A week after having released 199 political prisoners, on April 17 the Government of Myanmar released 83 additional prisoners. Among those released were student activists involved in peaceful protests against the National Education Law and Naw Ohn Hla, a land rights activist involved in demonstrations against the Chinese-backed Letpadaung Mine.
Htin Lin Oo, a writer and former National League for Democracy information officer, was also among those released. In June 2015 he had been sentenced to two years of hard labor for violating section 295(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which prohibits the deliberate and malicious outraging religious feelings. The charge emerged from a speech in which he had accused several prominent Buddhist organizations of extreme nationalism.
He was mostly referencing Myanmar’s notorious monk, U Wirathu, who has been accused of hate speech and incitement of violence against Muslims by international observers numerous times since anti-Rohingya violence erupted in 2012.
Another victim of abusive 295(a) prosecution, New Zealander Philip Blackwood was released in January. Blackwood, along with two colleagues, had been sentenced in March 2015 to two and a half years of hard labor over a psychedelic image of the Buddha wearing headphones they had used as a promotion for their bar. The court appeared to have caved to pressure from Ma Ba Tha, Wirathu’s organization, and their excessive convictions arguably contributed to the ongoing privileging of Buddhism above other religions.
Both cases are emblematic of the susceptibility of the Penal Code to manipulation that furthers discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.
Speaking on April 19, a spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights commended Myanmar’s new President U Htin Kyaw’s commitment to preventing “those who act legally for political causes or for their own conscience from being imprisoned.” Such commitments are positive but they also highlight the need for critical review of laws that do not conform with international standards. Because section 295(a) of the Penal Code has been used to further religious discrimination and to imprison critics of nationalist hate speech, it requires critical examination if Myanmar is to avoid institutionalizing discriminatory practices in this sensitive time of transition.
There’s an unmistakable irony in that section 295(a) came about in response to the need to prohibit incitement against Muslim minorities by Hindu nationalists, yet it has become instrumentalized in contemporary Myanmar to insulate Buddhist nationalists against prosecution for incitement against Muslim minorities.
Myanmar, like other former British South Asian colonies, bases its criminal law on the Penal Code of 1860. Section 295(a) was added through legislative amendment in 1927.
In 1924, an unattributed satirical pamphlet written in Urdu titled The Promiscuous Prophet had gone on sale in bookstores in Lahore, in present day Pakistan. Responding to a copy he had been sent, Gandhi wrote, “I have asked myself what the motive possibly could be in writing or printing such a book except to inflame passions.” Sure enough, protests within the local Muslim community mounted against the publisher, who was ultimately acquitted; the judge ruled that the Penal Code did not explicitly criminalize this manner of religious hate speech. Around the same time a second case dealing with a publication that ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed was brought before the Lahore High Court amid growing demands for an amendment to the Penal Code that would be more sensitive to protecting religious minorities from hate speech.
In 1927 the Government convened a legislative assembly mandated with this task.
Historian Neeti Nair explains that the legislative assembly was concerned with ensuring maximum personal liberty of expression. The assembly was in agreement that in order for speech to be prohibited, the insult to religion or outrage to religious feelings must have been the sole deliberate and conscious intention. In this the lawmakers were concerned not to punish good-faith social or historical commentary or limit attempts to challenge religious adherents in order to encourage reform. For these reasons the final text aimed to explicitly prohibit only the “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons.”
N.C. Kelkar, one of the commissioners, was less convinced that this language would be sufficient to prevent abuse. He proposed including two explanations that would have explicitly noted what is not to be considered an offense under 295(a). This included stating facts and criticism of individuals, tenets, or observances of any religion with a view to promoting social or religious reform. Kelkar was defeated in this proposal and the amendment entered into force on September 22, 1927 without exception.
Kelkar was surprisingly prescient in insisting on further clarifications. The problem in contemporary Myanmar is that the lack of precise language has allowed for the object and purpose of this section of the Penal Code to be disregarded under pressure from Buddhist nationalist forces at the expense of religious minorities and those who may have spoken in their defense.
How the court has interpreted this section of the Penal Code is inconsistent with both Burmese law and international human rights standards.
Inconsistencies with Burmese Law
The Constitution, in Article 34, recognizes the right of every citizen to the freedom of religion. As such the State should have an obligation to protect this right but the lack of transparency and failure to adhere to the law, and bias in favor of Buddhist plaintiffs, implies the courts are not upholding the equal protection of the freedom of religion.
The Constitution is actually somewhat ambiguous on this. Article 361 sets out that Myanmar recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the majority of the country while merely recognizing in Article 362 that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism were religions existing in the country at the time the Constitution took effect. From recognizing the special position of one to merely acknowledging the existence of others, it is not difficult to see where courts may be pressured to read bias into the law by politicized Buddhist organizations.
That such groups are as much political as religious should, however, raise a major Constitutional concern. Article 364 forbids the abuse of religion for political purposes. In light of Ma Ba Tha’s role in drafting the recent so-called Protection of Race and Religion laws and issuance of threats preceding the 2015 election it is clearly politicized.
While there are limited similarities with Ma Ba Tha claiming religious offence and threatening disorder with Muslim protests against offensive publications in the 1920s, the 1927 assembly was clear to differentiate between intentional offence and social reform-minded criticism such as in Htin Lin Oo’s case. Ma Ba Tha’s pressure on the court is either a willful misreading of the law or, arguably, part of a program that is more political than religious. In either case, such groups have been allowed to exert undue influence over the court due to a lack of judicial training or independence.
The most important element of 295(a) is that the accused acted with deliberate and malicious intent however courts in Myanmar have not consistently ruled on this requirement. In cases where the court has sentenced someone to prison after disregarding this fundamental requirement it has acted inconsistently and in violation of domestic law. The resulting imprisonment should therefore be considered arbitrary detention, a violation of international law.
Inconsistencies with International Standards
Equality before the law is a core human rights norm. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 8, guarantees that everyone has the right to effective remedy by a competent tribunal. Articles 10 and 11 stipulate that everyone is entitled to full equality before a fair and public trial by an independent and impartial judiciary and that nobody shall be found guilty for anything that doesn’t constitute a penal offense under national or international law. This is reiterated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The biased rulings on certain 295(a) proceedings are a far cry from the standard of equality and fairness before the law and the courts’ failure to adhere to the intent requirement violates the defendant’s right not to be found guilty for acts that do not constitute a penal offense under national law.
Failure to uphold equality before the law in these proceedings is a violation of the fundamental human right of non-discrimination, which is to be upheld at all times, under all circumstances. Although the UDHR and ICCPR don’t explicitly define discrimination, the Human Rights Committee has held that the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) provides definitional clarity and sets forth guidelines and specific State obligations. Although Myanmar is not a party to CERD, the Convention offers guidance on eliminating discrimination that the new Burmese Government should consider embracing.
CERD explicitly deals with racial discrimination but this can arguably be extended to other forms of discrimination pertinent to section 295(a) and broader Penal Code reform. Article 2 holds that States shall take effective measures to review governmental policies and to amend or repeal laws that allow for discrimination.
Article 4 continues that States shall prohibit organizations that promote or incite discrimination and should not permit public officials or institutions to promote or incite discrimination. The State and courts’ tacit acceptance of Ma Ba Tha and other nationalist Buddhist organizations have contributed to an emboldening and permissive atmosphere for discrimination in favor of Buddhism over other religions. Public officials and institutions are ultimately responsible for the selective implementation of section 295(a), and as such their behavior appears to be in violation of obligations outlined by CERD.
The Human Rights Committee has provided commentary on such implementation in noting that “laws to discriminate in favor of or against one or certain religious or belief systems, or their adherents over another” are impermissible as are laws that “prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine or tenets of faith” as long as they do not constitute incitement.
It is clear from the commentary of the 1927 assembly that the commissioners hoped to preserve the freedom of opinion and expression, which the Human Rights Committee has called “the foundation stone for every free and democratic society.” It is so fundamental that international human rights law only permits for limited restrictions, laid on in ICCPR Article 20, namely propaganda for war and advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. The object and purpose of section 295(a) appears to conform with international law in this sense, but selective prosecution has amounted to an undue restriction on the freedom of expression.
During the Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar before the Human Rights Council in November 2015, several States including Norway, Turkey, France, and Nigeria made recommendations that Myanmar address the spread of discrimination and incitement against ethnic and religious minorities and enact laws to this effect. Myanmar ultimately rejected most such recommendations claiming they “are contrary to the situation on the ground.” This rejection, however, falls flat in the face of evidence otherwise.
Time for Penal Code Reform
During the follow-up session to the Universal Periodic Review on March 17, 2016, Myanmar’s Representative U Maung Wai remarked that, “as things are changing, and changing in the right direction in the country, a window of opportunity may arise to revisit these recommendations in the future.”
If President U Htin Kyaw is to be taken seriously on his commitment that those who act legally of their own conscience will no longer be imprisoned and if the new Government is sincere in promoting human rights moving forward, it is time for them to see the window of opportunity as wide open. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in the same statement mentioned above, has been clear that it is ready to provide expertise to the Burmese Government to reform those laws that do not conform with international standards. Beginning with a review of the Penal Code would be a good start.
Michael Caster is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Previously he worked as a human rights advocate and civil society consultant based in East Asia.