The Progress of Burmese Democracy

Author: Ava White, Johns Hopkins University


The Southeast Asian country sandwiched between India and Thailand is going through an identity crisis: the US government refers to the country as Burma; however, the United Nations – and the country itself – maintains that its name is Myanmar, which in Burmese is simply a more formal version of the nominally colonial word “Burma.” The military junta that previously ran the country changed the name in 1989, but activists and governments around the world continued referring to the country as Burma to symbolize their opposition to the junta’s actions and their refusal to recognize the junta as a legitimate government. In recent years, Burma has begun the process of democratic reform, and many have been quick to jettison the term Burma in favor of Myanmar to recognize the new government. Yet this move has been premature, especially in light of the harsh realities that the Burmese military still controls the country, and that all of the recent democratic reforms are in serious jeopardy.

Last week, the former pariah state hosted the 25th ASEAN Summit and President Obama made his second trip to the country (his first was in 2012). Every press conference and symbolic visit has been loaded with significance, as Burma is in the process of a delicate transition towards democracy. The Obama Administration has been quick to claim credit for Burma’s newborn democracy and to suspend sanctions on the country, but in reality, Burma has made little progress towards the goals Obama set in 2012.

On the subject of press freedom, Burma has clearly stalled. In early October, journalist Ko Aung Kyaw Naing was killed while in military custody. He had been covering the government’s ongoing campaign against the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army – one of Burma’s armed ethnic groups which has been fighting alternately for autonomy or for independence since 1948 – when he was illegally detained by the Burmese military. The military claims he was reaching for a guard’s gun, but protestors and family members accuse the military of torturing and killing him because he was reporting the conflict and the military’s human rights abuses during its campaign. According to Burma’s current legal system, the only recourse for the family is to level charges in a military court – which leaves the military completely unaccountable to the citizenry because a military court will undoubtedly resist civilian interference and seek to protect the interests of the military itself. In a discussion with the Secretary of the Myanmar Press Council U Kyaw Min Shwe, Obama stressed the importance of media freedom and pressed the Secretary on the weak points of Burma’s existing media laws. However, even if changes were to be made to those laws, the military is clearly free to violate any laws it wishes with virtual impunity so long as lawsuits are filed in military courts. Burma may have a democratic political system, but as long as the military remains unaccountable, no true progress can be made.

Another one of the conditions agreed on during Obama’s last visit in 2012 was a ceasefire between the government and Burma’s armed ethnic groups. When world leaders arrived in the capital of Naypyidaw at the beginning of the summit, they were welcomed by women wearing ceremonial dress from Burma’s many ethnic groups in a proud display of diversity and unity in government – and a sham, as each of the women in the receiving line identified as a member of the ethnic Burman majority when asked. The Burmese government remains dominated by Burmans with little representation for the country’s dozens of ethnic minorities. The peace process with the armed insurgencies has also completely stalled, with clashes escalating in recent months and continuing flagrant human rights violations on both sides. In light of these ongoing war crimes, NGOs and some of the larger ethnic groups sent open letters and statements to President Obama asking him to raise ethnic concerns with President U Thein Sein during his visit. They had to send letters, because while Obama met with the government, opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, students, and civil society organizations, he did not meet with ethnic leaders. By glossing over the issue of ethnic conflict, Obama has seriously underestimated the importance of the issue. Burma cannot become a truly functioning democracy as long as it continues to commit horrifying war crimes as part of its decades-long civil war, and with no ethnic peace forthcoming, the entire democratic transition is clearly on shaky ground.

On the issue of the Rohingya, one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, Obama took a firmer stance. The reality of Burma’s current situation is that, like other stalled developments, little progress is being made. As with the name “Burma,” the term “Rohingya” is loaded with symbolism – the Burmese government maintains that there is no Rohingya ethnic group and refers to this Muslim minority exclusively as Bengalis. Both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and President Obama referred to the Rohingya by name this past week, prompting a flurry of criticism from the Burmese government. On October 31, the US Treasury also blacklisted politician and general Aung Thaung for his links to the radical Buddhist and anti-Muslim 969 Movement. Activists worldwide have rejoiced that Obama has chosen to take a strong stand in favor of the rights of the Rohingya, but at the same time, this pressure seems to be having little effect on the actions of the Burmese government. Just before Obama’s visit, the government of Rakhine State (where most of the Rohingya live) announced it was postponing its plan for reform and development programs in the state – the very plan for which the international community had been calling. In recent months the numbers of fearful Rohingya fleeing the country have swelled, and many expect an outbreak of renewed anti-Muslim violence before or during the 2015 elections. For all of Burma’s claims of democratic progress, little has been achieved in terms of protecting this persecuted group.

Looking forward to the 2015 elections, the issue of constitutional reform in Burma remains critically important. An existing constitutional clause bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from running for the presidency, which many criticize as unfair. The existing constitution also gives the military massive representation in the Parliament and veto power over parliamentary actions, essentially making Burma’s entire democratic government subject to the military’s whims. A parliamentary debate over constitutional amendments began on November 13, and there is some hope that this debate may yield some important results. However, as long as the military retains its veto power, any such amendments may be struck down.

During his visit, Obama warned against backsliding but praised Burma’s efforts thus far. He even laid out the details of a labor initiative which would offer the country preferential trading status in exchange for continued labor reform. However, the Obama Administration and the international community in general have been too quick to praise and reward the reforms of the Burmese government. Burma currently is backsliding on many of its democratic reforms and remains under de facto military rule. The US must take a more aggressive stance and continue pushing for the necessary reforms, especially in the areas of press freedom, ethnic peace, the Rohingya, and constitutional reform. Only once Burma has made substantial progress on these issues and truly rid itself of military control will it resolve its identity crisis, transition to true democratic rule, and worthy of the name “Myanmar” and all it represents.


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