BANGKOK — Three years ago, a quasi-civilian government took office in Burma, shedding the country’s pariah image and introducing democratic reforms that have won widespread praise. Yet events last week have raised doubts about the government’s reformist credentials and its commitment to a genuine democratic transition.
The government’s expulsion of Nobel-prize winning charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) from the needy and conflict-torn Arakan State in western Burma on Feb. 28 was met with shock and condemnation from the aid community and human rights defenders.
Local media reported that government officials had been angry with MSF for saying it had treated victims near the scene of an alleged massacre of stateless Rohingya Muslims in the north of Arakan. Burma’s government denies any killing took place.
MSF, one of the biggest providers of healthcare in the state, said it was originally ordered to suspend all activities in Burma. The government later allowed the group to resume its work in other parts except Arakan.
A day earlier, Burma media reported that Shwe Mann, the speaker of Parliament, asked ministries to draft controversial laws on population control, religious conversion, monogamy and restricting marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men after President Thein Sein sent a letter to the Parliament essentially endorsing calls by Buddhist nationalists to pass these laws.
The developments came after Bangkok-based Fortify Rights published a report detailing discriminatory policies toward the Rohingya, drawing on leaked government documents. Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman, responded by calling the authors “a Bengali lobby group.”
Like many in Burma, Ye Htut used the term “Bengali” to refer to the Rohingya, to assert they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya say they have been in majority Buddhist Burma for generations.
“Looking at recent worrying signs in Burma, I can say that ‘reform’ in Burma is at a very early stage … Since late last year I detect the signs of regression on every front,” Aung Zaw, founding editor-in-chief of the Burmese online news journal The Irrawaddy, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The honeymoon is over—what is worrying is the rise of radical elements and anti-reform sentiment,” he added.
Since June 2012, religious conflict across Burma has killed at least 240 people and displaced more than 140,000—most of them Rohingya in Arakan. Even before MSF was banned, aid agencies working in the state had been threatened and harassed by Buddhist nationalists who accused them of bias toward the Muslim Rohingya.
Since Thein Sein’s government took power, ending five decades of iron-fisted military rule, it has abolished media censorship laws, allowed protests and started negotiating for peace with the country’s many ethnic armed groups. Western governments have lifted or suspended sanctions in response.
So far, supporters of the Burma government have blamed any shortcomings in reform on a lack of experience and technical capacity in long-isolated state institutions. But some analysts say recent moves, especially the contentious legislation being planned, show that anti-reform elements are embedded within government.
“There clearly are capacity issues but some of the current concerns relate not to capacity but to policy directions that are being suggested or promoted by the government or the legislature,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst based in Burma.
“I don’t think it is a sign of transition stumbling but it is reflective of just how powerfully these issues resonate with the Bamar majority and some members of the administration,” he added.
Phil Robertson, deputy director in Asia for Human Rights Watch, said too many Burma watchers based overseas believed that with the right amount of money and technical assistance, “everything would naturally progress towards a bright shining future.”
“The problems and conflicts were always more intractable than that … These recent events constitute a reality check,” he said.
“What is particularly worrying is that the Myanmar government is playing with fire with its willingness to look the other way on ethnic and religious extremism,” he added, describing the draft inter-faith marriage law as an “impending disaster”.
Where Is Burma Heading?
Especially worrying for observers is that in contrast to the response to previous bouts of violence in which the president called for tolerance and unity, the government has issued blanket denials of the alleged January massacre in Arakan and used MSF’s public comments as one of the reasons for the group’s expulsion.
The government has also resisted calls by the United Nations and rights organizations for an independent investigation.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said the situation in Arakan, which has seen nearly two years of conflict between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, must not be separated from the broader issues of ethnic minorities and national reconciliation.
“Depending on how this will be assumed, Myanmar can then be regarded as a country committed to basic human rights for all. So far, the prospects are not encouraging and both the local and central authorities are responsible,” he said.
“My opinion is that keeping MSF apart from Rakhine State is part of a strategy toward consolidating not only the segregation of Rohingyas, but also the oppression against them, including complete limitation to access to health,” he added.
Another issue which has raised concern is the government’s plan to carry out the first census in 30 years in March and April. The Netherlands-based Transnational Institute (TNI) released a report on March 3 suggesting the survey could inflame ethnic tensions, further marginalize ethnic groups and be used as a tool for repression.
According to Horsey, events of the past week highlights that Burma’s transition is not a “simple, easy, linear change from all that is bad to all that is good.”
While Burma would not go back to what it was before reforms, there are many future trajectories it can take, some better than others, he said.
“If other countries start to see Myanmar and the Myanmar government as one which is promoting discriminatory policies, then I think that could have a significant impact on relations,” Horsey said. “It would inject a much greater note of caution in relations between the West and Myanmar.”