Myanmar: UN review critical moment to address repressed civic freedoms

Statement on Myanmar ahead of Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights

CIVICUS, Free Expression Myanmar and Asia Democracy Network call on UN member states to urge the Government of Myanmar to protect civic freedoms as its human rights record is examined by the UN Human Rights Council on 25 January 2021 as part of the 37th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 

At the county’s second UPR five years ago, UN member states made 22 recommendations that directly related to civic space. Myanmar subsequently accepted seven recommendations, committing to taking concrete measures to, among others, “create and maintain a safe and enabling environment for civil society, human rights defenders and journalists” and to “work to ensure that freedom of opinion and expression are protected”.

In a joint submission to this UPR cycle, our organisations assessed implementation of these recommendations and compliance with international human rights law and standards over the last five years. The submission found that since 2015, the authorities have perpetrated serious human rights violations and escalated attacks on democratic freedoms. 

The government has continued to use an array of unwarrantedly restrictive laws to arrest and prosecute human rights defenders, activists, journalists and government critics for the peaceful exercise of their freedoms of association and expression. Artists have also been targeted: members of the Peacock Generation ‘Thangyat’ poetry troupe remain jailed following their arrest in 2019 for allegedly criticising the military in a satirical performance that was livestreamed on Facebook. Since June 2019, the government has imposed an effective internet blackout in parts of Rakhine and Chin States and silenced those critical of the shutdown.

‘States must take the opportunity of Myanmar’s UPR to hold the government to account for violations,’ said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaign Lead at CIVICUS. ‘Myanmar has not adequately delivered on the human rights commitments it made during its last cycle and those on the ground being persecuted for demanding reforms, for reporting on atrocities or simply for expressing dissent, need support from the international community.’

Myanmar further committed in its last UPR to “take concrete steps to promote and protect the right of peaceful assembly.” As our submission shows, however, restrictions on peaceful protests remain in law and practice. Arbitrary arrest and prosecution of protesters has been widespread, and the authorities have used excessive force and firearms to disperse protests against government policies and in land disputes with businesses.

More egregiously, gross human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State continue. Since 2016, the authorities – both military and civilian – have denied access or imposed restrictions on access for humanitarian CSOs providing aid to Rakhine State, including shelter, food and protection, predominantly to Rohingya people.

‘Myanmar’s elections last year – the second election since the end of military rule in 2011 – highlighted the downward spiral of rights with the censorship of political parties, ongoing internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin States and the systematic and deliberate disenfranchisement of voters from ethnic minorities. This must be reflected in recommendations made during the country’s UPR,’ said Ichal Supriadi, Secretary-General of the Asia Democracy Network

As highlighted in our joint submission, CIVICUS, Free Expression Myanmar and Asia Democracy Network urge states to make recommendations to Myanmar which if implemented would guarantee the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and the state’s duty to protect.

Key recommendations that should be made include:

  • Provide HRDs, civil society members and journalists with a safe and secure environment in which they can carry out their work and unconditionally and immediately release all HRDs and activists detained for exercising their fundamental rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and drop all charges against them.
  • Initiate a consolidated process of repeal or amendment of legalisation that unwarrantedly restricts the legitimate work of HRDs and civil society. Specifically, we call for the  repeal or review of all criminal defamation laws including section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunication Law, Section 9(a,b,g), Section 25 and 30 of the News Media Law, Section 46 of the Anti-Corruption Law, Section 34(d) of the Electronic Transaction Law, section 499 to 502 of Penal Code and repeal the Unlawful Associations Act 2014.
  • Lift the effective internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin State and refrain from measures to prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online intentionally, in violation of international human rights law.
  • Review and amend the News Media Law, the Printing and Publication Enterprise Law, and the Official Secrets Act to ensure that these laws are in line with international standards in the area of the freedom of expression.
  • Ensure that journalists and human rights monitors are provided unfettered access to all areas, particularly conflict-affected regions, and can work freely and without fear of reprisals for expressing critical opinions or covering topics that the government may deem sensitive.
  • Amend the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law in order to guarantee fully the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly.  
  • Guarantee to the Rohingya people and other minorities the full enjoyment of their civil and political rights and take material measures to address the serious crimes they have suffered

The examination of Myanmar will take place during the 37th Session of the UPR. The UPR is a process, in operation since 2008, which examines the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States every four and a half years. The review is an interactive dialogue between the State delegation and members of the Council and addresses a broad range of human rights topics. Following the review, a report and recommendations are prepared, which is discussed and adopted at the following session of the Human Rights Council. 

Civic space in Myanmar is rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor, see country page.