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Aida Simoniya

PhD in Economics, Leading Researcher at Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania Studies, RAS Institute for Oriental Studies

After three years of the international community’s euphoria and enthusiasm about the political reforms in Myanmar, since mid 2014 there has been talk of them slowing down and even of backsliding on democratization in the country. Ms. Yanghee Lee, the recently appointed new UN Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in Myanmar, has prepared a report on the results of her first visit to Myanmar in July 2014.

After three years of the international community’s euphoria and enthusiasm about the political reforms in Myanmar, since mid 2014 there has been talk of them slowing down and even of backsliding on democratization in the country.

Ms. Yanghee Lee, the recently appointed new UN Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in Myanmar, has prepared a report on the results of her first visit to Myanmar in July 2014. In it, she expressed concerns over the human rights situation in Myanmar that had demonstrated substantial progress since forming a new government in 2011. Lee especially warned of “backtracking” or “backsliding”, which could threaten the advances made in the past three years. Ms. Yanghee Lee visited the capital Naypyidaw and major cities of Yangon and Mandalay, as well as the states Kachin and Arakan. She also visited political prisoners in those four cities. The violation of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act appears to be the most frequent abuse of the human rights in Myanmar. The Act requires anyone planning a demonstration to seek permission from the authorities. The UN Special Rapporteur believes that a prior notification of the authorities is sufficient enough to this end [1].

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, who at that time was on an official visit in Italy to attend the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting, urged EU leaders to stop submitting reports on the human rights situation in the country. The President emphasized that “as the democratic transition is delicate, Myanmar has to face difficult challenges, but the government is committed to overcome the challenges and to continue the reform process without backtracking.” The President added that “considerable progress in human rights protection has been made in Myanmar but the international community has not recognized the progress enough.” However, Ms. Yanghee Lee drew a less positive picture.

She called the arrests of journalists and peaceful demonstrators alarming signs of backsliding and qualified the ethnic conflict in Rakhine State (Arakan) in the west of the country as “ systemic discrimination” against Rohingya Muslims. In her report, published on March 9, 2015 after her second visit to Myanmar in January, Ms. Yanghee Lee again noted that the situation in Myanmar was increasingly slipping into a conflict one and, despite the government’s declarations of protecting human rights, the atmosphere of fear, mistrust and hostility was gaining ground in the country.

The situation around the Muslim Rohingya’s ethnicity in Arakan State requires clarification. Myanmar’s authorities have banned the use of the term “the Rohingua people”, considering them Bengalis, who illegally infiltrated into the territory of Myanmar and therefore do not have citizenship. In the second half of the 1970s, Muslim separatists tried to fight for the secession of Arakan State and for its union with Bangladesh. This is the only issue on which there are no differences among all members of society from the government to the opposition. Foreign politicians and NGO workers, who use the term “the Rohingua people” out of ignorance or for some other reason and accuse Myanmar of discriminating against those people often sparks discontent and even outrage among the country’s Buddhists.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
President Barack Obama meets with
Myanmar's President Thein Sein, Thursday,
Nov. 13, 2014, at the Presidential Palace in
Naypyitaw, Myanmar.

Ms. Yanghee Lee, who visited Myanmar for the second time in January 2015 and paid a lot of attention to the “violation of the rights of the Rohingya people,” was sharply criticized by radical Buddhists. Their leader, Buddhist monk U Wirathu, condemned at a public rally UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights by using insulting words for interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs at a time when the country was preparing to adopt laws on the protection of the nation and religion. Нe was lightly scolded for this unseemly language.

Following the Buddhist radicals’ mass campaign in 2014, the president asked Parliament to develop a package of four bills informally called “Protection of Race and Religion,” which should serve to promote birth control, to limit interfaith marriages and conversions from one faith to another and to prohibit polygamy. On February 19, 2015 the Upper House of Myanmar’s Parliament passed the first Population Control Bill of the package, initiated by the Buddhist movement. The bill’s purpose is to give the authorities the right to determine those regions where women are allowed to give birth to children no more than once every three years. It is clear that this bill is aimed primarily at population control among Muslim Rohingya families, which usually have 10-15 children.

International non-governmental and human rights organizations voice support for the country’s Bengali population (Rohingya people), who receive various forms of humanitarian assistance on an ongoing basis. Most Islamic countries provide financial and moral support, but no state has offered to shelter what the UN calls a "most persecuted people”.

Along with the problem of the Rohingya people, armed conflicts with ethnic rebels in the national states give rise to increased concern. In 2012, armed conflicts resumed in Kachin State; and since February 9, 2015 there has been ongoing heavy fighting in Shan State between Kokang ethnic rebels and Myanmar’s army, which launched airstrikes. Both sides suffer heavy casualties in these hostilities, and tens of thousands of civilians cross into China to flee the fighting.

As the general election campaign gains momentum (elections are scheduled for November 2015), the political tensions in the country are building. The events in Myanmar in the first half of March 2015 have thrust the country into the world media spotlight once again. On March 5, 2015 the police violently dispersed a protest in the center of Yangon in support of the student movement against a proposed new education law, which is reminiscent of street protests in 1988 and 2007.

Infographics. An Insight on company formation
in Myanmar

The demonstrators were dispersed and arrested by the police and unidentified men in civilian clothes wearing red armbands bearing the inscription “tavun” – the Burmese word for “duty, responsibility.” The authorities call them “volunteers” who want to protect law and order in the country. Student protests started in September 2014 when the Parliament passed a new education law prohibiting the creation of student organizations, including trade unions. All control over universities and institutions of higher education was transferred to a special administration, consisting of government ministers and their advisers. In addition, giving lectures in ethnic minority languages was banned, which is an infringement on small nations’ rights to education.

Tensions peaked on March 10, 2015, when police destroyed a temporary student camp in the town of Letpadan in the Bago region, 90 miles north of Yangon, and arrested 127 people, in which several police officers were injured. The student political movement in Myanmar dates back to colonial times. Myanmar's national hero General Aung San (father of the current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) started the anti-colonial struggle for independence as a student. Before founding the country’s armed forces, Aung San headed the All Burma Students’ Union.

The West noted the slowing down of reforms in Myanmar and regression to the practice of suppressing civil rights in the middle of 2014. But when the EU and the U.S. began to lift sanctions against Myanmar and its officials in 2012, the country’s human rights activists and dissident emigrants in the West warned that the authorities in Myanmar, in fact, had not changed and it was too early to lift sanctions.

On the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in 2012, human rights activists warned that the visit would serve to validate the efforts of Myanmar’s rulers and that the ruling elite had been waiting for this moment since the establishment of the civil power two years ago. According to expatriates, gaining U.S. approval of the reform process in the country was one of the main political goals pursued by the regime since coming to power. They said it was “a disgrace for the U.S. president to make such a historic trip to Myanmar while hundreds of political prisoners still remained in jail and while ethnic conflicts and land grabs continued” and expressed doubt that “the government had done enough to earn a personal visit of the American leader”. It is worth noting that on his second visit to Myanmar during the ASEAN summit in November 2014, the U.S. President himself admitted that democratic transition does not come easy.

It is worth recollecting that the students’ demonstrations were suppressed by police officers, trained by instructors from the European Union. The point is that when Myanmar embarked on the path of democratic reforms, the government decided to reform the country’s police as well. Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a member of parliament in April 2012, supported this decision. She said that the police needed reforming and special training in best international practice in crowd management. Brussels volunteered to support the program of reforming the police and allocated €10 million to finance it. The EU ambassador to Myanmar said then that this program was aimed at explaining human rights to the police in Myanmar and that the duty of the police was to respect and to protect the democratic rights of citizens.

But radicals in Myanmar regarded the events of March 10, 2015 as one of the most flagrant violations of civil rights in recent years. And it was not the first incident of its kind, since the Myanmar police training program by EU instructors was launched in September 2013. There had already been crackdowns on student rallies, of light industry workers’ strikes at Yangon enterprises and at Letpadaung copper mines. All these protests were regarded by the Burmese population as their right to freedom of speech and assembly, which had been granted in the course of reforms by “the civil government.”

REUTERS / Reuters Staff
Georgy Toloraya:
Awakening of the “burmese elephant”

Representatives of the EU involved in training in crowd management and suppressing rebellion made a statement in March 2015 expressing their profound concern about the events in Myanmar and the use of force against protesters and called for an official investigation.

It is evident from the above that Myanmar is still at a very early stage of civil development. The country has a long way to go in adjusting to the numerous social, ethnic and religious differences within its communities, and this process may take decades. This is evidenced by the historical experience of many developing countries. In addition, for a country carrying out reforms so vigorously (Myanmar was a radically different country within just two years), a temporary pullback is inevitable. Having suddenly received freedom of speech and assembly for the first time in 50 years, the population decided to exercise this right immediately. However, it seems that the current government’s plans do not include introducing democracy in the Western understanding of the word. That is viewed as is impossible in practical terms. The ultimate goal of the government’s “road map” is to establish a disciplined democracy, i.e. to stabilize the situation in the country for continued economic and social reforms.

Incidentally, student protests were not supported the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), and paradoxically, the events described above could play into the hands of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in the upcoming elections in November 2015. Seeing pictures of clashes between students and the police, people may well vote against the ruling party that relies on the army. This would greatly enhance the chances of the NLD, which already enjoys great popular support, of winning the elections.

1. This can be viewed as interference in the country’s internal affairs, as different countries have differing regulations regarding demonstrations, and it is not the prerogative of the UN Special Rapporteur to pass judgment on the issue.

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