Protect Rights to Privacy and Freedom of Movement, Residency, and Association

(Yangon, May 30, 2016)—The Myanmar Parliament should repeal legal provisions that empower authorities to conduct warrantless searches of private homes and require all residents to register overnight houseguests with government officials, Fortify Rights said today.

The Amyotha Hluttaw—the Upper House of Parliament—is discussing a bill to amend the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law of 2012, which replaced two earlier laws enacted over a century ago. The law requires residents to inform government officials when visitors spend the night in their homes and to report personal data about those visitors. Authorities enforce the guest registration requirement through late-night raids, commonly known as “midnight inspections,” and have used the law to target low-income communities, individuals working with civil society organizations, and political activists.

Members of Parliament with the National League for Democracy (NLD) party introduced the bill to amend the law to bring it in line with human rights standards. Military-appointed MPs, who hold 25 percent of the seats in parliament, oppose changes to the law, arguing that the law is necessary to ensure “national security.”

“Guest registration and unwarranted searches have no place in a rights-respecting democracy,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “These provisions infringe on basic human rights, making Myanmar less secure. Parliament should repeal these provisions once and for all.”

The law effectively requires all Myanmar residents to seek permission from the authorities to host overnight guests and puts information about who is sleeping where—and for how long—in the hands of government officials. The authorities have access to individual household data dating back decades, infringing on the right to privacy.

In March 2015, Fortify Rights published a 47-page report,Midnight Intrusions: Ending Guest Registration and Household Inspections in Myanmar, based on an analysis of the 2012 law and interviews with 90 residents of six states and regions in Myanmar. 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. Furthermore, 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.

The guest registration requirement of the 2012 Ward or Village Tract Administration Act and its enforcement by local government officials in Myanmar violates fundamental rights and freedoms under international law, including the rights to privacy and freedom of movement, residency, and association. These rights may be restricted only if the restriction is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim. The provisions of the 2012 law fail to meet these criteria, making it incompatible with international human rights law.

According to the Myanmar Times, military-appointed MP Colonel Hla Win Aung stated in parliament that “[r]emoving the sections . . . means destroying the security fence of the country. You need to be aware of how big the danger of illegal Bengali immigrants is [sic].” Officials in Myanmar commonly refer to the Rohingya Muslim minority as Bengali, implying that they are from Bangladesh rather than their native Myanmar.

Ward or village tract administrators largely carry out the problematic provisions of the law. These low level civil servants are overseen by the powerful, centralized General Administrative Department, which is controlled by the Myanmar military through the Ministry of Home Affairs. 

“It’s disingenuous for the military to frame this debate as an issue of national security,” said Matthew Smith. “For too long the military has used this law to suppress rather than protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Myanmar Parliament should repeal sections 13(g)-(h), 13(n), 17, and 33 of the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law of 2012, said Fortify Rights.

Sections 13(g)-(h) empower ward administrators to register guests coming into his or her ward or village tract, inspect guest lists, and take action against residents who fail to comply. Section 13(n) grants vague and sweeping discretionary authority to ward and village tract administrators to conduct household inspections, allowing administrators the power to “[examine] the places needed to examine for prevalence of law and order and upholding the discipline from time to time [sic].”

Section 17 requires any resident to report to their respective ward or village tract administrator if someone from another ward or village intends to stay overnight. According to the law, the resident must also notify the administrator when the guest departs.

The Government of Myanmar should also order ward and village tract administrators to dispose of all records of past household guests and any other information collected during the guest registration process as well as implement laws that specifically protect the right to privacy. Moreover, Myanmar should require that any searches of persons or residences be carried out only when authorized by warrants issued by relevant authorities on a case-by-case basis or to prevent or investigate ongoing or imminent crimes.

“The guest registration process and warrantless searches have created a climate of intimidation and fear that has deterred people from exercising their human rights,” said Matthew Smith. “Many members of the NLD have themselves been adversely affected by this law. They know what’s at stake.”

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