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Burma: Draft Legislation on Revision of Penal Code

(Sept. 15, 2015) It was reported on June 22, 2015, that Burma’s Union Supreme Court had submitted the Penal Code Amendment Bill to the Union Parliament. The draft law seeks to update Burma’s antiquated Penal Code of 1860, last amended in 1974, but only by making “fine adjustments and a handful of other minor changes related to terminology, election campaigning and rape” and increasing “most fines by tenfold to account for inflation.” (Yen Snaing, Bill Seeks to Modernize Parts of Burma’s Penal Code, THE IRRAWADDY (June 22, 2015); Myanmar: The Penal Code (May 1, 1861) (date of entry/update Jan. 9, 2014), ONLINE BURMA/MYANMAR LIBRARY.)

The proposed changes to terminology are attempts to modernize the Code, e.g., by replacing the current phrase “officers, soldiers, sailors of [sic] airmen” with the more general “Defense Services Personnel” and to use words that are more accurate for contemporary life, e.g., “‘judge’ instead of ‘magistrate’ and ‘life imprisonment’ in lieu of ‘transportation.'” (Yen Snaing, supra.) The suggested fine for engaging in political campaigning on behalf of a candidate without his/her express written permission, either through holding public fora or distributing advertisements, is 50,000 kyats (about US$39), increased from the current 500 kyats. (Id.)

Other notable proposed changes are to raise the legal age of sexual consent from 14 to 16 years of age and to amend article 375 on the definition of rape. However, the proposed law does not include changes to certain controversial provisions of article 375, such as the exemption provided for marital rape. (Id.) Thein Nyunt, a Member of the Parliament’s Lower House, noted that further revision by the Parliament of some of the proposed changes was likely, such as the ones on punishment for certain types of fraud; in the current form of the draft law, for example, the sentence for deliberate deception is increased from the current one year to three years in prison.. (Id.)

Certain other provisions in the current Code have come under criticism from elements of the Burmese public. For example, it was reported in November 2013 that the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender (LBGT) activist group LBGT Rights Network, an alliance of 19 civil society organizations that is based in Rangoon (Yangon), planned to lobby the government to abolish article 377 of the Penal Code. That article imposes a prison term of up to ten years upon conviction for engaging in “intercourse against the order of nature,” and is said to be used to penalize same-sex couples and to effectively rule out their living openly in the country. (Lawi Weng, LGBT Groups Call for Burma’s Penal Code to Be Amended, IRRAWADDY (Nov. 29, 2013).)