Burma parliament passes protest bill
Published: 24/11/2011 at 01:32 PM
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Burma's military-dominated parliament has passed a bill allowing citizens to protest peacefully, a lawmaker said Thursday -- the latest in a rapid series of reformist moves in the isolated country.

The bill, which needs to be signed off by President Thein Sein to become law, requires that demonstrators "inform the authorities five days in advance," said upper house member Aye Maung, of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

Protesters would be allowed to hold flags and party symbols but must avoid government buildings, schools, hospitals and embassies, he told AFP.

The bill came before parliament this week, four years after a mass monk-led protest known as the "Saffron Revolution" was brutally quashed, with the deaths of at least 31 people and the arrest of hundreds of monks, many still locked up.

Burma's new parliament, dominated by army proxies, opened in January after nearly five decades of outright military rule following an election in November -- the first in 20 years -- that was dismissed by many observers as a sham.

The new leaders of the country, which is subject to Western sanctions, have surprised observers with a number of reformist steps in an apparent move to end international isolation.

They have freed and held direct talks with long-detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, halted work on an unpopular dam project that was backed by key ally China, eased media censorship and passed a law giving workers the right to strike.

The government also held peace talks at the weekend with ethnic minority rebel groups who have been waging a violent insurgency for greater rights and autonomy for decades.

By way of diplomatic recognition for the promising gestures, Burma last week won approval to chair Southeast Asia's regional bloc in 2014.

It also received a nod from US President Barack Obama, who said he would send Hillary Clinton to Burma late next month to encourage reform -- the first US secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years.

A senior White House official said Clinton would look for progress on human rights but it was "premature" to discuss lifting sanctions.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told the Bangkok Post Mrs Clinton will make a three-day visit to Burma from Nov 30 to Dec 2.

She was expected to meet with President Thein Sein and National League for Democracy de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss further reforms in the country.

Mrs Clinton will underscore Washington's commitment to a policy of principled engagement and direct dialogue as part of the its dual-track approach, he said.

''She will register support for reforms that we have witnessed in recent months and discuss further reforms in key areas, as well as steps the US can take to reinforce progress,'' said Mr Toner.

Mrs Clinton would also consult with a broad and diverse group of civil society and ethnic minority leaders to gain their perspectives on developments in the country.

In a further overture, Japan said on Thursday it would send officials to Burma to discuss resuming development aid, suspended in 2003 over Suu Kyi's detention, following recent political developments.

The Japanese delegation will discuss the possibility of resuming construction work on a hydropower plant, an official in Tokyo told AFP.

Suu Kyi's opposition party announced its return to the official political arena last week after it boycotted last year's polls.

The freeing of all of the country's political prisoners, whose exact numbers remain unclear, remains one of the major demands of Western nations.

A small group of monks risked a rare two-day protest in Burma earlier this month, calling for the prisoners' release as well as freedom of speech for monks and an end to conflicts between the army and ethnic minority groups.