Guest registration changes tipped to win NLD ‘goodwill’

“Midnight inspections” – raids on the homes of suspected dissidents and opponents of the former regime – could be a thing of the past. But observers have warned that the proposal by the National League for Democracy to scrap this practice would leave many other repressive laws in place.

On March 21, the NLD proposed abolishing the requirement to report overnight guests, a measure long used by Myanmar’s military to justify unannounced household inspections that infringed on privacy and created a climate of fear and intimidation.

The provision in the Ward and Village-Tract Administration Law was mainlyused to target social and political activists, as the junta used it as a pretext to enter their houses in order to stifle dissent, and caused problems for people without household or identification papers.

For the broader population, the registration requirement is inconvenient and costly. Those living outside the residence stated on their household list – particularly common for migrants and renters – must register weekly with ward or village-tract officials, typically paying an under-the-table fee for permission.

High court lawyer U Ko Ni, a legal adviser to the NLD, said the amendment was only the first step of a multi-year process to amend the country’s outdated and repressive laws. “We have to amend our country’s administrative system. We have to review so many laws,” he said.

The lawyer emphasised that the power of the Ministry of Home Affairs encompassed the entire country’s administration and that the ministry is controlled by the military, which appoints its minister. Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe has been nominated to occupy the post under the incoming government.

The 2012 law, an update on colonial-era legislation, was introduced by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The ministry is unlikely to welcome the amendments but, because of the NLD’s majority in the parliament, will not be able to stop them.

U Khin Zaw Win, head of the Tampadipa Institute, welcomed the move to abolish the rule. Noting that the military’s unpopularity would deepen if it tried to resist the amendment, he said police could continue to raid homes under other laws.

“If the military see anything suspicious they can still search, even without a warrant. Their unspoken power and authority still remain,” he said.

Amnesty International has welcomed the amendment, which will probably be discussed in parliament later this month.

“The amendment of this law would send an important message that the incoming administration is committed to breaking with the country’s history of harassing and targeting activists,” said Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher with Amnesty International.

She added, “There are still many repressive laws on the books which are used to lock up human rights defenders, and recent arrests and charges are a worrying reminder that the police and courts can – and will – use these laws to clampdown on dissent.”

According to figures of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, as of February, 90 political prisoners were in jail with an additional 418 facing politically motivated charges. Many of them were arrested under colonial-era laws that, at least for now, are still in place.

A report released by Fortify Rights, a Thailand-based NGO, last year showed that “midnight inspections” had generally decreased under outgoing President U Thein Sein’s government. However, the tactic was used to round up those involved in peaceful protests against the National Education Law following a violence crackdown at Letpadan, Bago Region, in March 2015.

The report said people without household or identification papers – mostlysquatters, disadvantaged communities and people from ethnic minorities not recognised by the government, including the Rohingya, officially called Bengalis – faced problems under this law.

“Individuals who are unable to obtain household registration documents are typically required to regularly report themselves to the state as guests in their own homes, often on a weekly basis,” the report said.

While repealing the law may have only a limited impact, U Khin Zaw Win said it would still be a smart move by the NLD because it would create goodwill. “Revoking this law does away with a burdensome practice and will be popular. The NLD is counting on that,” he said.

Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, said the amendments were a good start toward legal reform.

“This won’t be a silver bullet,” he said. “But amending this law will help prevent unwarranted searches of homes. It’ll remove one of the authorities’ go-to pretexts.”


Source: Myanmar Times

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