History & Current Events
After the 2010 Elections: Real Change or Smoke-and-Mirrors?
In 2010, Burma held its first elections in two decades and completed its transition from military junta to civilian government. However, the elections were widely criticised for being neither free nor fair, and they resulted in no real power change as the elected leaders were simply the old generals in civilian clothing. Furthermore, under the 2008 Constitution, 25% of the seats in Parliament are reserved for the military, leaving it still very much in power.
Despite the illegitimate nature of the 2010 elections, many observers have noted a number of apparent changes taking place within the country over the past year, leading some to speculate hopefully that Burma is on the path to democracy. Others, however, point to a number of important factors that have remained unchanged and unaddressed, thus continuing to act as barriers to real reform and democratic transition. While only time will tell if the changes beginning to occur inside Burma are real or simply smoke-and-mirrors, it is important to watch these developments closely, always keeping in mind the wider context in which they are taking place. As Aung San Suu Kyi said at the 2012 World Economic Forum, “We are not yet at the point of a great transformation, but we have a rare and extremely precious opportunity to reach such a point.”
Below are examples of some of the key events and developments that have occurred in Burma since the 2010 elections - as well as issues and situations that have remained unchanged - accompanied by short analyses of what impact they have had or may have in the future, and links to sources of further information. Be sure to check our Facebook and Twitter pages regularly for more updates and news.
Aung San Suu Kyi & Thein Sein, Aug. 2011 (AP; sulekha.com)
Political Reform & Dialogue with the Opposition
The 2010 Political Parties Registration Law, enacted in March 2010, prevented any group with members who had been imprisoned from operating as a political party - a measure clearly aimed at preventing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners from taking part in the 2010 elections. In November 2011, this law was revised by President Thein Sein in order to allow the National League for Democracy (NLD) - Aung San Suu Kyi's party - and other parties to participate in politics. In December 2011 the NLD officially registered as a political party, and recently won 43 of the 44 seats it contested in the April 1st, 2012 by-elections (6.4% of the Union Parliament). Aung San Suu Kyi was one of the winners, gaining a seat representing Wah Theinkha in Kawhmu Township, southwest of Rangoon. While a positive step for democracy, as Daw Suu and the NLD will now have a voice within the Burmese government, the election does not mark a change in political control in the country, as the opposition will remain the minority in the 664-seat Parliament, in which 25% of the seats are reserved for the military. It remains to be seen what level of influence the NLD will have in its new position.
The government has slightly relaxed press and internet censorship since the elections. Images of Aung San Suu Kyi may now be published, and requirements that non-news publications, including those covering sports, fiction, art, and health, be reviewed by government censors prior to publication have been dropped. Publications covering politics and other issues deemed sensitive by the authorities, however, have to continue sending drafts of their reports to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department. While the government has recognised that certain laws are oppressive and has pledged to repeal them, every proposal in Parliament to repeal such laws thus far has been rejected.
“Press censorship is non-existent in most other countries as well as among our neighbours and as it is not in harmony with democratic practices, press censorship should be abolished in the near future,” Tint Swe, director of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department told Radio Free Asia in an interview. He cautioned however that all publications should accept the "responsibilities" that go with press freedom, though he didn't spell out what those responsibilities might be.
"According to our constitution, freedom of expression is guaranteed for every citizen, so our new media law will reflect such a guaranteed freedom of expression, so no censorship," said Ko Ko Hlaing, a chief advisor to the President, speaking of new media legislation being drafted. Article 354 of the 2008 Constitution states: “Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence, law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality: a) to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions; b) to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession; c) to form associations and organisations.”
In September 2011, several banned websites including YouTube, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and Voice of America (VOA) were unblocked. According to Freedom House, less than 1% of the population has access to the internet.
The Labour Organisation Law, passed by Parliament and signed by President Thein Sein on 11 October 2011, allows workers to form unions and strike for the first time since 1962.
The new law was put to the test - and failed - on 2 Dec. 2011, when a factory applied to form a trade union but was rejected. “They [authorities] just said they could not accept [the application],” trade union spokesman San Maung told Mizzima. “According to the law, it should not be like that ... According to the Constitution, the law must come into force as soon as the president signed it.”
Observers have said the new law has many weak points and loopholes that must be corrected and amended to meet the standards and requirements set by the International Labour Organization.
_Myitsone Dam Project
President Thein Sein was praised for halting the controversial Myitsone Dam Project in late September 2011, apparently in response to public outrage at the project. The project, funded and controlled by a Chinese company, would supply electricity to China (not Burma), and has already resulted in land confiscation and forced relocation of thousands of villagers to make-shift camps. It has also been criticised for the detrimental effects it will have on the environment.
Despite the announcement from Thein Sein that the project has been stopped, there is “no evidence on the ground that the [Myitsone] dam project has indeed been suspended,” the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) said. KDNG reported that “equipment and supplies for the project remain in place, security restrictions continue for local residents, and destructive gold mining in the planned Myitsone dam reservoir area is ongoing.” Furthermore, villagers whose land was confiscated for the project have not been allowed to return to their homes, and more villages have received eviction orders since the project was apparently halted. The project includes seven dams in total, and construction on the additional six is also ongoing.
What analysts and commentators are saying of the reforms:
"The refusal of Parliament to do away with the existing oppressive laws made the adoption of new and more progressive legislation irrelevant. The much-publicized “Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Law” and “Labor Organizations Law” will not be sufficient to guarantee freedom of assembly and workers’ rights as long as the regime is still able to invoke the blanket “security” provisions of draconian laws."
“What’s happening now in Burma is consistent with the cycle of opening and closing seen since 1962 and is consistent with how the military has always exercised power. During every period of openness people think it’s a trend; history shows it is not.”
-Bertil Lintner, Chiang Mai-based journalist and executive board member of Democratic Voice of Burma
"Some are a little bit too optimistic about the situation. We are cautiously optimistic. We are at the beginning of a road. Ultimate power still rests with the army so until we have the army solidly behind the process of democratization we cannot say that we have got to a point where there will be no danger of a U-turn. Many people are beginning to say that the democratization process here is irreversible. It's not so."
-Aung San Suu Kyi, February 2012 (video conversation with Carleton University and Canadian Friends of Burma)
_Further Reading on Democractic Reform:
"Burma's Parliament: A Tool for Institutionalised Oppression" (ALTSEAN-Burma, 28 Nov. 2011)
M. Chen, "Burma's New Labor Law: Built to Fail or Shifting Toward Democracy?" (The Huffington Post, 21 Dec. 2011)
S. Crispin, "In Burma, transition neglects press freedom" (Committee to Protect Journalists, 20 Sep. 2011)
B. Lintner, "The limits of reform in Myanmar" (Asia Times Online, 18 Jan. 2012)
Z. Phan, "By-elections don’t mean Burma is free" (Mizzima, 1 Apr. 2012)
M. Zarni, "Is Myanmar Out of the Woods?" (LSE-IDEAS podcast & interview, 7 Dec. 2011)
Ongoing Armed Conflicts & Ethnic Groups' Rights
Fleeing conflict (Source: Free Burma Rangers)
"In Rangoon there might be film festivals, but in ethnic states, especially Shan State and Kachin State, the Burmese Army broke ceasefires and attacked civilians. In the past year more than 150,000 people fled conflict and human rights abuses, and are now internally displaced in Burma. That is more than twice as many people as the year before" (Zoya Phan, April 2012 on Mizzima).
While Burma's big cities may be seeing welcome - though not irreversible - reforms, such as freer speech and other small steps towards the path to democracy, the country's ethnic states continue to be subjected to ongoing armed conflict and brutal human rights abuses, and have been largely excluded from the reform process. The 2008 Constitution poses a threat to the preservation of the many different ethnic cultures in Burma, and is seen as yet another tactic in the government's strategy of 'Burmanisation'. Article 365 of the Constitution states that, while every citizen has the right to develop arts, customs and traditions, they cannot do so if it is detrimental to national solidarity. As the dictatorship views ethnic diversity as detrimental to national security, in practice there is unlikely to be any real improvement in freedoms, and cultural traditions, languages, etc. may be at risk of disappearing.
Not only are ethnic rights and interests ignored by the 2008 Constitution, human rights abuses against ethnic minorities have actually increased in the past year. Though there have been a number of historic ceasefire agreements signed between rebel groups and the Burma Army in recent months, a number of these have already been broken, and fighting and displacement are worse than ever in Kachin State, where a 17-year-old ceasefire was broken by the Burma Army in June 2011. There are increasing reports of atrocities like killing civilians, forced labour and portering, child soldiers, rape as a weapon of war, and forced displacement. Estimates put the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Burma at at least 650,000, with millions more living outside the country as refugees and migrant workers.
What analysts and commentators are saying about ongoing ethnic conflicts and minority groups' rights:
"While ceasefires now being signed with armed ethnic political parties, there are also many problems. So far the government is only talking about ceasefires, not the root causes of why there is conflict. They are not addressing the political root causes of the problem, which is the failure of central governments ever since independence to recognise the rights and aspirations of the ethnic people of Burma, who make up 40 per cent of the population of the country. This is what happened 20 years ago when the government signed ceasefires with 17 different groups. They promised political dialogue at a later date, but it never came."
-Zoya Phan, Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK (Mizzima, 1 April 2012)
"Burma’s New Constitution - Denying Ethnic Rights" (Burma Campaign UK, 31 Mar. 2011)
B. Lintner, "Myanmar's endless ethnic quagmire" (Asia Times Online, 8 Mar. 2012)
F. Wade, "'No progress since 2010 elections': report" (Democratic Voice of Burma, 15 Dec. 2011)
M. Zarni, "Neutralising Myanmar's ethnic rebellions" (Al Jazeera, 2 Dec. 2011)
International Attention & Renewed Relations
Hilary Clinton & Aung San Suu Kyi, 2011 (US Dept. of State, www.flickr.com)
The apparent changes inside Burma sparked a reaction from the international community, with a long list of foreign diplomats making official visits to the country to meet with government officials, as well as opposition-leader Aung San Suu Kyi, at the end of 2011 and into 2012. This increased attention may mark the end of an era of isolation for Burma, with talks of renewed relations and possible economic engagement with countries that previously shunned the pariah nation. Prominent visitors have included:
US - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (first US Secretary of State to visit Burma since 1955); China - State Councilor Dai Bingguo; Thailand - Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (first Thai PM ever to meet with opposition-leader Aung San Suu Kyi); Japan - Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba; Indonesia - Foreign Minister Marty Netalegawa; UK - Foreign Secretary William Hague (first British Foreign Secretary to visit Burma since 1955)
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also rewarded Burma with Chairmanship of the organisation in 2014, a position which it had denied Burma in the past because of concerns over human rights abuses.
What analysts and commentators are saying about this sudden attention and its possible effects:
Kelley Currie, a Senior Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, says, “There are those in the EU and among Asian allies who are ready to rush in with big aid and investment packages, and who are less concerned about ensuring that this reform process is irreversible ... [the US should try] to keep the irrational exuberance that some other countries have been experiencing a bit in check.”
Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director at the US Campaign for Burma, believes that despite Clinton's various policy pledges made during her visit to Burma, the Burmese Government “in return offered nothing before, during or after her trip ... If the regime is serious in its desire to have a better relationship with the United States, it must go beyond empty promises and actually deliver. They cannot continue to say they are going to release all political prisoners, they must actually release all political prisoners."
Francis Wade, DVB journalist, says, "Few outsiders seem to realise that the flurry of delegations over the past month has come at the very time when the pace of reform has slowed dramatically, as both the pathetic prisoner amnesty and an upsurge in fighting in the country's border regions show. As Suu Kyi said on Hague's departure last week, 'hard work' needs to be done to turn the government's grandiose rhetoric into reality, but it is questionable whether European governments really have the know-how and inclination to carry this through."
S. Roughneen, "Should 'Irrational Exuberance' Over Burma Be Tempered?" (The Irrawaddy, 22 Dec. 2011)
"ASEAN Should Bide Its Time On Burma Getting Key Role" (The Nation, 6 Nov. 2011)
Last update 04 April 2012