Myanmar: The More Things Change…

After violent crackdowns on student protests in Burma have attracted worldwide condemnation, many are no doubt wondering whether the country’s much vaunted political reforms are back to square one.

The Internet has been overwhelmed by social media showing pictures of savage attacks by the authorities against clearly peaceful protesters. - students, monks and journalists – with batons on Tuesday as they dispersed a protest over a proposed new education law following a standoff that lasted more than a week. About 100 people were detained.

More than 200 students and supporters have been protesting an education bill they say stifles academic independence. They had planned to walk from the central city of Mandalay to the commercial hub of Yangon, but were blocked by police in Letpadan, about 140 km to the north of Yangon.

The European Union and United States both have denounced the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, and many observers have speculated that the old guard and hardliners in the Burmese political class are flexing their muscles ahead of this year’s general election. After the horrific images from the Letpadan crackdown, and the tightening of screws on civil society groups and the media, some have suggested that the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council is more actively exercising its power to deal with growing levels of dissent as it sees fit.

Political instability and conflict inevitably lead to more authority for security forces, which are then given carte blanche to exercise more power and control over the population. Over the past 50 years, the Burmese public have witnessed men in uniform extending their own power and ignoring the ballot box. It is only natural for the people of this country to wonder, as they wonder now, whether the events of the last week play into the hands of established political forces.

International donors and western governments are concerned that ongoing protests, ethnic conflicts and religious violence will hamper the election. To them, the question must be posed: what have those in charge done to warrant trust that a free election will be held?

In an information vacuum, rumor fills the void. Despite President Thein Sein’s order to set up a commission of inquiry into the Mar. 5 crackdown on student protests, the public has no knowledge of who was in control and who is taking responsibility for attacks on demonstrators. The lack of an unequivocal message from the opposition is also a cause for concern among many Burmese. With no transparency, a lack of accountability and an increasingly intolerant approach to dissent, it is little wonder that observers believe a new wave of rigid and hardline policies are returning to Burma, a reaction to the last three years of political and economic liberalization.

It is time for the international community and western donor governments to rethink their policy approaches. Political influence needs to be brought to bear to assist in Burma’s transition to a strong and stable democracy—one that guarantees the rights of its citizens to associate freely in public and peacefully petition the government. To many ordinary citizens of this country, at the moment it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Reprinted with permission from The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content sharing agreement