Myanmar: COVID-19 restrictions and punishments
This case revolves around proportionality and discrimination in the application of punishments.
Themes: Freedom of religion or belief, legitimate limitations, public health grounds, COVID-19
In February 2020, the authorities in Myanmar designated COVID-19 as a notifiable disease under the 1995 Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law. This gave the authorities wide-ranging powers to limit freedom of movement, including confining people under strict government-controlled quarantine. Under the law, anyone who fell sick with suspected COVID-19 must report to the authorities or face a fine or jail time. People arriving in Myanmar from abroad were required to undergo quarantine for 28 days – 21 in a state facility followed by 7 days of quarantine at home. The following month, public events and gatherings of more than five people were banned, including religious gatherings.
Between March and May 2020 at least 500 people, including children, returning migrant workers, and religious minorities were sentenced to between one month and one year in prison in Myanmar for breaching curfews, quarantines, or other control orders.
Lawsuits were subsequently filed against members of the majority Buddhist as well as minority Christian and Muslim communities across the country. In one case, two Buddhists were fined 100,000 kyats (around $75) under Article 188 of the Penal Code for organising the funeral of a Buddhist monk, which more than 200 people attended. In a separate case, a group of 12 Muslim men were sentenced to 3 months in prison for gathering in a house to pray, under the Natural Disaster Management Law Article 30(a). In a third case, two Christian pastors were sentenced to 3 months with hard labour under the Natural Disaster Management Law Article 30(a) for organising religious gatherings linked to 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two deaths.
Different laws were applied to persons from minority and majority religious backgrounds. Penalties were imposed in a discriminatory way and were not proportionate. You may find the following guidance from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights helpful in relation to this case:
States must enforce any exceptional measures humanely, respecting the principle of proportionality when imposing penalties for violations and ensure that penalties are not imposed in an arbitrary or discriminatory way.
States should only deprive persons of their liberty as a last resort, on grounds that are established by law, and with appropriate procedural safeguards. Deprivation of liberty must be reasonable, necessary and proportionate in the circumstances, even in a state of emergency.