Myanmar’s military junta has rushed through a series of changes to its colonial-era Penal Code, seemingly designed to target the anti-coup protests that continue to gain momentum across the breadth of the country, from Myeik to Putao.
Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets across the country over the past week to denounce the coup, alongside a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement that has brought the government to a standstill.
Printed in newspapers and posted on a military website in Burmese and English on February 14, the changes to the Penal Code include the revision of two existing articles, to broaden their applicability, and the insertion of three new provisions. (The previous version of the Penal Code is available here.)
Article 121, which defines the crime of high treason, has inserted a clause applying the crime to anyone seeking to use “unconstitutional means” to “overthrow” the Myanmar government. The preexisting Article 124A, which holds out a 20-year prison sentence for anyone seeking to “bring into hatred or contempt” or “excite disaffection” toward the government, has now been extended to prohibit contempt toward the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and its personnel.
Among the new provisions is one – Article 124C – that carries prison terms of up to 20 years for sabotage or obstruction of the Defense Services or other law enforcement authorities “engaged in preserving the stability of the state.”
Article 124D holds out seven year prison terms for anyone hindering any Defense Services personnel or government workers from carrying out their duties. It specifically criminalizes any efforts to “hinder, disturb, damage the motivation, discipline [or] health” or government workers – a clause that seems almost tailor made for those organizing strikes of government workers and civil servants.
The changes to the Penal Code also include the insertion of a “fake news” clause (Article 505A), targeting anyone who causes “fear to a group of citizens or to the public,” who spreads “false news,” or “agitates a criminal offense against a Government employee.” This carries prison terms of up to seven years prison.
The junta’s amendments are probably unlawful. In a blog post on Monday, Melissa Crouch, an expert on Myanmar’s Constitution and legal system, argued that the changes to the Penal Code are only legal if the coup was, which she has argued previously was not the case.
Legal or otherwise, the changes to the Penal Code are clearly aimed at arming the new ruling junta with a legal veiling for the crackdown on the Civil Disobedience Movement that seems destined to come.
Across Myanmar, the signs are ominous. Over the weekend, security forces deployed armored vehicles filled with uniformed soldiers in major cities, while security forces fired rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas at crowds. In addition to the changes to the Penal Code, the junta also brought back old legislation that requires people to report to authorities any overnight guests they have to their homes, and resurrected the terrifying practice of late night arrests. At least 400 people have been detained since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local civil society group.
Over the weekend, there were also worrying reports on social media that thugs had been let loose in areas of Myanmar’s major cities to intimidate anti-coup protesters – an old tactic from past eras of military rule. Some of them were possibly among the 23,000 prisoners that the coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing released from prison in a Union Day amnesty on February 12, which was reported to include well known nationalist zealots and agitators.
“It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said on Twitter. “Late night raids; mounting arrests; more rights stripped away; another Internet shutdown; military convoys entering communities. These are signs of desperation. Attention generals: You WILL be held accountable.”
The changes to Myanmar’s Penal Code are a clear sign that the government is digging in to defend the coup against the challenge that is now bubbling up in the streets of Myanmar’s towns and cities. With the protests spreading, and seemingly now bridging nearly every ethnic, political, and social divide in a country with many of them, Myanmar seems set on a worrying – and harrowingly familiar – trajectory.