Rule of law: Myanmar’s junta uses legislation to quash civil society

Rebecca RootTuesday 25 April 2023

Military forces in Myanmar are using legislation to create a tougher operating environment for civil society, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and those providing aid in the country. ‘They are trying to legalise their status [and] misuse their power’ via legislation that permits them to ‘restrict [and] to oppress the population’, explains a human rights activist who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

Myanmar’s military junta deposed the democratically elected government via a coup in early 2021. Since then, the State Administration Council (SAC) has tried to maintain control via violence and ‘the use of a judicial system it can effectively bend to its will’, explains Oliver Slow, author of Return of the Junta, a book on the military's methods of control in Myanmar.

The latest addition to that system is the Organisation Registration Law, also known as the ‘CSO Law’. Introduced in October, it makes registration with local authorities mandatory for NGOs, civil society organisations (CSOs) and associations and stipulates that they share details on sources of funding and areas of operation. Additionally, it prohibits the provision of services to those the SAC deems its opponents and in areas outside the junta’s control.

Resistance movements – estimated to include up to 55,000 people, according to the Wilson Center – and conflict emerged almost immediately after the coup. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners puts the death toll since the start of the coup at over 3,000, with more than 21,000 people, including children, arrested – placing Myanmar in direct conflict with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the country signed in 1991.

This [CSO] law looks to be an effort to completely distinguish any flames of resistance that are left

Oliver Slow
Author, Return of the Junta

Rule of law has ‘completely collapsed’ since the coup, says Slow, who adds that many civil society actors have been forced to leave the country or go into hiding, limiting opposition to the SAC. In 2021, the World Justice Project ranked Myanmar at 128 out of 139 countries in regards to the rule of law. ‘This [CSO] Law looks to be an effort to completely distinguish any flames of resistance that are left, by granting authorities broad and sweeping powers to harshly punish any organisation or individuals whose activities it doesn’t like’, says Slow.

The SAC did not respond to Global Insight’s request for comment.

Failure to comply with the CSO law can result in fines of around $2,400 and up to five years’ imprisonment. While no arrests have yet been reported, certain organisations have already declared their refusal to register. The Mandalay CSOs Network, for example, said in a statement that it would instead move to support those fighting the ‘injustice’.

The human rights activist Global Insight spoke to says his organisation would never be able to register given the nature of its work in reporting human right violations. He believes the law is an attempt to ‘control’ such organisations ‘so that their violations will not be reported’. Reports of atrocities are frequent. In March at the UN Human Rights Council’s 52nd Session, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, reported that since the junta took back power, ‘58,000 civilian homes and structures have been burned to the ground or otherwise destroyed’ and that the Special Rapporteur’s office regularly receives ‘reports of massacres of civilians, including beheadings, and dismemberment’.

The new law ‘will most probably limit humanitarian assistance’, says Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) Council, which means many will suffer as a consequence. This type of legislation has become customary in autocracies, she adds.

International human rights law and standards require countries to facilitate basic rights in times of conflict. The CSO Law, according to the International Commission of Jurists, fails to comply with this and instead prevents aid groups from supporting those linked to the resistance. The number of people estimated to require aid within Myanmar stands at 17.6 million, around a third of the country’s population, reports the NGO Humanitarian Action.

‘The military has an obligation to the people of Myanmar to facilitate the work of civil society and to ensure unimpeded access to communities in desperate need of assistance, not target them through bureaucratic harassment or threaten them with prosecution’, said James Rodehaver, Head of the Myanmar Team at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in a statement in November. The OHCHR has called on the military ‘to meet their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, particularly to enhance protection of civilians, release political prisoners, and restore a political system representative of the will of the people of Myanmar’.

The CSO Law is just one of several ways the SAC is utilising the judicial system as part of its new regime. Amendments to the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law means residents must now inform local administrators of any guests, outside of their immediate family, staying at their home; certain rights under the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of the Citizens have been suspended allowing authorities to enter homes and detain people; and amendments to the Penal Code mean people accused of spreading ‘false news’ can be prosecuted.

The military has also ‘conducted innumerable sham trials, often of high-profile opposition figures, then granted them often absurd prison sentences as another attempt at scaring the population into submission’, says Slow. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was ousted as Myanmar’s leader by the junta, has for example been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison over a series of charges that her team has refuted. According to the IBAHRI, Aung San Suu Kyi was denied the right to a fair trial.

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