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OPINION: Rights not rhetoric needed for reform in Burma

Khin Ohmar (PHOTO: Bushcenter)

This 8-8-88 anniversary is a reminder that it has been more than four years since Burma undertook economic and political reforms when President Thein Sein came into power.

The reform process in Burma has been characterised by a number of different viewpoints. Those praising the changes happening in Burma’s economic and political spheres use terms such as “slow and steady reform” to describe the process as it moves forward. However, there is another narrative that reflects the reality of the reform process on the ground – the other side of the story.

The reality is that reform in Burma is largely based on protecting the interests of military elites and their business cronies. During the first two years, reform was perceived as much as a success in the eyes of the international community while the domestic populace remained much more cautiously optimistic.

Unfortunately, in the latter two years public opinion towards the reform has plummeted. This is due to the lack of tangible changes that were promised during the early reform period and the fact that the military still maintains a significant degree of power as enshrined in the 2008 constitution. This last point cannot be overstated – the military maintains a 25 percent share of the seats in parliament and maintains direct control over the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees civilian administration, policing, and the judiciary.

While the 2011-12 period saw positive developments, such as the release of political prisoners (including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) and greater media freedom, reform in 2013-14 was characterised by backsliding. Challenges arose in the form of the Burmese army’s military offensive in Kachin and northern Shan States; communal violence and attacks on religious minorities; and increased attempts to silence human rights activists through arbitrary arrest, detention, unfair trials and even state-supported violence.

A Buddhist monk pays respect to 969 leader Wirathu (left). (PHOTO: Reuters)

Meanwhile, it is very disturbing to see the growing ultra-nationalist campaign against Muslims, spearheaded by groups as the 969 movement and the Ma-Ba-Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion). Hate speech and direct incitements of violence are left unchecked or without even the slightest government scrutiny. The National Race and Religion Protection Bill, proposed by the Ma-Ba-Tha, which violates Burma’s international obligation to promote and protect the rights of women and children and the freedom of religion, found support in prominent senior monks, politicians and political parties. On the other hand, moderate voices on issues of freedom of religion and women’s rights have become hampered by increased surveillance, intimidation and threats by the Ma-Ba-Tha. The multitude of problems ongoing in Burma demands careful assessment of the reform process.

A set of benchmarks must be used to assess the reforms to measure whether they are substantial, meaningful and beneficial to the people. There should be institutional and policy reforms across each of the political, economic, legislative and security sectors based on democratic values and norms. These should be based on whether or not the reform implementation is consistent with ‘best-practices’ of international human rights laws. The reform must also address: the issues of adherence to the rule of law; peace, national reconciliation and power sharing with the democratic and ethnic oppositions; accountability and the countering of impunity; political prisoners; and whether people are able to assert their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in a participatory manner during the reform process.

In the case of the rule of law, the judiciary and legal system continues to be partial and subordinate to the government and to the military. In addition, the system is deeply corrupt. The out-of-date, top-down approach to governance continues to function as it did under the previous military regime. There has been no sign that the government or parliament is making an effort to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.

Another key benchmark of the reform process is whether the government will genuinely address the issue of political prisoners. To this day, the government has not released all remaining political prisoners and continues to make new arrests or re-arrests.

Burma’s lack of accountability and the impunity of authorities from prosecution is an obstacle to genuine national reconciliation. Over the past four years, Burma has faced a series of peaceful protests from farmers and communities across the country trying to reclaim their land, which has resulted in counter-lawsuits, arrests, detention and imprisonment for the protestors. A disturbing trend has emerged in which any display of ‘freedom of expression’ is likely to prompt a violent response from the Burmese government and the authorities, which was illustrated by the government’s violent response to the peaceful student protest against the National Education Law in Letpadan in March.

Students and activists are taken to court in Thayawaddy earlier this year. (PHOTO: DVB)

Furthermore, crimes against ethnic communities also need to be addressed as reports of human rights violations including rape, sexual violence and extra-judicial killings committed by the Burmese army continue to date. The chronic lack of accountability surrounding these abuses has contributed to a culture of entrenched impunity, in which victims and their families are denied their rights to truth, justice and effective remedies, including reparation.

Hundreds of cases of military rape and sexual violence against ethnic minority women have been reported to the international community and this situation has been reflected in annual UN General Assembly Resolutions on Burma for more than 20 years. These abuses continue unabated in ethnic areas and they have yet to be addressed by President Thein Sein’s military-led government. Considering that the Burmese army is not part of the current reform agenda, the largest perpetrator of human rights abuses will continue to act with complete impunity.

Another major challenge for the people of Burma is the tsunami wave of the global economy. As Burma has been labeled Asia’s final frontier for business, there appears to be a gold rush manner wherein foreign businesses are moving in for opportunities, particularly in natural resource extraction.

Unsurprisingly, Burma’s economy is under the control of military elites and their business cronies. Foreign investment is not being conducted in a manner that is beneficial for the general public. We desperately need laws that protect the people and local communities, and provide them with access to justice.

Foreign investment has the potential to fundamentally change Burma in a way not seen in decades. However, this change can come in more negative ways than positive. There have already been numerous instances in which increases in business activities have resulted in increases in human rights violations, especially in the form of land confiscations, destruction of property and environmental destruction. There are also instances of businesses entering into conflict areas where the extrajudicial killing of civilians, sexual violence and torture are ongoing.

If Burma hopes to move forward towards a genuine democracy, it is crucially important that the reform process is participatory. For that, meaningful and effective participation of people, particularly of civil society, is a must. Rights-based civil society must play an active role in shaping the conversation, policies, activities and practices surrounding the entry and growth of Burma in the global economy.

It is civil society who is best informed of the opinions in Burma regarding the reform process. Therefore, they are in the best position to advise the government about the real needs of people and communities, and how these needs can be addressed effectively. In particular, the role of ethnic civil society must be promoted, especially in the peace process.

At the same time, there is a need to enhance collaboration and coordination among rights-based civil society groups and the capacity of these groups to be able to assert their rights for meaningful participation in the reform process.

However, there is another key challenge that must be addressed. There is desperate need for a process of trust building, as this constitutes a decades-long deficit in Burma’s society. There is lack of trust between the government and the people; between the government and the ethnic armed organisations; between the government and democratic oppositions; between the government and its affiliated civil society and the independent rights-based civil society; and between those who have benefited from the current reform process and those who have not.

Most importantly, we must ensure that voices of people from the ground are not undermined but empowered. They must be connected with local, regional and international arenas so that they can hold the Burmese government accountable to provide solutions that are beneficial for the entire country.

In this case, activists and rights-based civil society must have a greater and more meaningful role to play while they remain independent from the government and its various apparatuses. At the same time, those non-rights-based civil society must also take a proactive role to assert their right to participate in the reform process rather than remaining in the status quo as in the era of the previous military regime.

Only then can it ensure the check and balance of the government and international players, and hold them to be transparent and accountable.

Only then will reform in Burma become truly meaningful, substantial and thus beneficial to the people of Burma, especially those who are most vulnerable and traditionally disenfranchised.

Only then will Burma’s transition to democracy be on the right track.

 

Khin Ohmar was a university student activist involved in organising the 8-8-88 pro-democracy uprising. Today she is the coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of concerned civil society organisations across the Asia-Pacific region working for human rights and democracy in Burma. 

The opinions expressed in the article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.