Myanmar FlagNGO Law Monitor: Myanmar (Burma)

Introduction | At a Glance | Key Indicators | International Rankings
Legal Snapshot | Legal Analysis | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated: 23 January 2016

Introduction

Although the term “civil society” was introduced in Myanmar only in the mid-1990s, community-based and religious organizations have been active in the country for decades. Traditionally, community-based organizations were formed by young people in order to assist in religious and social events. One such organization, the “Doet Bamar Association” emerged during the British colonial period and became well-known by organizing an anti-colonial social movement that cultivated many future national leaders.

During the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) era, which began in 1962, civic space shrank dramatically.  Only government-initiated organizations could be established. Literary and cultural associations initiated by the BSPP in ethnic areas continued their activities after the 1988 pro-democracy uprisings, but some of them transformed into ethnic-based organizations, which continue to teach their own languages and implement social activities today.

In the early 1990s, UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began playing an active role in Myanmar. With their support, local NGOs were established.  Many of these local NGOs focused on healthcare and health education services, HIV/AIDS prevention, child protection and micro-finance.

In the late 1990s, due to economic challenges and social problems in the country, many charitable organizations were created, including the Mandalay-based Bramaso’s Funeral Service Association and the Yangon-based Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS). Funeral support community groups mushroomed in response to the need to relocate cemeteries from inside cities and towns to more remote locations.

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis fueled the growth of civil society, as sympathizers from all over the country formed local organizations to conduct relief work.  Inevitably, some of these relief organizations were temporary and have shut down, but many others continue carrying out social work for people in need.

Since 2010/11, Myanmar has been undergoing a slow and uncertain transition toward greater openness, but with continuing restrictions on the exercise of the freedoms of assembly, association and expression. The most notable improvement to the legal operating space came with the enactment of the new Association Registration Law (ARL) in July 2014. The ARL was enacted by the Union Parliament on June 25, 2014; reviewed and amended by the President on July 9, 2014; reviewed and endorsed by the Union Parliament on July 16; and signed by the President and officially ‘gazetted’ in the newspaper on July 20, 2014. With the enactment of the new law, the 1988 Association Act was repealed. Efforts are underway to help support the meaningful implementation of the ARL.

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At a Glance

Organizational Forms Associations
Registration Body Ministry of Home Affairs
Barriers to Entry With the enactment of the Association Registration Law in 2014, barriers to formation and registration were significantly reduced but remain somewhat uncertain due to delays in MoHA issuing implementing rules.
Barriers to Activities With the enactment of the Association Registration Law in 2014, barriers to activities were significantly reduced but remain somewhat uncertain due to delays in MoHA issuing implementing rules.  
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy Several laws have been used to impede the freedom of expression, including the Anti-Defamation Law, State Secrecy Act, the 2004 Electronic Transactions Act, and the 2013 Telecommunications Law.
Barriers to International Contact No legal barriers.
Barriers to Resources No legal barriers.
Barriers to Assembly Prior governmental approval required; criminal penalties in case of violation of law.

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Key Indicators (source: CIA World Factbook, 2016)

Population 56,320,206
Capital Naypidaw
Type of Government Parliamentary Government (since March 2011)
Life Expectancy at Birth 66.29 years
Literacy Rate

Male: 95.2%; Female: 91.2%

Religious Groups
Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, Animist 1%, other 2%
Ethnic Groups Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%
GDP per capita $4,800 (2014 est.)

 

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International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale 
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 148 (2015) 1 – 186
World Bank Rule of Law Index 6.7 (2014) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 9.4 (2014) 100 – 0
Transparency International 156 (2014) 1 – 176
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Not free
Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 6 (2015)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
Rank: 27 (2015) 178 – 1

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Legal Snapshot

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) No --
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) No --
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) No --
Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention Yes 1955
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) No --
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Yes 1997
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women No  --
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Yes 1991
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) No  --
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Yes 2011
Regional Treaties    
ASEAN Charter Yes 2008

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

The current Constitution of Myanmar was published in 2008 following a referendum.  Paragraph 354 of the 2008 Constitution states as follows:

Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality:

  1. to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions;
  2. to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession;
  3. to form associations and organizations;
  4. to develop their language, literature, culture they cherish, religion they profess, and customs without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths.
In December 2013, the Government invited public comments on the Constitution to be submitted by December 31, 2013. CSOs, political parties, and other interest groups submitted comments for consideration. Based on the comments, the Constitutional Review Committee will initiate a constitutional reform process. The current controversy seems to focus on Article 6(f) (political leadership of the role of the defense services); Article 59(f) (presidential qualifications); and Article 436 (more than 75% majority needed for amendment of the Constitution). The Parliament has formed a Committee for Implementation of the 2008 Constitution, composed of 31 Members of Parliament and chaired by the Deputy Speaker of the Union Parliament.  At the same time, a civil society-formed network called ‘People’s Network for Constitutional Reform’ has mobilized public debate on the Constitution and leading opposition party NLD (National League for Democracy) has launched a nationwide campaign on constitutional reform.

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Relevant national legislation includes the following:

  1. Association Registration Law (2014)
  2. Unlawful Associations Act (India Act XIV, 1908)
  3. The Code of Civil Procedure (1979)
  4. The Electronic Transactions Law (2004)
  5. Burma Official Secrets Act (1923)
  6. The Law Amending the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law (1989)
  7. The Law Amending Income Tax Law (2011)
  8. Section 5 of the Emergency Provision Act (1950)
  9. The Labour Organization Law (2011)
  10. Social Security Law (2012)
  11. Regulations relating to the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Procession(2012)
  12. Law on Peaceful Assembly and Procession (2011)
  13. Law Amending the Code of Civil Procedure (2008)
  14. Guidelines for UN agencies, International Organizations and NGO/INGOs on Cooperation Programme in Myanmar (1st version (2006); 2nd version (2011))
  15. Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (2014)
  16. Telecommunications Law (2013)

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

The new Association Registration Law was enacted by the Union Parliament on June 25, 2014; reviewed and amended by the President on July 9, 2014; reviewed and endorsed by the Union Parliament on July 16; and signed by the President and officially ‘gazetted’ in the newspaper on July 20, 2014. Attention has now shifted to the development of the implementing rules for the new law.

A law governing the interception of communications by law enforcement authorities – the Surveillance Law – is being drafted and is due to be released for public consultation in the first half of 2016.

We are unaware of any other pending legislative/regulatory initiatives affecting NGOs. Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of pending initiatives, write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

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Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

The 2014 Association Registration Law defines an organization to mean a “domestic non-profit association, organized by five or more persons, for the benefit of state and citizens, in line with the fundamental rights stated in the constitution, and which is working for an objective or an activity or the common interests of the members.” (Article 2(j))  An “International Non-Governmental Organization” is defined to mean “an organization formed in a foreign country and registered with the Union Registration Committee, with the intention to perform any social activity within the country.”

Public Benefit Status

Local NGOs are entitled to income tax exemptions; from the time of registration, an NGO can apply for an income tax exemption with the Ministry of Finance and Revenue.
The law does not, however, recognize “public benefit” or “charitable” status.

Barriers to Entry

The 2014 Association Registration Law envisions a decentralized registration system implemented by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), with six registration committees, including at the Union (national) level, region or state level, Nay Pyi Taw Council level, self-administered region or state level, divisional level, and township level.  Domestic associations may apply at any level, based on their anticipated territorial sphere of activities. International NGOs must apply for registration with the Union registration committee. Among the most significant changes introduced by the 2014 ARL is the replacement of the mandatory registration system with a voluntary registration system. Article 7 affirms that “Local organizations, upon their voluntary decision, by Chairman or Secretary or any authorized person of the organization shall submit application to the registration committee concerned stating the following particulars.” (emphasis added)

For those associations that do apply for registration, the relevant registration committee shall issue a temporary registration certificate within 7 days and a formal registration certificate within 30-60-90 days, depending on the registration committee, and following the payment of registration fees. Notably, the ARL sets the registration fees at substantially lower levels than past practice; previous fees had been as high as MMK 500,000, but are now set at MMK 100,000 (national level) and MMK 30,000 (regional level). For applicants at the divisional and township levels, there are no fees.

While the new ARL removes several key barriers to registration by providing for voluntary registration, simplifying registration documents required, and providing for certain safeguards (e.g., a written explanation in case of denial), the actual implementation of the ARL remains uncertain, due to delays in MoHA issuing implementing rules.

Depending on implementation, potential barriers to the formation and/or registration could include:

  • The requirement to secure approval from the ‘competent’ or ‘relevant’ ministry as a necessary step for applying with the relevant registration committee. While the ARL imposes no such requirement, there is concern that the implementing rules could super-impose such additional requirements into the registration process.
  • The decentralized registration system, while seemingly a positive means of facilitating access, raises concerns about the consistency of implementation across the numerous registration committees
  • While it is laudable for the ARL to set a fixed time period for the review of registration decisions, a time period of 90 days for union-level review (relevant for those associations seeking to operate nationally) may be excessively long. (Article 8)
  • The ARL does not provide any right to appeal a denial of registration; instead, the law gives the applicant the “right to inquire about the reasons for denial with the committee concerned and can reapply after fulfilling the requirements.” (Article 9)  An inquiry with the same body that denies the registration is certainly a less robust protection than an appeal to an independent arbiter.
  • The registration certificate is valid only for a limited time period and must be renewed every 5 years. (Article 20)

Barriers to Operational Activity

Prior to the current transition period and the enactment of the 2014 Association Registration Law, associations were subject to harassment by governmental authorities.

A key barrier to operational activity is the territorial limitation implied by the multi-tiered system of registration committees. Article 34 of the ARL requires that any domestic association seeking to change its status from township level to region or state level “must apply to the relevant registration committee.”

Registered domestic associations are required to submit an annual narrative report and financial statement to the relevant registration committee.  The submission of the annual report is necessary in order to renew the registration certificate every 5 years. While domestic associations are not required to pay any kind of renewal fee, international NGOs must pay the prescribed registration fee.

Furthermore, the ARL requires associations to secure governmental permission where the association changes its approved activities (Article 33); and requires association to inform governmental authorities in writing of changes in membership, including the voluntary resignation or death of members. (Article 38)

Government-established NGOs or “GONGOs” may receive special privileges and create unfair competition for community-based organizations. 

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

Perhaps the most significant change of the political transition period in Myanmar relates to the freedom of expression. With the Censorship Board abolished in 2012, individuals are now criticizing the government and CSOs are advocating for politically unpopular causes. In addition, CSOs have more opportunity to contribute to law and policy making.

However, there are restrictive laws that are being used to hinder the freedom of expression. The Telecommunications Law (Telecom Law), enacted in 2013, established the regulatory framework for foreign investment into Burma’s telecommunications infrastructure.  Unfortunately, the Law also contains a number of provisions that impermissibly restrict the freedom of expression. For example, Article 66(d) prohibits using a telecommunications network to extort, coerce, defame, disturb, cause undue influence or threaten any person. Similarly, Burma’s 2004 Electronic Transactions Law, Article 33, criminalizes using electronic transactions technology to commit any “act detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.” These articles have been used to jail dissidents, activists, CSO leaders and others for merely expressing opinions.

In addition, the Telecom Law, Article 77, authorizes the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to order the suspension of telecom services in emergency situations. However, there are no criteria as to what can trigger such a suspension. This allows the government to shut down internet and mobile communications arbitrarily, which often immediately precedes crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators or other human rights violations.

Barriers to International Contact

There is no legal impediment to contact and cooperate with colleagues in civil society, business and government sectors, either within or outside the country. Since late 2011, most websites can be visited from inside Myanmar. That said, the Electronic Transactions Act (2004) remains in force, and has been used to impede the freedom of expression, as mentioned above.

Barriers to Resources

An officially registered domestic NGO can open a bank account in the organization’s name at the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB), with approval from the Ministry of Finance and Revenue, and with a recommendation letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs. With a registration number and copy of its registration certificate, an NGO may also open an organizational bank account in a private bank.
Previously, there was no clear law or regulation affirming the right to conduct income-generating activity. In November 2012, however, the Myanmar Microfinance Law was adopted to provide a framework for the licensing and operation of microfinance institutions in Myanmar. The law is a crucial step toward providing the poor and marginalized with financial services.

In addition, the 2014 Association Registration Law affirms that, “Any registered domestic organization may accept support in accordance with the prevailing law, provided by a foreign government or international NGO or domestic organization, or any individual.” While laudable for the ARL to affirm the right of registered organizations to receive funding from foreign and domestic sources, the law may be implying that unregistered groups are not able to receive funding from similar sources.

Barriers to Assembly

In 2011, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act came into force, providing partial protection for the freedom of assembly. The Act proved problematic, however, as it required prior authorization from the respective police station. Where assemblies proceeded without authorization, the notorious Article 18 was used to arrest and imprison organizers and protestors.  Some CSOs, including the prominent 88 Generation Students, initiated broad-based public consultation and advocacy process against the 2011 Act.

In June 2014, the Parliament adopted amendments to the Act. Most significantly, the Act now provides that while prior approval is required, the request for authorization shall be rejected only if the authorities provide “valid reasons.” In addition, the amendments have reduced the available punishments in case of violation (e.g., reducing the imprisonment period from one year to six months).

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Reports

UN Universal Periodic Review Reports Myanmar
Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar (March 6, 2013)
USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes None
U.S. State Department U.S. Relations With Burma (2012)
Fragile States Index Reports Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index (2015)
International Commission of Jurists ICJ Intervention on the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (2007)
Amnesty International Myanmar (August 2013)
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library Myanmar

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News and Additional Resources

While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

General News

Senior U.S. Diplomat Calls on Myanmar to Release All Political Prisoners (January 2016)
A high-level U.S. diplomat called for the release of political prisoners and detained student activists during a meeting with Myanmar political leaders to discuss the upcoming political power transition following last year's landmark elections.U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept general elections in early November, as well as incumbent President Thein Sein.

Myanmar to study Thailand's media for drafting its own media law (November 2014)
Thailand and Myanmar have agreed to cooperate on media and broadcasting after seeing similarities in their media reform efforts. Myanmar's radio and television committee will visit Thailand to learn about the latter's media industry and digital TV in December. Myanmar’s radio and television committee, which is drafting the country’s radio and television law, asked to exchange views with Thailand on the legislation.

Civil Society Makes Demands in Lead-up to Resource Transparency Conference (October 2014)
Civil society representatives urged corporate and government stakeholders to take additional measures in preparation for implementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a resource revenue reporting protocol. Burma became a candidate for EITI membership in July 2014, and must now meet the initiative's seven requirements in order to become fully compliant. The most fundamental requirement is a fully functioning tripartite "multi-stakeholder group" (MSG) comprising civil society, corporate and government representatives who share decision-making power about how the country will report on and regulate the extractive industries. A group of civil society stakeholders collectively known as the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA) issued a six-point ultimatum to their counterparts, claiming that Burma's civil society does not yet have enough protections and therefore cannot participate freely in implementation of the protocol.

Government says NGO's doctors can return (August 2014)
The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar worsened over the winter after the Burmese government suspended operations of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, leaving more than 700,000 people without proper medical care. The government said only late last week that the doctors could return. Doctors Without Borders said in a statement that they were "cautiously optimistic" after the government's surprise announcement that doctors could return to the area after they were expelled in February for treating victims of a January clash that left more than 40 Rohingya dead — a confrontation the government denies took place. Some, however, viewed the news with skepticism, arguing it could be a public relations ploy ahead of an expected visit by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry in August. The group was the main provider of medical care for more than 700,000 people in Rakhine state, and the ouster of the 600 staffers and the shuttering of clinics and traveling medical teams left huge gaps.

Myanmar reduces penalties in public protest laws
(June 2014)
"Peaceful Assembly Law" the maximum penalty for those who cause unrest was halved to one year in prison, while the penalty for those who fail to seek permission for protesting was halved to six months.The amended version still requires people to seek permission for public protests but it eliminated a clause from the original law saying that "authorities can reject the permission," implying that protests will be allowed as long as they are peaceful.

Protestors Only Required to 'Inform' Before Demonstrations (March 2014)

Burma Bans NGO from Operating in Rakhine State (March 2014)

Lower House Passes Amendments to Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law (March 2014)

Myanmar's Legislature in a Time of Transition (December 2013)

Yangon Court Sentences 6 More Activists Under Peaceful Assembly Law (November 201

CSOs and MPs Draft 'Progressive' Association Registration Law (October 2013)

Burma clamps down on local protests as multinational developments go ahead (October 2013)

Update on Progress of Response by Myanmar Civil Society Organizations on Draft Association Law (August 2013)

Human Rights Watch

Burma: World Report 2013