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Myanmar

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Myanmar abolishes order banning public gatherings

YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's new reformist government has abolished a 25-year-old ban on public gatherings of more than five people, state media reported Tuesday, ending a much-criticized order issued in 1988 on the day a military junta took power after crushing nationwide pro-democracy protests.

The state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper reported Tuesday that Order No 2/88 was abolished as it was not in line with a section of the constitution that says existing laws should remain valid as long as are not contrary to the constitution, which guarantees basic rights such as freedom of expression.

The order had been applied selectively as a tool to crush dissent against the military regimes that held sway until the elected government of President Thein Sein took office in 2011. His administration has instituted political liberalization, including the revocation of strict censorship.

The order had declared "Gathering or marching in processions and delivering speeches on the streets by a group of 5 or more people are banned." The junta used many catch-all or vaguely defined orders and laws as a means of suppressing dissent, and courts generally handed out stiff sentences, sending thousands of political prisoners into jails around the country. Most have been freed under amnesties promulgated by Thein Sein.

In December 2011, a "Peaceful Assembly Law" was implemented specifically allowing public protests. However, permission must be obtained in advance, without which organizers are subject to penalties including prison terms. Several people have been arrested under the statute.

Exercise of the new-won freedoms has tested the patience of the authorities. Last year, sensationalistic photos and stories in the press threatened to exacerbate already deep tensions triggered by violent clashes between two separate ethnic communities in western Myanmar.

A defense ministry statement published in state newspaper Tuesday blamed unspecified embassies, organizations and media of releasing news and announcements that could cause misunderstanding of the military and the government in connection with fighting against guerrillas of the Kachin ethnic minority in the north.

The press release carried in Myanma Ahlin daily said the embassies and media had made one-sided reports of the army's activities that failed to mention destructive acts carried out by the Kachin Independence Army, and its attacks on government convoys carrying food supplies to bases.

It said the army was carrying out its duty to ensure the people's safety and smooth and secure transportation, and "has inevitably launched military operations in self-defense." It added that the military reiterated its commitment to fostering eternal peace and national unity with ethnic minorities including the Kachin.

The release did not mention any specific organization, but the foreign ministry last week issued a statement rejecting a U.S. embassy statement of concern over government military activities.

The same issue of the newspaper reported that two villagers were injured when their motorcycle hit a land mine planted by the Kachin, and stated that the guerrillas had burned down a jade company building in same area.

The Kachin, like Myanmar's other ethnic minorities, have long sought greater autonomy from the central government. They reached a peace agreement with the previous military regime in 1994 but a cease-fire agreement broke down in June 2011 after the Kachin refused to abandon a strategic base near a hydropower plant that is a joint venture with a Chinese company.

The conflict has forced about 100,000 Kachin from their homes since then, and many are in camps near the Kachin headquarters in Laiza near the Chinese border.

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