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Reforms Gathering Momentum but Road Ahead Paved with Same Challenges

By Burma Partnership  •  March 30, 2016

The Irrawaddy2Ahead of the formal transfer of power on 1 April, 2016, buzz around the country centered on the recent nominations for Cabinet ministerial positions and how the new National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government will take shape. In addition, many also welcomed the recent early raft of reforms that are gaining in momentum and scale. Apart from a proposal to abolish a “guest registration system” long used for harassment and surveillance of activists, Burma’s president elect, U Htin Kyaw, also put forward nominees to helm the soon-to-be revamped Union Elections Commission and Constitutional Tribunal; two crucial democratic institutions that have come under severe heat for questions over their impartiality and independence during the term of the Thein Sein Government. This slight democratic opening is a significant watershed in the country’s turbulent history of direct and indirect military rule, and seems to have also galvanized citizens and civil society organizations into action inside the country.

In response to the emerging challenges in the natural resources and extractive industries, a network of local organizations, including the Rays of Kamoethway Indigenous People and Nature (RKIPN) and Tenasserim River Indigenous People Network (TRIP-NET) launched a report on 24 March, 2016 that showcased an alternative model where local communities take the lead on conservation of the local environment as well as implement projects based on the needs and contexts of the development priorities that they themselves decide, including preserving and applying indigenous culture. Similarly, Kachin civil society groups from the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability requested for United States sanctions not to be lifted until measurable and actionable steps, such as strengthening the legal framework for the jade industry, have been adopted and the recent failures which have led to high death tolls and a mining waste crisis are tackled.

Certainly, the ability to take part in affairs and processes that impact their lives by exerting influence through public debate, dialogue or their capacity to organize themselves is an important marker of democratic space enjoyed by ordinary citizens and communities. However, a great deal of uncertainty and a number of pressing human rights concerns remain. Representatives from a national civil society coalition, Burma/Myanmar UPR Forum co-chaired by Burma Partnership, held a press conference in Rangoon to brief the public and media about the extremely disappointing showing by the outgoing Government at the recently-concluded adoption of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) outcome report, including the categorical rejection of all recommendations relating to the recognition and rights of Rohingya and others relating to ethnic and religious minorities, as well as those relating to the treatment and release of political prisoners, the repeal of repressive legislation, and endemic land confiscation that grips the country, among others. Even as it prepares to vacate office, the USDP-led Government continues to make a mockery of (or pay lip-service to, at best) international standards, processes and obligations.

In addition, despite the plaudits and accolades for a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” (NCA), entrenched impunity of the military continues as human rights abuses such as forced labor, torture, rape and sexual violence threaten the lives of villagers, particularly in ethnic areas where armed conflict and militarization has intensified. The recent targeting of Ta’ang civilian populations has led to over another 1,000 people displaced from villages, creating further problems for the incoming leadership.

Definitely, many of the fundamental freedoms and rights above, which are necessary for and underpin any robust functioning democracy, have been systematically restricted and denied in the country. Just last week, there also appeared to be significant pushbacks against calls for reform, change and accountability as the NLD prepares to formally take power. On 27 March, 2016, Armed Forces Day, the Burma Army’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing warned against “disorderly democracy” in the country where there are “weakness[es] in obeying rules, regulations and laws, and having armed insurgents.” Such fear-mongering slogans are in fact a thinly-veiled threat and yet a clear sign that the military will not retreat from national politics anytime soon, and that the institution will continue to assume a leading role. It could also well signify that democracy and rights activism will not be tolerated, and that a more enlightened and inclusive approach is unlikely to be adopted in trying to establish an enduring, just and genuine nationwide peace.

Min Aung Hlaing’s words should not be taken lightly, as they sound eerily familiar to the “discipline-flourishing democracy” once championed by Khin Nyunt, the architect of Burma’s previous blueprint for democracy that also envisaged permanent military participation and intervention in the administration, governance and management of the country. Doubts will certainly continue to linger on the extent, speed and character of Burma’s democratization insofar as the Burma Army maintains its intransigence and is protected by Constitutional safeguards.

Whatever form Burma’s democratization takes, the incoming government will definitely have to “thread on eggshells” as it navigates the complex road ahead with other political actors, including those who have grown accustomed to power abuse and privilege, as well as meeting the aspirations and needs of the people on the other hand. However, as evidenced above, Burma also has a dynamic and vibrant rights-based independent civil society, whose role as agents of democratization should not be neglected and whose tireless work in the areas of promoting democratic governance, advocating for human rights and political equality, as well as for the establishment for a genuine federal union, will be central in the reforms and transition process.

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