Government using law to crackdown on protesters, collect personal data nationwide
(YANGON—March 19, 2015) The Myanmar government should immediately end warrantless searches of private homes and abolish the requirement that all residents register overnight houseguests with government officials, Fortify Rights said in a new report released today.
In the past two weeks, Myanmar authorities have reportedly searched private residences under the pretense of checking for unregistered overnight guests in order to detain activists involved in recent student-led protests.
The Ward or Village Tract Administration Law of 2012, which replaced two earlier laws enacted over a century ago, requires residents to inform government officials when visitors spend the night in their homes and to report personal data about those visitors. Myanmar authorities enforce the guest registration requirement through late-night household inspections, leading many to refer to the longstanding practice as “midnight inspections.” The law is often used to target dissenters.
“Despite all the good that’s come out of Myanmar’s political transition, basic freedoms are still being trampled,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “These intrusions are unnecessary and diverse communities throughout the country have dealt with them for too long.”
The 47-page report, Midnight Intrusions: Ending Guest Registration and Household Inspections in Myanmar, is based on analysis of the 2012 law and interviews with 90 residents of six states and regions. The report describes how the guest registration requirement and its enforcement through household inspections impinge on human rights to privacy and freedoms of movement, residency, and association.
In effect, Myanmar residents need permission from the state to host overnight guests, and the law puts nationwide data about who is sleeping where—and for how long—in the hands of government officials. Some ward or village tract administrators possess personal household data dating back decades.
The report describes how officials selectively enforce the guest registration requirement and use household inspections to monitor, harass, and interfere with the activities of civil society organizations and political activists, among others. Many people in Myanmar told Fortify Rights they worry that mandatory guest registration and nighttime household inspections will be used to crush social movements or further violate human rights. Some expressed fears for their safety and security as well as that of their families.
“Under this law, individuals exercising their right to peaceful assembly by day may be subject to warrantless inspections by night,” said Matthew Smith. “As long as this law remains on the books, authorities are free to use household inspections to target dissenters and oppress the least advantaged.”
Fortify Rights found that individuals without adequate documentation or legal status in Myanmar face challenges hosting or staying as overnight guests, and, in some cases, are forced to register themselves as guests in their own homes.
Moreover, Fortify Rights found that Myanmar authorities conduct more household inspections within poorer communities and are more likely to collect fees in these areas. “They care that I am poor,” said an ethnic Burman woman who must register her family with a ward administrator every five days.
“My understanding is that there are no midnight inspections in democracies,” an ethnic Mon-Burman shopkeeper from Dala Township, Yangon, told Fortify Rights. “While this practice is still being applied, we feel like the authorities are practicing the policies of the old government.”
On a positive note, Fortify Rights found that compliance with the guest registration requirement and enforcement through household inspections has declined significantly in recent years. Increasingly, people throughout the country are demonstrating their opposition to the guest registration requirement through civil disobedience by refusing to register their guests and objecting to nighttime inspections.
“There’s a growing understanding in Myanmar that guest registration and midnight inspections are incompatible with the nation’s democratic aspirations,” said Matthew Smith. “Myanmar’s government should get on the right side of this issue and ensure the relevant provisions of the law are repealed.”