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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 8, 2011

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The good, bad and ugly in Myanmar
By Benjamin Zawacki

BANGKOK - On November 7, 2010, on the occasion of Myanmar's first elections in 20 years, Amnesty International commented that the polls which had "presented an opportunity for Myanmar to make meaningful human rights changes on its own terms" were instead "being held against a backdrop of political repression and systematic violence." A year on, what is the state of play?

Reading the commentary of the past several months - much of it in this newspaper - is of limited help. That optimists and pessimists have emerged would normally be productive, except that these camps are more and more categorically opposed to one another. With few exceptions, Myanmar watchers of all stripes have increasingly dug their heels firmly into doctrinaire

territory, unwilling to concede even the most basic (and often simply factual) points to the other side.

This has not only left the Myanmar debate in a polarized state, but more importantly has hindered the sort of clear, objective assessment on which the right human rights and other policy decisions depend. To a certain degree, this confusion is understandable since for years (if not decades) there was little room for nuanced thinking on Myanmar.

"To sanction or not to sanction" was one of the few points of contention, itself located within a broad consensus - certainly in the West and among much of Asia and the global South as well - that Myanmar was a (choose your adjective: political, economic, humanitarian, public health, educational, human rights ...) disaster on a bleak trajectory.

Since the elections last year, however, that trajectory has changed direction, such that it is no longer possible to interchange the litany of adjectives or speak of Myanmar - as many commentators still do - as a black-or-white situation. Nor is it advisable to do so. The human rights situation in Myanmar must be disaggregated, and addressed on that basis.

The qualified good
There is political and economic change underway in Myanmar, much of which could be to the improvement of people's civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. Those who deny this are simply not paying attention or are allowing their personal, political or institutional agendas to get in the way.

Aside from releasing pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest a week after the elections and a late April 2011 inaugural speech by President Thein Sein that promised increased political participation, for six months Myanmar's new government enacted few positive changes.

Since July however, a steady stream of new moves and policies has become apparent, albeit of greatly varying significance to the human rights situation. Other than the appointment of a National Human Rights Commission (discussed below), a guardedly positive development but whose focus is largely uncertain, almost all have been confined to the political and economic spheres and centers.

Myanmar's Labor Minister Aung Gyi has met four times with Suu Kyi, and Thein Sein has met her once in talks she described - in contrast to those with Aung Gyi four years ago - as a "positive development." She has twice been permitted to travel outside of Yangon, and unlike in May 2003 when government-backed thugs attacked her motorcade in Depayin and killed or injured over 100 of her supporters, her trips this year occurred without incident.

And contrary to declaring her National League for Democracy (NLD) political party illegal after it refused to register under new electoral laws in 2010, the government has invited it to reregister under amended provisions of those laws. These events show a small improvement in the freedoms of expression and association, particularly as they involve a former prisoner of conscience whose house arrest was illegally extended just months before last year's elections.

More significant, if still tentative, steps toward increased freedom of expression have come in relation to Myanmar's once robust media industry. In October, Radio Free Asia cited Tint Swe, director of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, as saying that censorship is inconsistent with democratic values and more political content has been allowed in recent months.

Again, enter Suu Kyi: previously strictly prohibited in the domestic media, her name and picture have been allowed to appear and for the first time in 23 years the authorities permitted her in September to publish her own piece in the Pyithu Khit News Journal. Internet restrictions have also been substantially reduced; the websites of both international outlets and those run by Myanmar exiles - almost uniformly critical of the government - are no longer blocked. The authorities recently signaled a lifting of a six-year ban on satellite television receivers as well.

While these changes improve freedom of expression in Myanmar in relation to both the transmission/dissemination and reception of information and mark a relaxation of draconian restrictions during (when the Internet was severed altogether) and after 2007's "Saffron" revolution, they are not supported by changes to the relevant laws.

Nor are they unqualified in practice. Not only did the authorities cut all political content from an exclusive interview of Suu Kyi by the Messenger News in September, but more seriously, on the day after UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar visited the country in August, former military officer Nay Myo Zin was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly sending abroad a political document on how to achieve democracy.

One month later, Sithu Zeya, a young reporter with the exile-run Democratic Voice of Burma, already serving an eight-year prison term, had his sentence extended by a decade under the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law. Extensive legal reform in relation to not only the media but to freedom of expression generally is long overdue in Myanmar, and the persecution via prosecution of journalists should stop immediately.

Closely related to freedom of expression are the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, which in passing the Labor Organization Bill last month Myanmar took a substantial step toward promoting and protecting. The law allows workers to form trade unions - effectively banned previously under the 1962 Trade Unions Act - and to legally go on strike. The important matter of whether the unions will be independent of the government, however, remains to be seen.

In the same speech in which he promised increased political participation, President Thein Sein also pledged to fight poverty in Myanmar. This was a welcome message considering the government's initially obstructive response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Recent months have seen a mixed record in Myanmar, still weak on the humanitarian side, somewhat stronger but still with much room for improvement on development.

Currently, the humanitarian situation in Myanmar is especially grave in several ethnic minority states where armed conflict is taking place, as well as in Rakhine and Chin States where food insecurity is severe. Despite slow movement in the right direction, however, the government has kept in place lengthy and complex administrative procedures for obtaining travel permits both for those who already have a presence and for new humanitarian agencies seeking permission to work in the country.

In conflict areas, authorities have in some cases simply blocked any and all access to the tens of thousands of persons internally displaced by the fighting, especially those in camps on the Myanmar-China border. These practices should cease immediately.

At the same time, the international donor community needs to respond to the "humanitarian imperative" in Myanmar, especially by addressing people's lack of access to minimum essential levels of economic, social and cultural rights. In particular, this requires them to meet pledges made for relief and/or recovery after Cyclones Nargis (May 2008) and Giri (October 2010) so long as they are satisfied that distribution of humanitarian aid is provided transparently, is for the purposes agreed upon, and is based solely on need.

Organizations and local communities have also highlighted the need for a stronger international response to the humanitarian disaster in the latest conflict areas (near the Myanmar-China border). The rights of people whose lives have been devastated by these events should not be held hostage to politics by either Myanmar's new government or the international community.

Myanmar's development situation is slightly better but more complicated. Five years after the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria decided to leave Myanmar, partly on account of reported government interference, the new administration signed an agreement in November 2010 welcoming it back. This move, most positive in itself, should have the additional effect of allowing the Three Diseases Fund, which had filled the gap left by Global Fund, to focus more on other critical health care issues such as maternal and child health.

In July, the Myanmar government also raised substantially state pensions for nearly a million people, most of them poor, and announced plans to provide micro-credit for poor farmers. Last week it finished hosting a visit by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to discuss unifying its foreign exchange rate policy and lifting certain currency restrictions, something which could also be to the economic benefit of its cash-strapped citizens, and agreed to increase its assistance to migrants working in Thailand.

These initiatives should be acknowledged by the international community. At the same time, there are reasons for continuing concerns such that increasing international assistance and cooperation and lifting the restrictions under which multilateral agencies (such the IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the UN Development Program) continue to work in Myanmar should be matched by the government making additional moves of its own.

It should reallocate more resources to the social, educational, and public health sectors, which currently combined receives only about 5% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Myanmar should also utilize the estimated $5 billion in foreign reserves it has accumulated over the years, mostly from the sale of natural resources, toward advancing the economic, social, and cultural rights of its people. Last month on a bilateral basis Japan at least partly demonstrated this attention to Myanmar's domestic policies by citing unspecified "progress" in Myanmar in its reported decision to resume official development assistance there, which it had suspended after the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

Pessimists take note: politically and economically there are limited - but real - human rights changes taking place in Myanmar. While the government must do a great deal more, nothing in the way last year's elections were orchestrated suggested this would be the case a year on.

The categorically bad
Unfortunately, what many optimists disregard is that these changes are confined to Myanmar's political and economic centers. There is another story in Myanmar concerning a substantial portion of the civilian population that has been ignored, sidelined or outright dismissed by many since the story of the "qualified good" broke: serious human rights and humanitarian law violations in several ethnic minority areas.

The irony is that the event most often referenced in relation to the recent political and economic reforms - last year's parliamentary elections - is the same event that marked the start of this "categorically bad" development.

On the very day of the polls, ethnic minority Karen elements launched an attack on the Myanmar army in the border town of Myawaddy. March and June this year marked respectively an intensification of conflict with various ethnic minority armed groups in Shan State and the breaking of a 15-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State. Smaller conflicts continued or resumed as well in Kayan (Karenni) and Mon States.

While the civilian population almost always suffers in conflict zones, the critical difference in this fighting - for both the Myanmar government and the international community - is that civilians have been a target set of the Myanmar army. From Kayin (Karen) State (and bordering parts of Bago and Tanintharyi Regions), there are recent and credible accounts of the army using prison convicts as porters, forcing them to act as human shields and mine-sweepers.

In Kachin State, sources report extrajudicial executions, children killed by shelling and other indiscriminate attacks, forced labor, and illegal confiscation of food and property. And last week Amnesty International spoke with ethnic Shan civilians who recounted stories of torture, arbitrary detention and forced relocation.

As a result, there are roughly 30,000 "new" internally displaced persons in Shan State and a similar number in or near Kachin State (including a small number of refugees), in addition to approximately 36,000 internally displaced persons in Kayin State. In October, the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium reported that in the past year alone 112,000 persons were forced from their homes in Myanmar (to say nothing of the more than 150,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand and those in other neighboring countries). 

Continued 1 2  

The Arab Spring and Myanmar
(Oct 20, '11)

China behind Myanmar's course shift (Oct 18, '11)

Israeli sends out loud warning to Iran

2. Fear and loathing in the Cannes debt festival

3. Deadly fog on the Mekong

4. US's post-2014 Afghan agenda falters

5. The economics of polarization

6. Small US-Iran step on a long road

7. A path not taken

8. Bangladesh, Russia sign nuclear plant deal

9. China-US satellite warning a hot-button issue

10. Floods drown hi-tech plants

(Nov 5-7, 2011)

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