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Burma Embarks on a New Chapter as Hope and Suffering Define 2015

By Burma Partnership  •  December 23, 2015

12185476_1038798792831644_4023423973518883546_oThe highlight of 2015 was undoubtedly the historic general elections, which saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party triumph emphatically at the polls on 8 November, 2015. While the conduct of the polls was relatively smooth, the elections were marred by glaring irregularities, in particular during the preparation and campaign stages. They ranged from the partiality of the Union Election Commission (UEC), disqualification of minority candidates, rife voter disenfranchisement of large segments of minority communities due to conflict and blatantly discriminatory policies, and voter lists fraught with discrepancies.

However, the first competitive national vote since 1990 was significant as it marked a key milestone in Burma’s democratic transition process and more importantly, it resoundingly signaled the will of the people for “genuine change”.

Fresh from the electoral success, there have been a flurry of conciliatory gestures made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the military and political elite amidst calls for national reconciliation and forgiveness in a bid to ensure a smooth power transfer during this transition. However, such calls risk ringing hollow when considering the flawed and exclusionary character of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as well as the ongoing and escalating daily military offensives in Kachin and Shan States, including the Kokang Self-Administered Zone. Despite existing ceasefire agreements, attacks by the Burma Army continued to brazenly occur this year, and showed signs of worsening around the elections period. These offensives are also a major concern for vast majority of the refugees who live in refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border whose lives were uprooted due to armed conflict. They fear that fighting may spread to the areas where they may have to return

Sexual and other forms of gender-based violence (SGBV) continue to be perpetrated with near-complete impunity by the Burma Army in conflict zones. The year began with the high-profile case of two Kachin schoolteachers, who local villagers assert were raped and murdered by the Burma Army soldiers in a village in northern Shan State. The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) has documented eight cases of sexual violence since April 2015, and the latest offensive on 5 November, 2015 resulted in over 10,000 displaced villagers. Such abuses are often concealed and glossed over by internal disciplinary mechanisms such as court martials and military trials, which are opaque and designed to protect the Burma Army from external scrutiny and accountability

Further uncertainty continues to surround the ongoing NCA process led by outgoing President Then Sein and the Myanmar Peace Center. A framework for political dialogue has been finalized in rushed manner despite the exclusion of non-signatory ethnic armed organizations. This has already received criticism and doubt from local political analysts and civil society actors who have expressed concern over the outgoing government’s intention to continue to take control of the process. Any national dialogue and peace process must ensure greater inclusiveness, which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently stressed must be built on the spirit of the Panglong Agreement. Only then can ethnic aspirations of federalism, equality, sustainable peace and self-determination be addressed and achieved meaningfully.

The incoming NLD government will also have to address the need for institutional and structural reforms of governance as a priority for traditionally disenfranchised ethnic communities. Currently, Region and State Parliaments have very little political, budgetary and administrative powers, and are highly disempowered by constitutional provisions that limit their mandate and effectiveness.

Existing and newly introduced laws continue to impose undue restrictions on the rights to freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Furthermore, many archaic and restrictive laws are being used throughout 2015 to harass, intimidate and arrest human rights defenders and activists. The government has also failed to fulfill its promise to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, and the number of political prisoners in detention increased in 2015. At end of 2015, 128 political prisoners remain in prison and 403 human rights defenders are awaiting trials.

As illegal land grabbing and forced evictions escalate, many are often charged under the restrictive Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Act, and/or Section 505 of the Penal Code that criminalizes anyone making, publishing or circulating information which may cause public fear or alarm, and which may incite people to commit offences “against the State or against the public tranquility.”

In March 2015, peaceful student-led demonstration in Letpadan, Bago Division, campaigning for national education policy reform, were met with brutal crackdowns by law enforcement personnel. The violent dispersal and attack on students and supporters, including through the deployment of vigilante groups, highlights the resistance towards critical voices and intolerance of peaceful and legitimate dissent. Cases against the students are ongoing while further arrests and detentions continue.

In the same month as the student-led demonstrations, thousands of garment workers in industrial zones demanded fair wages. As the industrial sector continues to thrive from the hefty international trade and investment, labor rights in the garment industry still fall substantially short of international standards. Ongoing strikes by garment workers demanding full salary and fair working conditions highlight how economic policies have not provided fair wages, created decent working conditions and livelihoods, or safeguarded their basic rights under present government.

Continued discrimination against religious minorities, in both policy and practice, was a salient and recurring theme in 2015. It was also formalized in law in September 2015 as the government approved a discriminatory legislative agenda targeting Muslims. Collectively known as the “National Race and Religion Protection” package of laws, they impose arbitrary and excessive restrictions on marriage and family life, among others.

It was preceded by a “boat crisis” in May/June 2015 as Rohingya from Arakan State made perilous journeys by sea to escape religious and political persecution. While no mass outbreaks of fresh violence has erupted in Arakan State, the human rights condition remains abysmal. Rohingyas continue to live in internment camp-like conditions, with restrictions on their mobility and severe limitations in accessing basic services. There also appears to be little progress in addressing both their return and the legal status, including a review of the 1982 Citizenship Law.

Many of these obstacles – whether in the areas of management of natural resources and large-scale development projects, entrenched inequalities and discrimination in conflict-ridden areas, an increasingly precarious and protracted peace process, as well as legislative and constitutional reform efforts to bring the country’s legal framework in line with international human rights law and standards – admittedly have to do with deep-rooted power structures that safeguard the interests of the military and political elite. The 2015 Elections are potentially a transformative moment in Burma’s history of long struggle for freedom from military rule, but going forward, it is critical now more than ever to reaffirm and consolidate the reform process. If genuine change is to take place and this change is to be observed on the ground, the reform process must be inclusive, participatory and based on democratic values.

As Burma embarks on a new chapter from this historic moment, we look forward to continue our work with you in the coming year. Our Weekly Highlights will take a short hiatus over the holidays, but we will return with a full issue on 11 January, 2016. We wish you happy holidays and all the best for 2016.

In Solidarity,
The Burma Partnership Secretariat


This post is in: Blog

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