In November 2010, Burma held its first election since 1990 when the military refused to hand over power to the democratically elected government. The international community assessed the 2010 election as being neither free nor fair due to an array of flaws (BBC, November, 2010). Nevertheless, the military-backed USDP officially won over 75% of the vote and a nominally civilian government, mainly made up of former generals, took office in March 2011. A former general Thein Sein was elected as the President. In his inaugural speech, President Thein Sein committed his administration to “national unity”. Unlike previous leaders, he acknowledged ethnic armed conflict as a problem attributable to “dogmatism, sectarian strife, and racism”, noting that “in consequence, the people were going through the hell of untold miseries” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2011). This government rhetoric instilled a measure of hope and made many observers to refer to it as the basis for “cautious optimism” (see Human Rights Watch, 2012c). More recently, President Thein Sein delivered a speech in which he again acknowledged the deeply-set grievances of the people of Burma:
“We have the duty to heal the bitter wounds and sufferings and fulfil the lost dreams. It is the historic duty for all of us. We understand that it is a demanding task. But we have full confidence to shoulder this duty well”. (President Thein Sein, March 1, 2012; New Light of Myanmar, 2012)
Since the new government took over power, Burma has witnessed an unprecedented extent of positive changes, including signing a number of ceasefire agreements with ethnic opposition armies, easing of official media restrictions and censorships, and enacting laws on forming trade unions and freedom of assembly as well as the right to form labour unions and to hold demonstrations. After years of domestic and international pressure, a number of prominent political prisoners were released in October 2011 and January 2012 (Human Rights Watch, January, 2012a). Whilst more political prisoners were released in four additional amnesties in 2012, bringing the total of releases of political prisoners up to 500 in 2012, significant concerns remained over the conditions under which they were freed (AAPP, 2013a; Human Rights Watch, September, 2012). Furthermore, while the government released more prisoners in 2013, President Thein Sein’s public promise to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of year was not fulfilled (see AAPP, 2014b). In September 2014, the country reportedly had 80 political prisoners and 130 awaiting trial (AAPP, 2014c). The government also continued to abuse some prisoners and detainees, and held persons in harsh and life-threatening conditions (US State Department, 2014). Moreover, prominent international actors and numerous civil society organisations have recently voiced concerns of Burma backtracking on reforms (see e.g. Myanmar Civil Society Organizations, October, 2014; UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, July, 2014)
The April 2012 by-elections in Burma received an unusual amount of attention from international media, partly due to the fact that only a few years ago it was considered almost impossible that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would not only be released from house arrest (she was released one week after the 2010 elections) but also be allowed to contest for a seat in the Parliament. NLD contested and won 42 of the 43 open seats in the by-election, with Daw Suu Kyi taking one of them (see e.g. Mizzima, April, 2012). The US hailed this election as a major step toward democracy (Reuters, 2012). Indeed, in the streets of major cities in Burma there are many visible changes; one can now see pictures of Daw Suu Kyi and flags of her party NLD posted on walls, acts that a few years ago would have likely led to arrest and torture.
Nevertheless, NLD only won about 6% of the seats in Parliament and no real change in power occurred. One should remember that the 2008 Constitution secures 25% of the Parliamentary seats to the military, whilst the Constitution can only be changed with a 75% majority (see Constitution of the Republic of Myanmar). Furthermore, the reasons behind the reforms remain unclear. Amidst deep-seated mistrust towards the government, the people of Burma voice numerous theories on why the changes are happening, many of them including continuing elements of oppression and military power. Some have suggested that the military is embarking on reform “only for their own long-term survival” (Maung Zarni, November, 2012). These voices are now increasingly silenced by the international community’s praise for the reforms.
Major issues of concern in Burma include the ongoing imprisonment of political prisoners (AAPP, 2013b; 2014b), the continuance of human rights violations in Burma’s prisons and ethnic nationality areas (see e.g. Davis, Gittleman, Sollom, Richards, & Beyrer, 2012; ND-Burma, 2012c, 2013a, 2013b, 2014a, 2014b), the sectarian violence that has spread in Arakan State (Human Rights Watch, 2014a; UN OCHA, 2012), not to mention the ongoing war in Kachin State. Furthermore, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar [Burma] said in March 2013 that he had received reports of “state involvement” in some of the recent violence in central Burma (AFP & DVB, March, 2013), and the conflict in Kachin State escalated further in December 2012 and January 2013 when the government forces began employing airstrikes that devastated many villages in the Kachin State (e.g. FBR, 2012, 2013). The regime also violently stopped peaceful demonstrations against a joint military and Chinese business plan to expand the Letpadaung copper mine, near Monywa, in Sagaing Region, which resulted in a death of a 56 old women. Following the tragic event, three activists called for an investigation into the murder, but instead of bringing to justice those responsible for the murder, they ended up arrested themselves (e.g. Simon, November, 2012, ND-Burma 2015a).
In October, 2014, more than 650 representatives from 257 organisations came together in Rangoon for a 3-day forum to discuss a wide range of issues currently confronting the country. Participants concluded that “despites the claims that steps have been taken for the transition, after reviewing and assessing the situation thematically and geographically, we have concluded that there have been very limited positive changes and in some cases situations have regressed” (Myanmar Civil Society Organizations, October, 2014).
The peace talks resumed in March 2015 after a six-month hiatus between the Burma Governments’ Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC) and the committee that represents 16 ethnic armed groups, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), leading to an agreement of the draft text of the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). However, this agreed draft text of NCA faces hurdles as sticking points such as a code of conduct, an independent monitoring mechanism, and security sector reform have been pushed back to the political dialogue stage (Burma Partnership, 2015b). In the same month that the draft NCA was agreed upon, 48 clashes took place between the EAGs and the Burma Army, mainly between the Kokang armed group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Burma Army, which is one of the highest number of clashes in any month in over a year (Myanmar Peace Monitor, 2015). The high number of clashes since the beginning of 2015 exposes the incongruity of the peace talks and the reality on the ground as well as the fragility of the peace process.
According to many observers, the Burmese military also continues to launch offensives against civilians in northern Burma (see e.g. Fortify Rights, 2014a; PSLF/TNLA, March, 2015; TWO, 2014a), and human rights violations continue (ND-Burma, 2015a). At a recent press conference on 17th of March 2015, U Aung Myo Min, Executive Director of Equality Myanmar, stated that “Myanmar’s human rights conditions have obviously not improved so far, and after 2013 the conditions have gotten worse.’’
The changes in Burma have barely scratched the surface of a deeply troubled society. The world should not forget that Burma is still a long way away from democracy and that the day-to-day struggle and suffering continues for the vast majority of the people of Burma.
Updated April 29, 2015
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