State of emergency powers as a threat in Myanmar

We are now in the second day of protests amidst an internet blackout in Myanmar.

Its important to keep in mind that the military has used the threat of a state of emergency in the past.

Here is a reflection from my fieldwork in 2014 at a rally for constitutional amendment and the threats by the military to declare a state of emergency at that time:

“The morning was hot, the traffic crowded. I arrived by taxi at Bo Sein Hman sports ground in Tamwe Township, Yangon. The rally was due to start at 8:30 am, and the sports ground was already crammed full of people when I arrived. They must have arrived very early as people were already sitting on the ground, huddled close together. The crowd was a mixed group of people, young, old and in-between, with the odd journalist and foreigner here and there. I wondered if members of the Special Investigation Branch were also here — probably.

The sports ground sloped down to one end where a large platform had been erected. The crowd all faced the large platform, and behind the platform was an enormous sign several metres high proclaiming the reason for the demonstration: the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the 88 Generation had joined forces to call on the government to amend section 436 of the Constitution. Section 436 contains the amendment procedure to change the 2008 Constitution.

This has to be one of the most constitutionally literate people in the world, I thought to myself. In how many other countries would this many people actually know or care about the amendment provision of their Constitution?

The gates to the ground had already been closed by the time I arrived, so people spilled out onto the surrounding sideways and footpaths, peering through the iron fence. To the left of the grounds several small food stalls had popped up. The food vendors were clustered near some card tables where people handed out NLD pamphlets and fliers, and encouraged people to sign the petition to amend the Constitution.

Many people in the crowd proudly displayed their political allegiance by wearing NLD paraphernalia — t-shirts, headbands, and arm bands. Just two years ago this was unthinkable. At the road to the back of the grounds, some people had climbed trees while others stood on the back of a utility vehicle parked on the road, in an attempt to get the best view of the stage. To the right side of the stage, there was a large group of people, as that spot offered the closest and most unobstructed view of the stage. Some young NLD volunteers who wore security badges formed a human chain in an attempt to keep people off the road and keep the traffic flowing around the crowd. The traffic crawled by slowly but patiently, car fumes choking the early air morning.

On stage sat the Lady, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, member of parliament and chairperson of the NLD. To her left, sat U Tin Oo, founder of the NLD, and Min Ko Naing, 88 Generation leader. All three had been political prisoners for their pro-democracy activities during the post-1988 military period. While Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was clearly the favourite, the crowd listened with the same rapture and level of respect for all speakers. I wondered how many rallies this was now for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — from the weekly talks that she gave outside her gate in the early 1990s, to the talks she gave around the country when released from country arrest, particularly since 2010.

One of the most unusual aspects of the rally was the silence that prevailed when the speeches were being made. The atmosphere was surreal. There were thousands of people around me, and yet I could not see anyone talking or whispering to each other, nor was anyone on their phone. Some media reports later estimated the event to have drawn a crowd as big as 20,000 people. Even though it was still early morning, the heat was oppressive and stifling, yet few people moved. All eyes were glued to the stage, as if their lives depended on the words of the speakers. At times when one of the speakers made a particularly impassioned plea on the necessity of constitutional amendment and democracy, the crowd would cheer and applaud, but then it would inevitably fall respectfully silent again. It was perhaps the most orderly and controlled rally that I have ever been to.

The demonstrations that took place across Myanmar from May to July 2014 focused on the need for constitutional amendment, although it also attracted threats from the government [the USDP military-backed government] that it would declare a state of emergency.

The constitutional rally that I attended in May 2014 refused to conform to government expectations. Leading up to this event, the Union Election Commission had even issued a written warning to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the effect that she must be careful not to breach section 6 of the Political Parties Registration No 2/2010, which requires registered political parties to safeguard the Constitution.

This was not the first rally that the NLD had held that specifically focused on the amendment provision, section 436 of the Constitution.

But the government nevertheless tried to make an analogy between the anti-government protests in Thailand, which in 2014 had led to the declaration of a state of emergency and then martial law, and the constitutional rallies planned by the NLD and the 88 Generation.

These references to developments in Thailand were used to engender a sense of instability and fear that a state of emergency might be declared and allow the military to take control. The threat that a constitutional state of emergency may be declared hovers over the post-2011 reform process.”

Extract taken from Melissa Crouch (2017) ‘The Everyday Emergency: Between the Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Code in Myanmar’, in A Harding (ed) Constitutionalism and Legal Change in Myanmar. Hart Publishing. pp 157-172