Page 1 of 2 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
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
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
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).