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

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. Under this law all printers and publishers are required to register and submit copies of books, magazines and periodicals to Press Scrutiny Boards, or PSB, for scrutiny prior to publication or production, or in some cases after. The PSB, answerable to the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs, have extensive powers to ban publications and demand alterations as they see fit, at a great cost to the publisher. In 1989, sentences under the Printers and Publishers Registration Law are increased to seven years imprisonment and fines to 30,000 kyats (today’s equivalent to US $5,000). 6

1975—Memorandum to all Printers and Publishers Concerning the Submission of Manuscripts for Scrutiny

This memorandum issued by the Printers and Publishers Central Registration Board set out guidelines, open to interpretation, to be followed by the PSB. Materials that will not be tolerated are as follows:

  1. anything detrimental to the Burmese socialist program;
  2. anything detrimental to the ideology of the state;
  3. anything detrimental to the socialist economy;
  4. anything which might be harmful to national solidarity and unity;
  5. anything which might be harmful to security, the rule of law, peace and public order
  6. any incorrect idea and opinions which do not accord with the times;
  7. any descriptions which, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the time or circumstances of their writing;
  8. any obscene (pornographic) writing;
  9. any writing which would encourage crimes and unnatural cruelty and violence;
  10. any criticism of a non-constructive type of the work of government departments;
  11. any libel or slander of any individuals.

1975—State Protection Law (The Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts)

This law has been used to arrest numerous journalists and writers. It gives the authorities sweeping powers to detain anyone who has committed or is about to commit an act that may be considered as an "infringement of the sovereignty and security of the Union of Burma," or as a "threat to the peace of the people."7 Those suspected of having violated these provisions may be detained for up to five years without trial.8 In respect of being able to protect the state against these threats in advance, the government has been granted the authority to declare a state of emergency, which can be extended indefinitely with the approval of the People’s Assembly.9

[NOTE: After the September 1988 coup until September 1992, the entire country was placed under martial law. Those accused of breaching martial law provisions were tried by military tribunals, set up in July 1989 under Martial Law Orders 1/89 and 2/89, with the power to pass only three punishments: life imprisonment; death or a minimum of three years hard labor]

*Martial Law Order 2/88 (1988)

This decree enforces a night curfew and a ban on public gatherings of more than five people whether "the act is with the intention of creating disturbances or committing a crime or not." The order has been used against journalists and writers.

*Martial Law Order 8/88 (1988)

This order bans any activity, literary or speeches "aimed at dividing the defense forces."

*Martial Law Order 3/89 (1989)

This order makes it an offence to publish any document without prior registration. Organizations wanting to publish material are required to seek exemption certificates from the Home and Religious Affairs Ministry.

June 7, 1996— The Law Protecting the Peaceful and Systematic Transfer of State Responsibility and the Successful Performance of the Functions of the National Convention against Disturbances and Oppositions

Chapter II of this law prohibits "inciting, demonstrating, delivering speeches, making oral or written statements and disseminating in order to undermine the stability of the State, community peace and tranquility and prevalence of law and order."10 It also makes acts committed in order to "undermine, belittle and make people misunderstand the functions being carried out by the National Convention,"11 liable to prosecution. Those found guilty of committing an offence under Section 3 may be punished with a minimum term of imprisonment of five years and a maximum sentence of 20 years and may also be liable to pay a fine.12 Organizations which violate the provisions can be suspended or abolished and risk their property and funds being confiscated.13

July 31, 1996—The Television and Video Act

The Act makes it obligatory for owners of televisions, videocassette recorders and satellite television to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs. It also requires that permission be obtained, even by UN agencies, for public showings of imported videos. Video Censorship Boards are charged with the responsibility of scrutinizing all imported and Burmese-made videos for material that may be considered offensive or detrimental to the state and they retain the right to ban, censor or restrict showings. Under the Act, all private video users and video businesses must obtain a license from the Video Business Supervisory Committee, which also has the authority carry out on-site inspections. Violators of any of the provisions face imprisonment for up to three years and fines of up to 100,000 kyat (today equivalent to US $17,000), or both.

The Motion Picture Law

Licenses to make films must first be obtained from the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise. All films are subject to censorship by the Motion Picture Censor Board. If the terms and conditions of the license are broken then it is subject to be revoked and the violator may be charged with fines of up to 50,000 kyats (today’s equivalent of US $8,500).

September 20, 1996—The Computer Science Development Law

Under this law press freedom has been suppressed through the restriction of communications equipment. The law demands prior sanction is obtained from the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs before any computer equipment, networking or communication facilities can be possessed, imported or utilized. Those found guilty of any of these acts without authorization face fines and prison sentences of up to 15 years.14 Article 34 makes "any act which undermines state security, prevalence of law and order and community peace and tranquillity, national unity, state economy or national culture," including the "obtaining or sending and distributing any information," a punishable offence.15 The law allows for the establishment of three types of computer-related associations; the Computer Enthusiasts’ Association; Computer Scientists’ Association and the Computer Entrepreneurs Association. Unauthorized computer associations will be considered illegal and association with such a group can be punished with up to three years imprisonment or a fine.

2000—Internet Law

In 2000 regulations for internet users are issued by the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs. They include the prohibition of the posting of any writings on the internet that may be detrimental to the interests of the Union, its policies or security affairs. Violations of the guidelines are punishable. These regulations make media access and the publication of information critical of the junta very difficult.


1 Section 109, The Criminal Procedure Code.
2 Section 16, The Unlawful Associations Act.
3 Section 5, The Official Secrets Act.
4 Section 5(e), The Emergency Provisions Act.
5 Section 5(j), The Emergency Provisions Act.
6 Martial Law Order 16/89
7 Preamble, The State Protection Law.
8 Articles 14 and 22 of the State Protection Law were amended by Law Order 11/91 introduced on August 9, 1991. The amendment increased the prison sentence from three years to five years and revoked the right of appeal.
9 Article 4, The State Protection Law.
10 Chapter II, 3(a), The Law Protecting the Peaceful and Systematic Transfer of State Responsibility and the Successful Performance of the Functions of the National Convention against Disturbances and Oppositions.

11 Chapter II, 3(c), The Law Protecting the Peaceful and Systematic Transfer of State Responsibility and the Successful Performance of the Functions of the National Convention against Disturbances and Oppositions.

12 Chapter III, 4, The Law Protecting the Peaceful and Systematic Transfer of State Responsibility and the Successful Performance of the Functions of the National Convention against Disturbances and Oppositions.
13 Chapter III, 5, The Law Protecting the Peaceful and Systematic Transfer of State Responsibility and the Successful Performance of the Functions of the National Convention against Disturbances and Oppositions.

15 Article 34(a) and (b), The Computer Science Development Law.


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