Members of parliament attend a meeting at the lower house of Myanmar's parliament in Naypyitaw March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Antoni Slodkowski
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi is facing criticism from rights groups and student activists who say her ruling party is planning to retain restrictions on free speech once wielded against it by the country's former junta.
Since taking power in April, former political prisoner Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) has released scores of detainees and is making a big push to revise some of the most repressive measures from the long years of military rule.
But its new version of the law governing public demonstrations has prompted alarm since the proposals were submitted to parliament last week.
The draft bill would punish protesters for spreading "wrong" information and make straying away from pre-registered chants an offence. It bars non-citizens - a category that includes the largely stateless Muslim Rohingya minority - from protesting and lists criminal penalties for "disturbing" or "annoying" people.
The NLD says the new bill would introduce substantial changes to the military era legislation and was aimed at protecting peaceful protesters rather than penalizing them.
But worries over the proposed Peaceful Assembly Law are compounded by concerns over the government's recent request to the U.S. ambassador to refrain from using the term "Rohingya" and Suu Kyi's refusal to speak out in support of a community that faces continuing persecution in Myanmar.
The issue is being closely watched by Suu Kyi's supporters in the West. The NLD faces sky-high expectations at home and abroad, but the Nobel peace prize winner's autocratic decision-making style makes the government's intentions hard to read.
"We are concerned that the NLD is rushing this," said David Mathieson, a senior researcher at the Human Rights Watch based in Yangon.
"The bill should guarantee the right to protest, and there's no reason why it should include penalties against protesters," said Mathieson.
He said there were other laws, like the penal code, that regulated potential violations by the protesters and that in its current form the bill gave the authorities latitude to crack down on peaceful demonstrators.
These concerns emerge just as the U.S. prepares its annual decision on whether to extend its sanctions on Myanmar. The newly-appointed U.S. ambassador to the country, Scot Marciel, said this week respect for human rights was an important factor.
The draft bill does remove or water down some restrictions from existing legislation, such as the article that meant activists could be hit with multiple counts of the same charge - increasing the length of the sentences that could be meted out.
It was used last year against students taking part in an unsanctioned march on Yangon, some of whom faced more than 50 charges because offences were counted in each township - Myanmar's smallest administrative unit - they passed through.
The draft also cuts the notice required for a demonstration to 48 hours and removes the need to get police consent.
Still, students say the changes don't go far enough.
"I think the laws which restrict people's right to demonstrate for what they want should not exist," said Zayar Lwin, a leader of one of Myanmar's largest students' unions.
He said that as long as there were restrictions in the laws "it would be difficult for us to accept that."
The NLD's upper house bill committee member Aung Thein, formerly an activist lawyer, rejected that notion.
"In the past, they had to seek prior permission at least five days in advance. Now, they have to notify the authorities only two days ahead," said Aung Thein.
There was also a time limit on taking action against the protesters, he said. "Action must be taken within 15 days after the protest. No action can be taken against them after 15 days."
But Laura Haigh, of Amnesty International, warned that, if enacted in its current form, the bill could create more prisoners of conscience.
"Swift amendment should not come at the price of ensuring full respect and protection of peaceful assembly," said Haigh.
The bill has been tabled in the upper house and lawmakers have until May 16 to submit questions. After the debate in the upper house, the bill will be passed to the lower house. The NLD has a majority in both chambers.
The NLD has put some 142 existing laws - more than a quarter of the total - under the microscope, said the chairman of the lower house bill committee Tun Tun Hein.
This revision includes the most draconian laws of the junta era, such as the Law Protecting the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements and the Emergency Provisions Act.
The two laws were the main legal instruments to crack down on dissent and put pro-democracy activists behind bars.
"I'm sure they will be revoked completely after discussion in the parliament," said the NLD's Tun Tun Hein.
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun and Hnin Yadana Zaw; Editing by Alex Richardson)