Burma’s Failed Promise

Burma’s path to democracy, born in considerable hope when the generals’ junta agreed to political reforms in 2011 and released democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, is in depressing danger of failure.

While hundreds of political prisoners have been released over the intervening three years, the civilian government has returned to jailing reporters, confiscating lands and abandoning its promise to seek conciliation with many of its ethnic minorities.

In four weeks, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other Asian countries will meet in Burma at the annual ASEAN summit and East Asia Summit, Human Rights Watch noted. “The event may be the last and best chance for foreign leaders to press the government and army – still the real power behind the scenes – to deliver on commitments for genuine democratic reform.”

US President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, incoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo and others should press Burma’s president, Thein Sein, to publicly commit to constitutional reform ahead of the 2015 elections, undertaking legal reforms that uphold the fundamental freedoms of all Burmese, and ensuring protections for vulnerable minorities, particularly ethnic Rohingya and other Muslims, Human rights said.

Last week, more than 650 representatives from Burmese civil society groups gathered to discuss the status of the country’s reform process in a sober atmosphere, eventually releasing a scathing report on the stalled reform effort.

According to Human Rights Watch: “After acknowledging advances in the first period of the transition, in particular the government’s release of most political prisoners and the loosening of censorship and surveillance…the transition process has excluded opposition actors, ethnic minority groups, and civil society. Burma’s parliament is ‘no more than window-dressing.’ In some cases, the report noted, “situations have regressed.”

Despite continuing reports that democracy is receding, the United States and other foreign powers have kept a hopeful watch on the country. In August, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on the country’s leaders to move ahead with reforms but sent generally positive signals, saying the country had made significant progress and that leaders had “expressed willingness and a readiness to continue to do that.”

However, whatever promises leaders are making, the situation on the ground is clearly worsening. Last Thursday, for instance, a Rangoon court sentenced three journalists and the owners of the a defunct journal to prison after they mistakenly reported in early July that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government. The journal was shut down immediately after.

In July, another court sentenced four journalists and a CEO of the Unity journal to 10 years in prison under the State Secrets Act for reporting on a secretive military installation. The sentence was recently reduced to seven years.

The report cited by Human Rights Watch noted a worsening atmosphere for freedom of expression and lack of meaningful progress on legal reform. “In the first few years, people thought that freedom of expression was growing, but now it is under threat,” one steering committee member told Human Rights Watch.

Most pressing of all, the group said, “is the fact that prospects have dimmed for reforming Burma’s deeply flawed, military-authored 2008 constitution, which subordinates civilian rule to the military and gives military officers 25 percent of parliamentary seats, ensuring the military’s capacity to veto constitutional amendments. Myanmar cannot be said to have genuine democracy,” the group noted, “until the 2008 Constitution is amended and Parliament is fully elected by the people.”

The NGOs charged that the liberalized economy “has mainly benefitted the elite class while much of the citizenry remains mired in poverty,” with a lousy education system and no social welfare net.

Armed conflict has continued or resumed in several ethnic areas, the group said, and there has been a breakdown in ceasefire talks between the army and ethnic groups. There has been no progress on a more comprehensive political settlement with ethnic groups, with the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, suffering savage discrimination. Human Rights Watch charged on Oct. 3 that the government had drafted a plan that would entrench discriminatory policies, deprive the Rohingya of citizenship and lead to the forced resettlement of 130,000 into closed camps.

“The long-awaited Rakhine State Action Plan both expands and solidifies the discriminatory and abusive Burmese government policies that underpin the decades-long persecution of the Rohingya,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of hope and force them to flee the country.” “Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced in conflict areas, even as the government continues to sell land concessions to companies that undertake extractive mining, logging, or clearing of land for rubber plantations,” the civil society group’s report continued.

As an example, nine farmers were sentenced to seven years in jail each last week for working on lands they said were unlawfully seized from them by the military in Mon State. The lands, they said, were confiscated from them in 1984 for a rubber plantation that failed and were abandoned. They reoccupied the lands and resumed tending fields they regarded as their own, only to be arrested and jailed.

“The economy is in the hands of the army and its cronies,” said one of the civil group’s leaders in Rangoon.

“The unified statement by Burma’s civil society should end the wishful thinking present in capitals around the world about the state of the reform process in Burma. It’s up to Obama and other world leaders to deliver the message to Burma’s government. “