Casting a shadow on upcoming parliamentary elections that are supposed to mark a turning point for Myanmar as a burgeoning democracy and an ally of the West, a human rights NGO has released a critical report accusing the government of using an antiquated overnight registration law to harass and detain political reformists and activists.
In a 47-page report titled "Midnight Intrusions: Ending Guest Registration and Household Inspections in Myanmar," Fortify Rights has detailed the oppressive policy that essentially makes having a sleepover illegal unless it is reported to the proper authorities.
The government of President Thein Sein, dominated by the military, has said the elections will be free and inclusive, but already there is fear that the law will be used to stifle political opponents and protests in the lead-up to the fall 2015 election. The Ward or Village Tract Administration Law requires all residents of Myanmar to report overnight houseguests to authorities. This gives the government authority to search houses at any time, leading to what people have coined "midnight inspections."
This law, of course, is particularly troubling in a country with a burgeoning democracy movement.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest from 1989 to 2010, cautioned the West last year about Thein Sein's alleged commitment to democracy: "If they really study the situation in this country they would know that this reform process started stalling early last year," she said. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party are widely popular in Myanmar but she is prevented by a constitutional amendment from running for president because her children hold British passports.
Speaking of the law on overnight guests, a Burmese journalist told Fortify Rights, "When there is a revolution or any sort of serious anti-government protest, [household inspections justified by the guest registration requirement] will be used."
During pro-democracy movements in 1988, 1998, and 2007, household inspections jumped in numbers to arrest activists and student leaders. Activists have said that they expect the same technique to be applied ahead of the upcoming election.
On March 10, in a possible sign of things to come, police beat protesters with batons, including monks, journalists, and students, after a weeklong standoff. The protest, attended by about 200 people, was against a proposed education bill; protesters had set out from Mandalay to walk to Yangon, but were detained in Letpadan, about 90 miles north of Yangon. The government of Myanmar accused protesters of using force, and there were reports of both sides firing at each other with slingshots, reported Reuters.
Dozens of student activists have now gone into hiding as police followed up the crackdown with house raids, according to Myanmar Times. "I feel that I am being pursued and I have to be very careful in my movements," said Ko Aung Nay Paing, a student leader, at a press conference for the release of the Fortify Rights report on March 19.
"Authorities have long used the provisions to target activists, especially during periods of heightened political activity, so the risk of an increase in targeted inspections is high this year," Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights, told VICE News. "We're already seeing it. "
According to the report, political activists told researchers that they "feared the authorities would plant evidence in their homes or arbitrarily arrest residents for political purposes."
"This doesn't bode well for upcoming elections," Smith added. "The political forecast spells crackdowns."
After decades of rule by a military junta, reforms in Myanmar started in 2010 and were championed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The military regime has been slow to relinquish power entirely, however, and many fear the slow progress of reforms is merely a façade.
"There are worrying signs of backtracking, and in some areas, backtracking has gained momentum," Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, told reporters in Geneva last week.
In an exclusive review obtained by VICE News that Fortify Rights recently submitted to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on March 21, numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity were documented since the opening up of the country, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and state-sponsored persecution of ethnic groups.
"In terms of human rights, most reforms have been cosmetic," said Smith. "In some cases, the abuses are worse than anything we saw before the so-called transition."