Burma

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides, “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 continued during the year.

Freedom of Expression: Freedom of expression was more restricted compared with 2017. Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, intimidated, and imprisoned citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government and the military, generally under the charges of defamation, protesting without a permit, or violating national security laws. This included the detentions and trials of journalists and other figures, applying 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. Use of the law continued apace from 2017. According to a local activist group that advocates for freedom of expression, 198 criminal defamation cases have been filed under Section 66(d) since the law was introduced in 2013. Several journalists, as well as critics of the government and the military, continued to face charges under this law. On January 6, Mon State authorities sued a Facebook user, U Aung Ko Ko Lwin, for a post disparaging the Mon State Chief Minister Dr. Aye Zaw, citing the separate Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, which similarly criminalizes defamation.

Ngar Min Swe, a former newspaper columnist and prominent critic of the government, was arrested in July on charges of “excit[ing] disaffection towards the government” for a Facebook post he wrote in January that was critical of Aung San Suu Kyi. On September 17, he was given a seven-year prison sentence.

Other government prosecutions of politicians and activists included the September 10 high treason (Article 122) and defamation of the state (criminal code Article 505(b)) charges against Aye Maung and Wai Hin Aung for remarks that reportedly expressed support for the Arakan Army, and the October 8 two-year prison sentence under Article 505(c) for inciting conflict between ethnic or religious groups of Maung Thway Chuun for his speech criticizing Christian leaders of the parliament and criticizing the government for allowing Buddhism to “disappear.”

A court in Myitkyina on December 7 sentenced three Kachin peace activists–Lum Zawng, Nang Pu, and Zau Jat–to six months in prison with an additional 500,000 kyat ($320) fine for their involvement in a peaceful protest over conditions of internally displaced persons in Kachin State. They were charged under a section of Myanmar’s penal code that criminalizes defamation of the military, based on statements they made at the April protest, which followed an increase in fighting between the military and the KIA. A court in Myitkyina then fined three other activists who led a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of the first activists.

Other problematic laws that remained in force, 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 Sections 124(a) and 505(b) of the penal code (which cover “exciting disaffection towards the Government” and committing an “offense against the State or against the public tranquility,” respectively), 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.

On August 16, the chairman of the NLD in Magwe Region issued a notice instructing regional bodies to take legal action against people who use Facebook to severely defame State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi or the regional and national governments.

Some people 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 October authorities approved 28 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2017, 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, and international investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, although they observed some self-censorship on these subjects. The government generally permitted media to cover protests and civil conflict, topics not reported widely in state-run media.

The military continued to practice zero tolerance of perceived critical media commentary, while members of the ruling party increasingly used existing legislation to prosecute journalists and a former columnist perceived as critical.

Two Reuters reporters, who were detained in December 2017 and charged under the Official Secrets Act related to their investigation of security forces’ activities in northern Rakhine State, remained incarcerated throughout their trial and were sentenced on September 3 to seven years in prison after a trial that many observers criticized as lacking due process. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, in a June 8 interview with Japanese broadcasting organization NHK and in public remarks at the World Economic Forum on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in September, rebuffed critics and defended the jailing of the two journalists.

Myanmar Now editor in chief Swe Win’s 66(d) trial continued in Mandalay as of October, and the court rejected a motion to dismiss the case. In March 2017 Swe Win was arrested because of allegedly sharing 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.).

On October 1, a Dawei township court charged the editor of the Thanintharyi Journal under the Media Law over the journal’s November 2017 publication of a satirical article about a regional official.

On October 10, the Yangon regional government detained two editors and one journalist from the Eleven Media Group and charged them under Section 505(b) following publication of an article concerning the regional government’s alleged financial malfeasance. Following President Win Myint’s order to turn the case over to the Myanmar Press Council, the regional government dropped the charges on November 9, while holding out the possibility of reinstating charges if the press council’s ruling was unsatisfactory.

Radio, television, and the internet were the primary mass communication media. Circulation of independent news periodicals declined outside of urban areas, and circulation of government-controlled print media far exceeded independent media circulation. 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 aired 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 signed licenses in February with five media companies, including formerly exiled media groups DVB and Mizzima Media, to broadcast their content in a landmark public-private broadcasting partnership. The ministry insisted that the five companies, which use state-owned broadcaster Myanmar Radio and Television’s transmission infrastructure, abide by government guidelines on content, including avoiding using the term “Rohingya” in most cases. Many media outlets 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 critically 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, including with the threat of legal action. Officials continued to monitor journalists in various parts of the country.

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 heightened concern among local journalists and increased the use of self-censorship.

Self-censorship was common, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, the situation in Rakhine State, and the peace process. Journalists reported such self-censorship became more pronounced because of the trial and conviction of the two Reuters journalists. The government ordered 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 government-organized trips that participants reported to be tightly controlled and designed to advance the government’s narrative. The number of such trips increased during the year. The government continued to use visa issuance and shortened visa validities to control foreign journalists, especially those not routinely based in the country.

The government censorship board reviews all films to be screened inside the country. This process resulted in the censorship of one film scheduled for screening at the European Film Festival in September because of nudity.

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. U Thawbita, a Buddhist monk in Mandalay, surrendered to police on September 28 after being charged under 66(d) because of a Facebook post he wrote criticizing the commander in chief and the military’s role in politics. He was released on bail, and the case continued at year’s end.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. The government set up a Social Media Monitoring Team and reportedly monitored internet communications without clear legal authority and used defamation charges to intimidate and detain some individuals using social media to criticize the military, government officials, or the ruling party. 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, although there were military-affiliated disinformation campaigns on social media. 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 in 2017 by international NGO Freedom House rated internet freedom in the country not free, consistent with previous years.

Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act limited freedom of expression online.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events continued. 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.

The government tightened restrictions on political activity and freedom of association on university campuses. In January, university administrations expelled 34 students in several universities for participating in student protests calling for increased education funding. In addition the Ministry of Education issued a directive in May forbidding speeches on political issues on university campuses and requiring details to be submitted in advance for the organization of seminars or talks, including names and biographies of all panelists and a list of all participants. Following widespread student protest, the ministry withdrew the directive and issued subsequent regulations that allowed political discussions while keeping in place the need for prior approval of topics and participant lists.

The government generally allowed the informal establishment of student unions. Nonetheless, no laws allow student unions to register officially with the government, and among university rectors and faculty there was considerable fear and suspicion of student unions. Although some student unions were allowed to open offices unofficially in some locations, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, as in previous years, was unable to register but participated in some activities through informal networks.

There were reported incidents of the government restricting cultural events.

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, although this right was not always respected in practice. Restrictions remained in place in 11 Rangoon townships on all applications for processions or assemblies. Some civil society groups asserted these restrictions were selectively applied and used to prevent demonstrations against the government or military. 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.

Local government officials in Yangon Region, Kayah State, and elsewhere required civil society organizations to apply for advance permission before holding meetings and other functions in hotels and other public venues. Officials forced venues to cancel civil society events where such permission was not obtained. Officials in Mandalay Division and Kayah State required civil society organizations to request advance permission from the local government to meet with diplomats.

At least 42 persons were arrested in May for their participation in peaceful antiwar protests in Rangoon, Mandalay, and other cities. Three people who were arrested for their participation in a related poetry reading were sentenced on September 19, two with fines of 20,000 kyats ($13) and one opting to serve 15 days in prison instead of paying the fine.

Following a peaceful protest on July 3 against the erection of a statue of the Burmese independence hero General Aung San, in Loikaw, Kayah State, 16 demonstrators were arrested; 11 of those 16 faced charges under Sections 505(b) for distributing pamphlets related to the protest. The trial continued as of October.

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 offense 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.

In June the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee ordered local branches of the organization commonly known as Ma Ba Tha to remove signs using that name, following a 2017 ban on the use of the name after which the organization formally rebranded itself the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. Some of its members, including Wirathu, were sanctioned in 2017 for inflaming tensions towards the Muslim community using ultranationalist rhetoric. Some local branches of the organization continued to use the name on their signs in spite of the ban, and as of October no action had been taken against them.

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 reported, however, that state surveillance of such operations and discussions was common and that government restrictions on meetings and other activity increased during the year.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

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 restrict freedom of movement.

The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move. While a person’s freedom of movement generally derived from possession of identification documents, 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 Rohingya 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 primarily reside: 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 generally valid for two to four weeks. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with required payments to village administrators or to the township INRD office in amounts ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 kyats ($32 to $64). The government removed the Form 4 requirement between Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in late 2017, only for individuals in possession of formal identity documents, although other formal and informal local restrictions on movement remained in place. 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 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 2017; however, during the course of 2018, the Red Cross Movement, World Food Program, and several other organizations 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 to other parts of the state, including the capital of Sittwe, and outside the state.

In May, Hla Phyu was arrested and convicted of false representation after attempting to leave an IDP camp in Rakhine State, where she had been living since her displacement during violence in 2012, and travel to Rangoon. The 23-year-old teacher, who is Muslim, had previously applied for official permission to travel without success, and eventually traveled without receiving permission. She was sentenced to a year in prison with hard labor.

There were reports of regular, unannounced nighttime household checks in northern Rakhine State and in other areas.

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.

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.

STATELESS PERSONS

The vast majority of Rohingya were stateless. Following the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 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 full 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 full 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 must go through a special process with additional scrutiny that in practice requires substantial bribes to government officials to access the government’s family records or to ensure officials formally accept a citizenship application for processing. This process generally results in naturalized citizenship without the complete set of rights associated with full citizenship. The law does not provide protection for children born in the country who do not have a “relevant link” to another state.

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 maintained they have resided in what is now Rakhine State for generations. In 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 term “Bengali,” which is considered a pejorative. This term is 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. The Rohingya community participated in this process in a limited manner. 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 were 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, there were reported cases that a government official required Rohingya to have 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.

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