Chronology of Burma's Laws Restricting Freedom of Opinion, Expression and the Press
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Chronology of Burma's Laws Restricting Freedom of Opinion, Expression and the Press

By Irrawaddy Saturday, May 1, 2004


*These laws are no longer in use

*June 13, 1857—The Bengal Resolutions

At this time, Lower Burma is under India’s governance by the British. Lord Canning, the Governor General of India from 1856 – 1862, reintroduces the restrictive provisions of the Bengal Resolutions in 1857 to regulate the press and restrain the circulation of printed books and papers. This law becomes known as the "law to shut mouth."

*August 15, 1873—King Mindon’s 17 Articles

King Mindon (1853 – 1878), the second last Burmese monarch who controlled Upper Burma, enacts a law consisting of 17 articles to guarantee freedom of the press. Article III of the act states that the press is for "the benefit of the citizens to hear general news from Europe, India, China, and Siam for enriching the thoughts and improving their trade and communication." The act is said to be one of Southeast Asia’s first indigenous press freedom laws.

*1878—The Vernacular Press Act

This Act is passed to bring the publishing of newspapers written in local languages under better control and to repress seditious propaganda against the British government that is known to appear in these papers. The act requires that all proof sheets be submitted prior to publication.

1898—The Criminal Procedure Code

Sections of the Criminal Procedure Code related to treason and sedition are still used up to the present day to convict persons on grounds of "spreading false information injurious to the state."1

December 11, 1908—Unlawful Associations Act (Amended in 1957)

This act is used in conjunction with other laws to suppress freedom of expression. Under this law, an association that "interferes or has for its object interference with the administration of the law and with the maintenance of law and order, or that it constitutes as a danger to the public peace,"2 may be deemed illegal. It may also be used to prosecute persons on the grounds of them being members or having contact with illegal organizations. Those found guilty of either offence can be sentenced to imprisonment for up to three years and fined. Managers of such associations risk a higher sentence of up to five years.

1923—The Official Secrets Act

The Official Secrets Act makes it an offence to possess, control, receive or communicate any document or information of which the disclosure may have an adverse affect on the sovereignty and integrity of the state, or which may affect Burma’s foreign relations or threaten the safety of the state.3 No provision is included on the disclosure of classified information in cases of public interest. The Act gives the authorities extensive powers to classify any information as "secret." Those found guilty under this Act can be punished with imprisonment for up to two years or fined, or both.

1933—The Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act

Under this law, enacted by the British government, it is an offence to possess any "wireless telegraphy apparatus" without official permission. The Act is amended by the junta in October 1995 to include fax machines, and again in 1996 to include computer modems. Anyone found in possession of one of these apparatus without official permission is liable to face imprisonment for up to three years or fines of up to 30,000 kyats (US $5,000).

March 9, 1950—Emergency Provisions Act

This act, passed by parliamentary government two years after Burma gained its independence, is used to sentence journalists and writers. Section 5 of this Act makes it a criminal offence "to spread false news, knowing, or having reason to believe that it is not true,"4 and anyone who is considered to have contributed towards the diminishment of respect or disloyalty among members of the civil service or the military towards the government, either of which can be prosecuted with up to seven years imprisonment. Any act that may "affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order,"5 is also punishable with equal severity.

1957—The Penal Code of Burma

Sections of the Penal Code are used to suppress freedom of expression through prosecuting persons on charges of treason against the government. Section 122 of the code is particularly severe, with prison sentences ranging from a maximum of 25 years imprisonment to the death penalty.

1962—The Printers and Publishers Registration Law

Repeatedly expanded in scope and severity over the years, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law is introduced shortly after the military coup in 1962 that brought Gen Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party to power by force.

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