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Interview: Hate speech law ‘can be done pretty soon’

Lawyer Ko Ni played a prominent role in drafting legislation to address religious discrimination and hate speech in Burma. (Photo: DVB)

As a former legal advisor to the now ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), lawyer Ko Ni has played a prominent role in helping to shape legislation to address a variety of issues. In 2013, he proposed a new law to deal with the growing problem of religious discrimination and hate speech, but it went nowhere under the government of former President Thein Sein. Now, with the NLD in power, he believes that there is a real possibility that a new law could be adopted before the end of the year. He recently spoke to DVB about his thoughts on the prospects for a law that could help to stem the tide of hate crimes in Burma.

Q: The religious affairs minister, Thura Aung Ko, recently mentioned that a draft law on preventing hate speech was being prepared. Can you tell us more about it?

A: Article 364 of Burma’s 2008 constitution allows for the promulgation of laws to prevent and punish racial and religious discrimination. The 1947 constitution and the 1974 socialist constitution also required the government and parliament to adopt such laws, but it was never implemented. What I mean is that successive governments have failed in their responsibility to prevent and take action on racial and religious discrimination and hate speech.

I presented the law in question to parliament in 2013, following the Meikhtila riots, in a petition signed by around 20 individuals including lawyers and teachers from the Education Department, but it was never discussed and ultimately forgotten. Recently, after the government change, I checked for an update and was told that neither the upper nor lower house had that draft.

After the current government was formed, the new Religious Affairs Minister U Aung Ko met with interfaith groups in Rangoon and Mandalay, where he called for laws preventing hate speech and discrimination and I took that opportunity to present the draft law I worked on. It is now being discussed among various civil society organisations (CSOs) and interfaith organisations and as a matter of fact I finished working on it in 2013.

Given the current circumstances in our country, it is very much necessary to enact a law to see effective action on hate speech and discrimination. As we currently have no law to directly punish these offenses, we have to use articles in the Penal Code that forbid religious defamation and “hurting religious feelings” and such, which is not very effective. We need a law in which we can see more straightforward action on offenses such as hate speech. The CSOs and interfaith groups are working to introduce the draft law in the parliament upon resumption of the legislative session.

Q: Can you tell us more about what happened to the draft law in 2013?

A: I presented it to the lower house but when I checked with them later, they suggested it may have been forwarded to the upper house so I reached out to the upper house via some acquaintances. I did it when the U Shwe Mann-led Commission for the Assessment Legal Affairs and Special Issues announced a list of 142 laws to be reviewed by the commission, including eight laws that were suggested to be adopted urgently, and mine wasn’t among those. It is good timing now as the religious affairs minister has also called for [the creation of new] legislation — hopefully the draft law will now be able to reach parliament.

Q: It’s already July. Do you think the law can be enacted, after discussion in the parliament, by the end of this year?

A: I think even sooner than that as the law is not too complicated, unlike laws like the Foreign Investment Law, which deals with a lot of technical issues. We based our draft law on Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony and it is only about six pages. It mainly promoted mutual respect and cooperation among different religions and provided punishments for hate speech. I think it can be done pretty soon.