“Sometimes I think that a parody of democracy could be more dangerous than a blatant dictatorship, because that gives people an opportunity to avoid doing anything about it.”
-Aung San Suu Kyi
In 2007, discontent and anger spilled out on the streets of Myanmar, ruled by the military since the coup d’état of 1962. Students, activists, women and Buddhist monks protested against the unannounced decision of the ruling Juntato remove fuel subsidies which caused the price of fuel to rise by several times. Under pressure for brutally repressing this Saffron Revolution, the Junta declared that Myanmar should have a disciplined democracy under the leadership of the military, and should not encourage any rapid changes.
So in May 2008, when a significant portion of the population was battling the devastation that Cyclone Nargis had wreaked, a constitutional referendum was held to adopt the constitution drafted by the military. The new constitution makes it almost impossible for Suu Kyi to become President as it bars anyone from the presidency whose spouse or children are foreign nationals. Besides, aquarter of seats in both parliamentary chambers are reserved for the military and it stipulates that three key ministerial posts – interior, defence and border affairs – must be held by serving generals. What actually sends alarm bells ringing is the fact that amending the constitution requires over three- fourths of the votes in Parliament. And obviously, as a quarter of the members are military personnel, this means that the constitution cannot be changed without themilitary’s approval. Without a doubt, the Junta’s iron grip over the political system will not loosen any time soon.
The November 2010 elections (which were based on this new constitution) were marred by questions raised over their transparency by pro-democracy and human rights activists. Suu Kyi’s party-‘The National League for Democracy’ (NLD), did not participate in the election as many of the NLD leaders were barred from participating in the election for several reasons. The laws were such that the party would have to expel them in order to be allowed to run. This decision, taken in May, led to the party being officially banned. Suu Kyi was herself under house arrest when elections were held.
Certainly, since the election, Myanmar has made progress on some dimensions of democracy under President Thein Sein, a former military commander (as military personnel were barred from contesting, many retired to participate). Restrictions on participation in politics have eased, as was witnessed during last April’s Parliamentary by-elections which saw opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gain a place in the legislature. Civil liberties have also been strengthened, with greater media freedom and fewer restrictions on the right to assemble. Many political prisoners have been released (though many still remain behind bars) and some exiled dissidents have been granted permission to return home without the fear of persecution.
These steps have gone a long way in pacifying the West- US and EU welcomed Myanmar back to the world stage and ending its isolation by lifting sanctions. These vast improvements, though laudable, sometimes seem to be merely eyewash.
Recently, five reporters of ‘Unity’ magazine were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labour for disclosing ‘state secrets’ and jeopardising national security afterpublishing an article about analleged chemical weapons factory built by seizing farmland. Despite promises by President Thein Sein that Myanmar would have no more prisoners of conscience by the end of 2013, arrests and imprisonment of peaceful activists and human rights defenders have continued. Other new prisoners of conscience include land rights and environmental activists. Many have been sentenced under a range of laws that place far-reaching restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Persisting ethnic conflicts expose the deep mistrust and intolerance that the Burmese harbor towards not only their government but also each other. The rebels of Kachin, Karen and Shan ethnic groups have, for decades, engaged in a civil war with the military. Despite the President’s calls for ceasefire and negotiations, insurgents are reluctant to withdraw forces or make agreements because the government lacks control over the military.
The most upsetting chapter in Myanmar’s new story is the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority oppressed by a growing sense of Buddhist nationalism. The government vehemently denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, referring to the group, even in official documents, as ‘Bengali’. This stems from a pervasive belief that all Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a conviction widely held despite records of Rohingya families living in Myanmar for centuries. Documents obtained by Fortify Rights detail restrictions on the Rohingya relating to: ‘movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship, and other aspects of everyday life’. These policies, created and implemented by Rakhine State (home to a major portion of the Rohingya population) and central government authorities, apply solely to the Rohingya and are reportedly framed as a response to an ‘illegal immigration’ problem and threats to ‘national security’.
Ongoing tension between Rohingyas (as well as other Muslims) and Rakhine Buddhists reached tipping point in 2012. Conflict that began as tit-for-tat communal clashes soon escalated into what multiple human rights groups have condemned as ethnic cleansing. In January 2014, residents of a small village in northern Rakhine State were brutally massacred by security forces and Rakhine Buddhists. Officially the massacre was denied, but Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (MSF) reported treating 22 patients for injuries sustained during the violence. The government portrayed this as ‘wrong information’ and threatened to kick MSF out of the country. After negotiations, MSF was given permission to resume its projects – except in strife-torn Rakhine State. This move of the government is blatantly cruel and oppressive as MSF offered a lifeline to the segregated Rohingya who have difficulty accessing medical services because of travel restrictions and discrimination that prevents them from being treated at public hospitals.
Myanmar would undoubtedly lose a golden opportunity to usher in true democracy if the people continue to cater to the whims and fancies of the military and fail to resolve the animosity that exists. And if they fail to rise to the challenge, its government would simply remain a ‘civilian’ and not a ‘democratic’ one.