Team of Telecommunication Law, an activist group whose aim is to abolish Section 66(d), 93 cases were enforced under the law, including seven cases brought by members of the NLD and another seven cases brought by members of the military from March 2016 to mid-November. Fifteen cases had already reached a verdict. At least 11 cases against 19 journalists under this law were pending as of October.
In August parliament amended Section 66(d), reducing the maximum sentence to three years, restricting third parties from filing charges without written consent from the offended party, and allowing judges to authorize bail in most cases (see section 1.d.). Civil society organizations and journalists noted the amendment as a positive step but expressed concern the law could still be used to restrict freedom of expression and the press. Several journalists, as well as critics of the government and the military, continued to face charges under this law. Other problematic laws that remained on the books, including the Unlawful Associations Act, Habitual Offenders Act, Electronic Transactions Law, Television and Video Act, Official Secrets Act, Law on Safeguarding the State from the Danger of Subversive Elements, and Section 505(b) of the penal code, were used to censor or prosecute public dissent. The Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, enacted in March, was also used to prosecute a critic of the NLD-appointed chief minister of Mon State.
In March, Swe Win, editor of Myanmar Now news agency, was arrested following charges filed against him by Kyaw Myo Shwe, a supporter of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), an ultranationalist Buddhist organization, under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. Kyaw Myo Shwe alleged Swe Win shared a Facebook post suggesting the monk Wirathu, a prominent Ma Ba Tha figurehead, violated the monastic code of conduct by making statements commending the January 28 assassination of well-known Muslim constitutional lawyer Ko Ni (see section 1.a.). Swe Win was released on bail the next day by Mandalay Region’s Maha Aung Myay Township Court but was rearrested on July 30 at Yangon International Airport. Police stated he was arrested for trying to leave the country while a case was pending against him. He was later released. As of September the court had postponed the trial of Swe Win, declaring permission had not yet been granted for plaintiff Kyaw Myo Shwe–detained in Obo Prison for organizing a protest against the government in Mandalay–to attend court proceedings.
On April 12, NLD official Myo Yan Naung Thein, who was charged with Section 66(d) of the Telecommunication Law and arrested in October 2016 for posting comments critical of the military’s response in northern Rakhine State, was sentenced to six months in prison and released by a presidential pardon a few weeks prior to completing the sentence.
Some persons remained wary of speaking openly about politically sensitive topics due to monitoring and harassment by security services and ultranationalist Buddhist groups. Police continued to monitor politicians, journalists, writers, and diplomats. Journalists continued to complain about the widespread practice of government informants attending press conferences and other events, which they said intimidated reporters and the events’ hosts. Informants demanded lists of hosts and attendees.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and able to operate, despite some restrictions. The government continued to permit the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of September authorities approved 28 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2016, and the security forces detained journalists under laws carrying more severe sentences than those it used in previous years.
Local media could cover human rights and political issues, including democratic reform, although stories critical of political figures and the security forces sometimes resulted in criminal charges. The government generally permitted the media to cover protests and civil conflict, topics not reported widely in state-run media. Nonetheless, during the year the government detained three journalists related to their coverage of civil conflict, and two related to their coverage of the situation in Rakhine State. In June an Irrawaddy journalist, two DVB journalists, and their support staff were detained under the Unlawful Associations Act, which had not been used against journalists in recent years, for their coverage of a drug-burning ceremony by the TNLA. In December, two Reuters reporters were detained and charged under the Official Secrets Act related to their investigation of security forces’ activities in northern Rakhine State.
Self-censorship continued, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, the situation in Rakhine State, and the peace process. The government ordered the media to use certain terms and themes to describe the situation in northern Rakhine State and threatened penalties against journalists who did not follow the government’s guidance, which exacerbated already high levels of self-censorship on this topic. Authorities prevented journalists from accessing northern Rakhine State, with the exception of several government-organized trips that participants reported to be tightly controlled and designed to advance the government’s narrative. The government continued to use visas to control foreign journalists, who reported visa validities ranged from 28 days to six months. The government barred the entry to the country by a journalist from Pakistan because of alleged security concerns regarding the situation in Rakhine State.
The military continued to practice zero tolerance of perceived critical media commentary. Editor Kyaw Min Swe of The Voice and satire columnist Kyaw Zwa Naing (pen name “British Ko Ko Maung”) were charged with defamation under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law and detained in June for writing and publishing a satirical story of a military film. As in similar cases, the court did not provide bail for Kyaw Min Swe, although the satirist was released based on the Telecommunications Ministry’s comment he did not break the law. Kyaw Min Swe’s case was one of the five cases withdrawn by the military in early September.
Radio and television were the primary mass communication media. Circulation of independent news periodicals remained stable outside of urban areas. Several print publications maintained online news websites that were popular among those with access to the internet. The military, government, and government-linked businesspersons controlled the content of the eight privately or quasi-governmentally owned FM radio stations.
The government loosened its monopoly and control on domestic television broadcasting. It offered six public channels–five controlled by the Ministry of Information and one by the military; the ministry channels regularly showed the military’s content. The government allowed the general population to register satellite television receivers for a fee, but the cost was prohibitive for most persons outside of urban areas. The ministry announced it would allow five media outlets to apply for television channel licenses as private broadcasters. In April the ministry selected five media companies, including formerly exiled media groups DVB and Mizzima Media, to broadcast their content in a landmark public-private broadcasting partnership. The five companies planned to use state-owned broadcaster Myanmar Radio and Television’s transmission infrastructure, but would develop their own content. Many media outlets, however, reported the cost of applying for and maintaining a television channel was prohibitive.
Violence and Harassment: Nationalist groups continued to target journalists who spoke out regarding intercommunal and Rakhine State issues. Businesspersons engaged in illegal enterprises, sometimes together with local authorities, also harassed and threatened journalists reporting on their activities. Officials continued to monitor journalists in various parts of the country.
In December 2016 Eleven Media reporter Soe Moe Tun’s body was found on the side of a road in Monywa, Sagaing Region. He was investigating illegal logging and wood smuggling there at the time of his death. Police reported Soe Moe Tun was attacked and beaten in the back of the head with a stick. His friends and relatives expressed frustration at the police’s perceived lack of effort to investigate the case, and at year’s end, no one had been charged. Police claimed their investigation continued.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally not enforced, laws prohibit citizens from electronically passing information about the country to media located outside the country, exposing journalists who reported for or cooperated with international media to potential harassment, intimidation, and arrest. There were no reports of overt prepublication censorship of press publications, and the government allowed open discussion of some sensitive political and economic topics, but incidents of legal action against publications that criticized the military or the government continued to raise concern among local journalists and led to some self-censorship.
Instances of media self-censorship and suppression continued in connection with violence in northern Rakhine State. Reporters and media executives were reportedly fired for printing stories critical of the military’s actions in Rakhine State. In one instance after the August 25 attacks on security forces in Rakhine State, state television station MNTV temporarily cut broadcasts of BBC coverage of Rakhine State.
The organizer of the annual Human Rights, Human Dignity International Film Festival told reporters the government required him to submit all films to the government censorship board prior to screening them at the festival. This process resulted in the censorship of one film.
Libel/Slander Laws: Elements of the military sued journalists on multiple occasions for what they perceived as defamation or inaccurate reporting. The military sometimes dropped the cases after a lengthy court process.
Individuals, including political figures, also used the Telecommunications Law to sue reporters for perceived defamation. On May 26, Ma Sandi Myint Aung, a Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) supporter from Bago, was sentenced to six months in prison under the Telecommunications Law for sharing Facebook posts deemed insulting to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi; the charges were pressed by another Bago local. The 2016 defamation suit by the chief minister of Rangoon, Phyo Min Thein, against Eleven Media Group chief executive U Than Htut Aung and the editor in chief Wai Phyo was pending as of September. The chief minister had argued that an article insinuating he was corrupt because he wore an expensive wristwatch amounted to defamation.
The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, although some NGOs reported the government blocked access to their web content on intercommunal dialogue. The government reportedly monitored internet communications under questionable legal authority and used defamation charges to intimidate and detain some individuals using social media to criticize the military. There were also instances of authorities intimidating online media outlets and internet users. Social media continued to be a popular forum to exchange ideas and opinions without direct government censorship. According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 25 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2016, but estimated mobile phone penetration was 90 percent, and other experts noted the majority of mobile handsets in the country could connect to the internet. The most recent Freedom on the Net report issued by international NGO Freedom House rated internet freedom in the country not free, and the rating worsened slightly from previous years.
Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act limited freedom of expression online. For example, on February 28, a social media user named Zaw Zaw was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment under Section 66(d) for posting text and photographs on Facebook that were considered defamatory toward leaders of the civilian government.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were similar government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events as in 2016. The Ministry of Education in some cases demonstrated willingness to collaborate with international institutions to host educational and cultural events, as well as to expand educational opportunities for undergraduate students.
Although the government restricted political activity and freedom of association on university campuses, it generally allowed the informal establishment of student unions. Nonetheless, there are no laws that allow student unions to register officially with the government, and among university rectors and faculty there was considerable fear and suspicion of student unions. The office of the Students’ Union of Myanmar opened at Yangon University in July, and the Yangon University of Foreign Languages also opened a student union office. As in previous years, the All Burma Student’s Union was unable to register but participated in some activities through informal networks.
There were reported incidents of the government restricting cultural events. In January the military sued a group of nine high school and college students from Pathein under Article 500 of the criminal code for allegedly defaming the armed forces by performing an antiwar play. In June the Motion Picture Classification Board banned the showing of a film entitled Sittwe, which was due to open at an international human rights festival in Rangoon. The board cited concerns the film, which is a documentary about Buddhist and Muslim youth affected by conflict and forced segregation in northwestern Rakhine State, could have “festered” religious tensions.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides the right to peaceful assembly, and peaceful protests were generally permitted around the country, although in November, the Rangoon region security and border affairs minister instructed police in 11 Rangoon townships to temporarily deny all applications for processions or assemblies, and sometimes the law was used to restrict peaceful protests if prior notification had not been granted or if conducted on private property. Farmers and social activists continued to hold protests over land rights and older cases of land confiscation throughout the country, and human rights groups continued to report cases in which the government arrested groups of farmers and those supporting them for demanding the return of confiscated land. Many reported cases involved land seized by the military under the former military regime and given to private companies or persons with ties to the military. The government also arrested some peaceful ultranationalist protesters. In September, four Burmese nationalists were sentenced to seven months in prison for staging an anti-Rohingya protest outside an embassy in April 2016. The four persons were sentenced for “inciting public unrest” and for violating the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Act. The court justified the verdict on the basis that Kamayut Township had authorized the rally to take place in another location far from the embassy.
Common charges used to convict peaceful protesters included criminal trespass, violation of the Peaceful Assembly and Processions Act, and violation of Section 505(b) of the penal code, which criminalizes actions the government deemed likely to cause “an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.”
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
Although the constitution and laws allow citizens to form associations and organizations, the government sometimes restricted this right.
On May 23, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee ordered that no group or individual would be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some of whose members, including Wirathu, had been sanctioned earlier in the year for inflaming tensions towards the Muslim community using ultranationalist rhetoric. The formal name of the organization is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. Responding to the ban, Ma Ba Tha leaders rebranded the organization under the name Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation.
The law on registering organizations stipulates voluntary registration for local NGOs and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs. Some NGOs that tried to register under this law found the process extremely onerous.
Activists reported civil society groups, community-based organizations, and informal networks operated openly and continued to discuss openly human rights and other political problems. They also reported, however, state surveillance of such operations and discussions was common.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law does not explicitly and comprehensively protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Laws provide rights for citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country “according to law.” Laws related to noncitizens empower the president to make rules for requiring registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require registration for every temporary change of address exceeding 24 hours.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government committed widespread and systematic abuses against the Rohingya population (see Stateless Persons).
In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restricted freedom of movement.
The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move. While a person’s possession of identification documents primarily related to their freedom of movement, authorities also considered race, ethnicity, religion, and place of origin as factors in enforcing these regulations. Residents of ethnic-minority states reported the government restricted the travel of, involuntarily confined, and forcibly relocated IDPs and stateless persons.
Restrictions on in-country movement of Muslims in Rakhine State were extensive. Authorities required the Rohingya, a largely stateless population, to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in five areas in Rakhine State where the Rohingya ethnic minority primarily resides: Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, and Sittwe. Township officers in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships continued to require Rohingya to submit a “form for informing absence from habitual residence” for permission to stay overnight in another village and to register on the guest list with the village administrator. Obtaining these forms and permits often involved extortion and bribes.
Restrictions governing the travel of foreigners, Rohingya, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State varied, depending on township, and generally required submission of a document known as “Form 4.” A traveler could obtain this form only from the township Immigration and National Registration Department (INRD) and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is valid for 14 days. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with payments required to village administrators or to the township INRD office in amounts ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 kyats ($38 to $76). Change of residency from one village or township to another in northern Rakhine State required permission from the INRD or the township, district, and state officials. While Rohingya could change residency, the government would not register them on a new household registration list in that new location. This practice effectively prevented persons from changing residency.
International and local humanitarian staff required travel authorizations from the union and state level in order to operate in Rakhine State. Local staff had to submit travel applications two weeks in advance, and they were often denied. Humanitarian access to northern Rakhine State was suspended entirely in August; however, by the end of the year, the Red Cross Movement, World Food Program, and several other organizations had regained some degree of access. Media and human rights professionals were routinely denied access to Rakhine State.
Travel restrictions effectively prevented Rohingya from northern Rakhine State from traveling outside the state. There were reports the government prevented Rohingya living outside Rakhine State from traveling into the northern part of the state.
There were reports of regular, unannounced nighttime household checks in northern Rakhine State and in other areas.
In October the Kayin State government reportedly issued a letter calling on Muslim travelers to request and receive authorization from village officials. This letter was reportedly rescinded by the chief minister a few days later. Similarly, in Thandwe in southern Rakhine State in October, local officials reportedly required registration of Muslim travelers arriving at the airport, although no official restriction was in place.
Foreign Travel: The government maintained restrictions preventing foreign travel of political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies. While some administrative restrictions remained, local organizations reported encountering far fewer delays and restrictions. Stateless persons, particularly Rohingya, were unable to obtain documentation necessary for foreign travel.
Exile: There was a sizeable diaspora, with some citizens choosing to remain outside the country after years of self-imposed exile. During the year the government encouraged exiles to help rebuild their country, and some returned home; however, the government appeared to maintain an opaque “black list” of individuals, including some from the exile community, who were prohibited from entering the country.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
An estimated 220,000 persons remained internally displaced by violence in Kachin, Rakhine, and northern Shan States at the end of the year. As of September the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs estimated more than 98,000 persons remained displaced because of continued armed conflict in Kachin and Shan States. Camps housing more than half of the IDPs were located in areas beyond government control where government forces restricted humanitarian access. Some IDPs also found refuge with hosting families, and others hid in forested areas straddling the border with China. Approximately 120,000 Rohingya had been confined to IDP camps in Rakhine State since 2012 intercommunal violence. A small number of Kaman and Rakhine had also lived in IDP camps since 2012. This figure did not include an additional unknown number, estimated between 30,000 and 100,000, who were internally displaced following atrocities beginning in August in northern Rakhine State. Accurate figures were difficult to determine due to poor access to affected areas.
Fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups continued in Kachin, Shan, Kayin, and Rakhine States. Ethnic armed groups also clashed among themselves in northern Shan State. Access to displaced persons in or near conflict zones continued to be a challenge, with the government restricting access by humanitarian actors to provide aid to affected communities.
Nearly 90,000 Rohingya IDPs lived in Sittwe’s rural camps, displaced since 2012, where they relied on assistance from aid agencies. Humanitarian agencies provided access to clean water, food, shelter, and sanitation in most IDP camps. The government limited health and education services and livelihood opportunities through severe and systematic restrictions on movement. Conditions in Aung Mingalar, the sole remaining Muslim quarter in Sittwe, remained poor, with Rohingya allowed to leave the fenced and guarded compound only to shop for necessities at nearby markets or to visit outside health clinics if they paid a fee to security services.
During the year humanitarian agencies received travel authorizations to provide assistance sporadically, and international humanitarian staff were not allowed to travel outside of urban areas in Kachin, northern Shan, and northern Rakhine States for much of the year. Humanitarian access to Rakhine State was irregular and restricted. Humanitarian workers continued to be under pressure from local communities to reduce assistance to Muslim IDPs and villages, despite limited access to meet humanitarian needs.
Following the August attacks in northern Rakhine State, security forces launched security operations consisting of atrocities against civilians, and the government temporarily restricted all humanitarian access to central Rakhine State and the three townships of northern Rakhine State–Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung. The government allowed sporadic access to some parts of central Rakhine State to some organizations in September. In northern Rakhine State the government authorized only Red Cross Movement organizations to provide emergency assistance in that area, and humanitarian access remained severely limited at year’s end. Beginning in August local staff of humanitarian organizations, many of whom lived among affected populations, had to apply for travel permits in order to provide services.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted some small-scale, spontaneous IDP returns in the southeast of the country.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The country’s laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR did not register any asylum seekers during the year.
The Myanmar Population and Housing Census reported in 2016 there were an estimated 1.09 million persons in Rakhine State who were not enumerated in the census. According to UNHCR, this number reflected an accurate estimate of the Rohingya population in Rakhine State, the vast majority of whom were stateless. Following the forced displacement of approximately 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Rohingya remained in Rakhine State. There were likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent.
Provisions of the Citizenship Law contributed to statelessness. Following the entry into force of the 1982 law and procedures, the government released a list of 135 recognized “national ethnic groups” whose members are automatically “citizens.” This list excluded the Rohingya, and subsequent actions by the government rendered the vast majority of the Rohingya ethnic minority stateless. The law defines “national ethnic group” only as a racial and ethnic group that can prove origins in the country dating back to 1823, the year prior to British colonization. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate. While the majority of the country’s inhabitants automatically acquired citizenship under these provisions, some minority groups, including the Rohingya; persons of Indian, Chinese, and Nepali descent; and “Pashu” (Straits Chinese), some of whose members had previously enjoyed citizenship in the country, are not included on the government’s list. The Rohingya and others are technically eligible for full citizenship via standard mechanisms unrelated to ethnicity, but they were made to go through a special scrutinization process that generally resulted in naturalized citizenship and did not result in provision of rights generally associated with citizenship. The law does not provide protection for children born in the country who do not have a “relevant link” to another state. UNHCR, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and a number of human rights and humanitarian organizations continued to advocate amendment of the Citizenship Law to bring it in line with the country’s international human rights obligations and commitments (see section 6, Children).
The name Rohingya is used in reference to a group that self-identifies as belonging to an ethnic group defined by religious, linguistic, and other ethnic features. Rohingya hold that they have resided in what is now Rakhine State for generations. In May 2016 the government established a policy of using “Muslims in Rakhine State” to refer to the population, although military officials and many government officials, particularly in Rakhine State, continued to use the pejorative term “Bengali,” and the term was still used on identification documents. The government offers a citizenship verification process to Rohingya to determine who qualifies for citizenship on the basis of mechanisms in the 1982 law that provide pathways to citizenship other than being a member of a national ethnic race. This process met with limited participation from the Rohingya community. The government no longer requires all participants to identify as “Bengali” as a condition of participating in the process, nor does it require applicants to list their race or religion on forms in the earliest phases of the process, although implementing officials reportedly continued to require participants to identify as “Bengali.” Those who are verified as a citizen (of whatever type) would have “Bengali” listed as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card. This process and the separate national verification process was not seen as credible by the Rohingya community, in part because many continued to be told they were required to apply as “Bengali,” because the few Rohingya who received national verification cards or citizenship through these processes did not receive significant rights and benefits, and because the government implemented the process in a coercive manner, for example, by requiring a national verification card to go fishing or access a bank account. The government continued to call on Rohingya to participate, but many of them expressed the need for more assurances about the results of the process. Many said they were already citizens and expressed fear the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would provide a form of lesser citizenship–naturalized rather than full–thereby formalizing their lack of rights.
According to the Citizenship Law, two lesser forms of citizenship exist: associate and naturalized. According to other legal statutes, these citizens are unable to run for political office; serve in the military, police, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. According to the Citizenship Law, only the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.
Rohingya experienced severe legal, economic, and social discrimination. The government required them to receive prior approval for travel outside their village of residence; limited their access to higher education, health care, and other basic services; and prohibited them from working as civil servants, including as doctors, nurses, or teachers. Authorities singled out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor and arbitrarily arrested them. Authorities required Rohingya to obtain official permission for marriages and limited the registration of children to two per family, but local enforcement of the two-child policy was inconsistent. For the most part, authorities registered additional children beyond the two-child limit for Rohingya families, yet there were cases of authorities not doing so.
Restrictions impeded the ability of Rohingya to construct houses or religious buildings.
Local security officials in Rakhine State committed violent crimes and arbitrarily arrested an unknown number of Rohingya, according to reports. Many of these reports cited events from August to December.