More than 50 organizations in Myanmar call for repeal of controversial law 

(Yangon, August 31, 2016)—Myanmar’s Parliamentary Bill Committee should remove provisions in a colonial-era law that require citizens to register overnight houseguests with the authorities, 52 Myanmar civil-society organizations, including Fortify Rights, said today. The provisions also empower the authorities to conduct warrantless searches of private homes. 

“This law has long been used to target human rights defenders, political activists, and innocent citizens, particularly those from ethnic rural areas who were reportedly harassed, threatened, and sometimes disappeared,” said Kyaw Thu, Executive Director of Paung Ku, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) working nationally in Myanmar to strengthen civil society. “These provisions are authoritarian and really don’t serve the country’s interests. They are clearly an oppressive tool seriously threatening the human security and dignity of the people.”

The Ward or Village Tract Administration Law of 2012, which replaced two earlier laws enacted in 1907, requires residents to inform government officials when visitors spend the night in their homes and to report to authorities 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” or the “midnight census.”

In a joint public statement released today, the 52 organizations said the mandatory guest registration requirement and nighttime household inspections contravene the rights to privacy, freedom of movement, residency, and association—all human rights protected under international law.

The groups opposing the provisions include civil society organizations working in every state and region in the country. The organizations said that preserving the mandatory guest registration requirement would be “wrong headed and harmful to Myanmar.”

In June, the Amyotha Hluttaw—the Upper House of Parliament—passed a bill that would repeal sections 13(g) and 17 of the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law, which require citizens to report overnight guests. Fortify Rights welcomed the proposed amendments as consistent with human rights standards.

However, in July, the Bill Committee of the Pyithu Hluttaw—the Lower House of Parliament—reportedly reinstated the guest-registration provisions with a proposed amendment that would apply only to those who intentionally or purposefully fail to register overnight guests. 

Under international law, a State may restrict certain human rights, including freedom of movement and association, only if the restriction is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim. The guest-registration provisions in the current bill fail to meet these criteria, making them incompatible with international human rights law, Fortify Rights said.

Military-appointed Members of Parliament, who hold 25 percent of parliamentary seats, currently support maintaining mandatory guest registration, arguing that it is necessary to ensure “national security.” 

“The only thing these provisions ensure is the power of the authorities to enter private homes and collect personal data at will,” said Matthew Smith. “If the Bill Committee doesn’t remove the provisions, parliament should repeal them without delay.”

On July 28, 65 civil society organizations in Myanmar released a 10-point statement with proposals to strengthen the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law, including recommendations to allow for the democratic election of ward and village tract administrators as well as a repeal of the mandatory guest-registration requirement.

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. 

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.

Proponents of the measures in questions have also publicly advocated for selective enforcement of the guest registration requirement. For example, the Chair of the Pyithu Hluttaw Bill Committee Tun Tun Hein told The Irrawaddy, “There are border towns and rural places where such a law should still exist.” Also speaking to The Irrawaddy, member of the Lower House Bill Committee Zaw Win said, “In some insurgent regions, such a law is necessary.”

“Legislators are proposing discriminatory enforcement of an already draconian law,” said Matthew Smith. “Using this law to target certain areas or demographics of the population would further erode trust in ethnic states at a time when it is most needed.”

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