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 continued during the year.
Freedom of Expression: Freedom of expression was more restricted than in 2018. Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, intimidated, and imprisoned citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government and the military, generally under charges of defamation, incitement, protesting without a permit, or violating national security laws. This included the detentions and trials of activists and ordinary citizens. The government applied laws carrying more severe punishments than in the past, including laws enabling years-long prison sentences.
The criminal defamation clause under the telecommunications law was frequently used to restrict freedom of expression. Several critics of the government and the military faced charges under this law. On August 29, for example, noted filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was sentenced to one year in prison for Facebook posts that were critical of the military’s role in politics; he also faced other potential charges.
Five members of the Peacock Generation performance troupe were detained without bail for a satirical performance during the April New Year holiday criticizing the military’s role in politics. On October 30, five members were found guilty of defaming the military and were sentenced to one year of labor. As of November the case for other charges continued.
Military officers brought or sought to bring charges against several prominent religious figures based on their criticism of the military, including multiple Buddhist monks and the prominent Kachin Baptist reverend, Hkalam Samson. Authorities dropped the complaint against Samson, but the cases against at least two prominent, protolerance monks critical of the military and Bamar Buddhist ultranationalism, Sein Ti Ta and Myawaddy Sayadaw, remained open as of November.
A variety of laws were used to censor or prosecute public dissent. On June 19 and 21, the military used a privacy law to press charges against 12 individuals, including reporters, for allegedly aiding and abetting trespass on seized land in Kayah State. As of November the case continued.
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.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and able to operate, despite many official and unofficial restrictions. The government continued to permit the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of July authorities approved 46 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2018, 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, for example, democratic reform and international investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, although they observed some self-censorship on these subjects. Official action or threats of such action increased against journalists reporting on conflict in Rakhine State involving the AA. The government generally permitted media outlets 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 through prosecution by civil authorities. Members of the ruling party increasingly prosecuted journalists perceived as critical.
In May the president granted amnesty to two Reuters reporters detained in late 2017 and sentenced in 2018 to seven years in prison under the Official Secrets Act for their investigation of security forces’ activities in northern Rakhine State.
On September 30, a court ruled a defamation case could again be heard against Myanmar Now editor in chief Swe Win. Charges were dismissed on July 2 after the plaintiff, Wirathu, repeatedly failed to appear in court; as of November the case continued. Swe Win was arrested in 2017 for allegedly sharing a Facebook post suggesting the monk Wirathu, a prominent Ma Ba Tha (a local Buddhist organization) figurehead, violated the monastic code of conduct by making statements commending the 2017 assassination of well known Muslim constitutional lawyer Ko Ni (see section 1.a.).
The government relaxation of its monopoly and control of domestic television broadcasting continued, with five private companies broadcasting using Ministry of Information platforms. Many media outlets reported the cost of applying for and maintaining a television channel was prohibitive. The government offered three public channels–two controlled by the Ministry of Information and one by the military; the ministry channels regularly aired the military’s content. Two private companies that had strong links to the previous military regime continued to broadcast six free-to-air channels. 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 military, government, and government-linked businesspersons controlled the eight privately or quasi-governmentally owned FM radio stations.
Violence and Harassment: Nationalist groups continued to target journalists who criticized government policy on 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 foreign media, exposing journalists who reported for or cooperated with international media to potential harassment, intimidation, and arrest. There were no reports of overt prepublication censorship, 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 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 that such self-censorship became more pronounced after the 2018 trial and conviction of two Reuters journalists. The government ordered media outlets 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’ access to northern Rakhine State except on government-organized trips that participants reported to be tightly controlled and designed to advance the government’s narrative. The government continued to use visa issuance and shortened visa validities to control foreign journalists, especially those not based in the country.
The government censorship board reviews all films to be screened inside the country. On June 15, the screening of a film critical of the military was abruptly pulled from the opening night of the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival. The founder of the festival, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, was in jail at the time and was later convicted of criticizing the military (see section 2.a.).
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.
Libel/Slander Laws: Military and civilian government officials used broad defamation statutes to bring criminal charges against journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens.
In February a Dawei Township court fined the editor of the Thanintharyi Journal 500,000 kyat ($330) over the journal’s 2017 publication of a satirical article about a regional official. On August 26, six Karenni youths were charged with slander for calling the Kayah State chief minister a traitor over his support for the erection of a statue to Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. On November 7, they were sentenced to six months in prison with labor.
In September a local NLD office in Ayeyarwaddy Region brought charges against a cartoonist for allegedly defaming the township and the NLD. On September 19, an NLD official in Mandalay sued two Facebook users, alleging their satiric memes defamed the regional chief minister.
The government did not generally censor online content. The government did, however, restrict access to the internet. On June 20, the Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered mobile phone operators to stop mobile internet traffic in eight townships in northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in southern Chin State due to “disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities.” The ban was lifted on August 31 in five of the nine affected townships but remained in effect in four townships in northern Rakhine State as of November.
The Telecommunications Law includes broad provisions giving the government the power to temporarily block and filter content, on grounds of “benefit of the people.” According to Freedom House, pressure on users to remove content continued to originate from the government, military, and other groups. The law does not include provisions to force the removal of content or provide for intermediary liability, although some articles are vague and could be argued to cover content removal. Pressure to remove content instead came from the use or threat of use of other criminal provisions.
The government’s Social Media Monitoring Team reportedly continued to monitor 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.
Government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events continued.
The government tightened restrictions on political activity and freedom of association on university campuses. On February 13, seven students of Yadanabon University in Mandalay were found guilty of arson and of holding a December 2018 protest without providing proper notification. The students were sentenced to a total of three months’ in prison with hard labor. The seven students were prominent members of the Yadanabon Student Union and were involved in organizing a series of protests beginning on December 28 on Yadanabon University campus, calling for improved campus security. During the protest dozens of students burned a mock coffin containing photos of the university rector, the chief minister of Mandalay Region, the regional minister for electricity, road, and transportation, and the minister for security and border affairs.
The government generally allowed the informal establishment of student unions, although among university rectors and faculty there was considerable fear and suspicion of student unions. Although some student unions were allowed to open unofficial offices, 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. There is a ban on street art.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.
Although the constitution provides the right to peaceful assembly, it was not always respected in practice. Authorities used laws against criminal trespass as well as provisions which criminalize actions the government deemed likely to cause “an offense against the State or against the public tranquility” to restrict peaceful assembly.
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 protest land rights’ violations and land confiscation throughout the country, and human rights groups reported the arrest of farmers and supporters. Many reported cases involved land seized by the former military regime and given to private companies or persons with ties to the military.
Whether civil society organizations were required to apply for advance permission before holding meetings and other functions in hotels and other public venues varied by situation and by government official. Some officials forced venues to cancel civil society events where such permission was not obtained; others required civil society organizations to request advance permission from the local government to meet with diplomats.
Following a peaceful protest in February against the erection of a statue of the Burmese independence hero (and father of Aung San Suu Kyi) General Aung San in Loikaw, Kayah State, the local government arrested 55 demonstrators, with charges of defamation and illegal protest which were later dropped after negotiations between activists and the local government.
On October 2, the chairwoman of the Karen Women’s Union, Naw Ohn Hla, and two other activists were convicted and sentenced to 15 days in prison for holding an unauthorized Karen Martyr’s Day celebration in Rangoon in August. They had sought approval from authorities before the commemoration, but it was not granted because of the use of the term “martyr,” a term the government tended to associate exclusively with Aung San and the members of his cabinet who were assassinated alongside him.
Although the constitution and laws allow citizens to form associations and organizations, the government sometimes restricted this right.
In July the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (a government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks) again declared Ma Ba Tha an “illegal organization.” The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee had banned Ma Ba Tha from using that name in 2017. 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 that civil society groups, community-based organizations, and informal networks operated openly and continued to discuss human rights and other political problems openly. They reported, however, that state surveillance of such operations and discussions was common and that government restrictions on meetings and other activity continued during the year.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law does not protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation. Local regulations limit the rights of citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country. By law the president may require the registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require foreigners to register every change of address exceeding 24 hours.
The government appeared to restrict informally repatriation by maintaining an opaque “black list” of individuals, including some from the exile community, who were prohibited from entering the country.
In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restrict freedom of movement.
Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya were extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State where most Rohingya reside. 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 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, a temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is generally valid for two to four weeks, but it is given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, effectively eliminating many opportunities to work or study. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with required payments to village administrators or to the township INRD office ranging from the official amount of 30,000 to more than two million kyats ($20 to $1,320). Extensive administrative measures are imposed on Rohingya and foreigners in Rakhine State, which effectively prevented persons from changing residency.
There were credible reports of hundreds of Rohingya serving prison terms of up to two years for attempting to travel out of Rakhine State without prior authorization. In October authorities convicted 30 Rohingya for attempting to travel from Rakhine State to Rangoon without travel permits. The court sentenced 21 of them to two years in prison and sent eight children to a detention center. The youngest, age five, was being held in a Pathein prison with his mother as of November. In January seven Rohingya, including a child, from Kyauktaw Township in Rakhine State were sentenced to two years’ detention for travelling without valid documents after walking 300 miles to western Bago Region.
Foreign Travel: The government maintained restrictions to prevent foreign travel by political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies, although such persons reported encountering far fewer delays and restrictions. Stateless persons, particularly Rohingya, were unable to obtain documentation necessary for foreign travel.
As of October an estimated 263,000 individuals were living as IDPs due to violence in Kachin, Rakhine, and northern Shan states. Some 101,000 Rohingya IDPs have been displaced since 2012. The UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs estimated that more than 28,000 of the primarily Rohingya IDPs in Rakhine State have been displaced by armed conflict since January and that more than 8,000 persons were displaced in northern Shan State at the height of the violence there in August, although most of these later returned home. Approximately 128,000 Rohingya remained confined to IDP camps in Rakhine State following 2012 intercommunal violence; a small number of Kaman and Rakhine have also lived in IDP camps since 2012. An additional estimated 7,000 Rohingya remained internally displaced following atrocities beginning in 2017 in northern Rakhine State along with a small number of individuals from other ethnic groups. Accurate figures were difficult to determine due to continued poor access to affected areas.
In addition to internal displacement provoked by conflict, a March report by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma highlighted displacement (as well as the loss of livelihood) caused by natural resource extraction and environmental destruction in Kachin, Shan, and Kayin States. The special rapporteur noted increased human rights abuses associated with militarization around resource extraction sites prevented IDPs from returning home.
The United Nations and other humanitarian agencies reported significant deterioration in humanitarian access during the year, and the military blocked access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations in areas controlled by nonstate armed groups (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse). Access to displaced persons in or near conflict zones continued to be a challenge, with the military restricting access by humanitarian actors seeking to provide aid to affected communities.
The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move, limiting access to health services and schooling. 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 IDPs and stateless persons.
Some 101,000 Rohingya IDPs lived in Sittwe’s rural camps, where they relied on assistance from aid agencies. Humanitarian agencies provided access to clean water, food, shelter, and sanitation in most IDP camps for Rohingya.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government did not always cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. For example, the government routinely refused to allow humanitarian organizations access to Rakhine State and other locations.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting 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 vast majority of Rohingya are stateless. Following the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, up to 600,000 Rohingya were estimated to remain in Rakhine State. There were also likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent. Although these latter groups did not face the same level of official and social discrimination as Rohingya, they were still subject to the lesser rights and greater restrictions of associate and naturalized citizenship.
The government recognizes 135 “national ethnic groups” whose members are automatically full citizens. The law also establishes two forms of citizenship short of full citizenship: associate and naturalized. Citizens of these two types are unable to run for political office; form a political party; serve in the military, police, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. Only members of the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.
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. In practice the government has granted or withdrawn “national ethnic group” status from ethnic groups throughout the country on various occasions. Because the Rohingya are not on the list, and due to other government action, they are stateless. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate.
Some Rohingya are technically eligible for full citizenship. The process involves additional official scrutiny and in practice requires substantial bribes to government officials, and even then it does not provide for the rights guaranteed to other full citizens. Members of other ethnic groups faced similar challenges.
The law does not provide protection for children born in the country who do not have a “relevant link” to another state.
The government continued to call for Rohingya to apply for National Verification Cards (NVC), created in 2015. The government claims that these cards are necessary to apply for citizenship. NGO reports indicated that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. For example, there were reported cases of government officials requiring Rohingya to have an NVC to go fishing or access a bank account. Many Rohingya 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, thereby formalizing their lack of rights. Some townships in Rakhine State required Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs.