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In the first openly contested elections since 1990 (which the military junta refused to acknowledge), Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has won by a landslide. This result was labelled as ‘a victory for this country‘, by newly elected president Htin Kyaw. However, huge disparities still exist between the nation’s many ethnic groups. Despite 80 percent of the country’s thirty million eligible voters turning out to cast a ballot, many groups – including the Rohingya – remained barred from casting a vote. Many other groups were also excluded from voting, including a large portion of Burma’s Shan state. The failure to address the inherent ethnic and gender inequalities in Burma has since led the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, to present the newly elected NLD with a 100-day challenge to commit to serious change in the country. But what can this really achieve? With a military-drafted constitution that guarantees unelected military representatives take up 25% of the seats, which allows veto powers on constitutional amendments in a process that the generals call “disciplined democracy“; there is seemingly very little room for real change in Burma’s core issues.
A Background on Burma
Declaring independence from the British in 1948, Burma began life as a parliamentary democracy. Yet it was beset by ethnic strife from the start. Ethnic Burmans formed roughly two-thirds of its population; the remainder comprised of more than one hundred groups, with the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, and Mon among the largest, as well as significant Indian and Chinese populations. This democracy lasted until 1962, in which General U Ne Win seized power in a military coup. As a result of Ne Win’s isolationist policies, widespread corruption and food shortages led to mass protests, which in turn, led to a crackdown on Burmese civilians by the state security services. The 1988 protests and crackdown were a watershed moment in Burma. From March to September 1988, the suppression of mass pro-democracy demonstrations throughout Burma resulted in thousands of deaths at the hands of the military and other security forces. Whilst Ne Win relinquished his rule as chairman of his party, an even more repressive regime took power in late 1988. It is during this time that Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence as the leader of the main opposition party the NLD. She was detained in 1989, and spent more than fifteen years in detention (both in prison and under house arrest) until she was released for the last time in 2010.
During 2007, the military junta which had ruled Burma for more than 30 years began to lose traction. After removing fuel subsidies, which in turn caused massive price spikes, the Saffron Revolution challenged the junta to make changes. This was further exacerbated by the government’s initial blockade of international aid in the immediacy of Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people in 2008. In the aftermath of these events, the military junta installed a military -backed civilian administration (the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)) headed by Thein Sein. Whilst the legitimacy of these elections was widely questioned, the official dissolution of the military junta in 2011 allowed a chance for significant reforms to be made. Indeed, under Sein’s leadership, the government freed hundreds of prisoners, including political detainees, embarked on peace deals with ethnic minority groups and relaxed media censorship, as well as creating a more economically desirable environment for Western business. Despite these important steps however, greater progress on human rights, including more inclusive peace settlements, international investment transparency and restriction on movement, is sorely needed. The situation for the Rohingya, for example, has deteriorated, with ongoing discrimination which is exacerbated by a dire humanitarian situation. Anti-Muslim violence has persisted, with the authorities failing to hold suspected perpetrators to account.
Burma’s 100-day challenge
With the landmark victory in November 2015 of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, officially headed by Htin Kyaw, there is now a real chance to make significant headway in human rights progress in Burma. Numerous issues still remain, some of which have been highlighted by the United Nations’ human rights investigator Yanghee Lee. Whilst Lee recognised the importance of more open elections during her address to the UN Human Rights Council, she was critical of ongoing rights issues, reminding the council that hundreds of thousands of voters were disenfranchised, and not one Muslim lawmaker currently represents the largest minority religious group in Burma. Lee recommended the incoming government enact serious change in its first 100 days of leadership. Her recommendations include lifting restrictions on freedom of movement in Rakhine State, meeting a 30 percent quota for women participating in the peace process and stopping the use of landmines.
However, with such a fractured demographic and military activity largely unchecked by a civilian government, many within the country and the international community are looking on with cautious optimism. Whilst Thein Sein may have made the country more desirable to international investors, the social reality for many minority groups as well as groups involved in armed conflict against the state remains relatively unchanged. The Rohingya in Rakhine state, for example, are still facing an uphill battle to be recognised. A big part of the problem is the 1982 Citizenship Law, introduced by the former junta, which stripped the Rohingya of their official status in Burma. Since then, they have been treated as interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh. Their persecution has escalated since the country introduced democratic reforms with nearly 120,000 people still confined to filthy displacement camps.
Women also require more judicial protection and representation. In 1999, the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) was established, with the aim of increasing the participation of women in the struggle for democracy and human rights, promoting women’s participation in the national peace and reconciliation process, and enhancing the role of the women of Burma at the national and international level. It is noteworthy that Lee has called for concrete steps to be made towards this, as the National Law on Protection and Prevention of Violence against Women has only made slow progress since its inception. Lee also recommends the development of a program to support victims – including access to justice – and improvements to data gathering and analysis in order to better understand the scope and scale of the problem. These are also likely to be ongoing processes. Whilst these may be amongst the most important human rights issues, the NLD may choose to focus more on ending any ongoing violent conflict within its borders. With so many issues currently facing Burma, one Central Executive Committee member has been quoted as saying, with regards to the problems in Rakhine state, ‘there are thousands of problems in our country. [The] Rakhine state problem is one of the thousands”, “We will [prioritise] some of the problems but I will not tell exactly what intention we have. What I can say is that we will deal with the problem as soon as possible”. Unfortunately, it may well be that in order to avoid direct confrontation with the Buddhist majority and the military, Burma’s NLD focuses on issues which are friendly to these two major influences, rather than committing itself to tackling deeply entrenched social issues within the state.
100 days are not sufficient to fix all of Burma’s problems, but it’s a good start. Lee’s proposal gives the NLD a chance to prioritise, and highlights issues that are of concern to the international community. As Laura Haigh – Burma researcher for Amnesty International – highlighted in the House of Lords Burma APPG on 10/05/2016, ‘the bar should not be lowered for this new government’. With the military still permeating many aspects of Burmese life, and still retaining considerable power, the NLD will have to tread carefully. However, reasonable change could include; a greater commitment to concrete long-term change, including genuine commitment to an inclusive peace process, the lifting of movement restrictions within the country, legal change to grant greater rights to minority groups and tackle corruption at the state level.
Change is possible, but the entrenched prejudice suffered by certain groups in Burma will take considerably more than 100 days to repair. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party can use this opportunity to lead the nation along the pathway of national reconciliation but it will take significant and continued effort. During this time, HART will continue to support marginalised groups, health workers and our local partners, to provide the adequate attention they deserve to improve conditions for themselves and their communities.
Please see this link for an infographic on Burma’s recent elections: https://magic.piktochart.com/output/13595593-hart-burma-election-infographic