2015 in Burma: One for the History Books
By Andrew D. Kaspar 29 December 2015
RANGOON — As 2015 dawned in Burma, there was little doubt that the year’s news cycle would be dominated by the general election held last month. And while that proved true in many ways, there was plenty else to keep reporters busy as the months unfolded, in what turned out to be an historic year for the country on several fronts.
Much like the year that preceded it, 2015 could be described as one of setbacks and successes as the country moved uncertainly toward a Nov. 8 vote that many viewed as a key bellwether on future prospects for the country, which only five years ago began its transformation from dictatorship to democracy. The National League for Democracy’s thumping victory was widely hailed as a triumph for the country’s long-persecuted pro-democracy movement, but the coming year sees the party take the reins of government amid no shortage of festering problems, ensuring that, if nothing else, an eventful 2016 is on the horizon.
Developments on the business front were as much about what comes next as what we see today in the fast-changing economy. Foreign banks opened branches in Burma for the first time in decades and for a time, downtown Rangoon was gripped by (Kentucky) fried chicken frenzy as the first US fast-food chain opened its doors in the country. With the year winding down, Burma’s first-ever stock exchange was christened, albeit with no shares yet to trade.
On the other side of the coin, the kyat continued its three-year slide against the US dollar and agricultural output was hit hard by widespread flooding across much of the country mid-year, an economic toll surpassed only by its counterpart in human lives: More than 100 people were killed across the country in Burma’s worst natural disaster since the unspeakable devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Progress in bringing an end to six decades of ethnic conflict was also a mixed bag. The persistence of peace negotiators was rewarded with a fourth-quarter victory of sorts for the government, as eight non-state armed groups signed a “nationwide” ceasefire agreement—over a dozen more declined to participate. Several rounds of peace negotiations and the eventual realization of the ceasefire signing had little impact on the ground in many places, with fighting reported between the Burma Army and at least seven ethnic armed groups this year. That included skirmishes Kachin State, where the protracted conflict between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army entered its fourth year, and in northeastern Shan State, where ethnic Kokang fighters put up some of the fiercest armed resistance the government has seen in decades.
The police were kept busy too. Scores of detentions on a variety of dubious charges—from irreverent social media posts deemed criminally defamatory to “illegal” prayers and protests—swelled the ranks of Burma’s political prisoners and left President Thein Sein ever further from achieving his stated intention to rid Burma’s jails of prisoners of conscience. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said this week that the number of political detainees sentenced or facing trial stands at 528, up from 233 at the end of 2014.
Despite a newsreel that, on the whole, would appear weighted toward negative developments, the remarkable conduct and outcome of the year-end general election was without doubt the defining moment of 2015. Despite obvious flaws, the largely successful poll won international plaudits—including winning Burma the Economist magazine’s “country of the year” honor—and inspired widespread optimism going into the new year.
As we look to 2016 and consider what might lie ahead, it helps perhaps to take a closer look at the momentous year that was.
The first of several high-profile detentions in 2015 took place in northern Kachin State, where more than 100 Chinese nationals were arrested on charges of logging illegally. Their arrest sparked the first of two diplomatic rows this year between Beijing and Naypyidaw, culminating in the accused being sentence to life in prison. They were later released in a presidential amnesty.
The firebrand monk U Wirathu ensured that he inserted himself into the headlines early in the year, when on Jan. 16 he called the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, a “bitch” and “whore” in a speech denouncing her opposition to the four so-called race and religion protection bills advocated by Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. The legislation eventually made its way to Parliament and ultimately the president’s desk in an indication that Buddhist nationalism would continue to be a potent force in 2015.
On Jan. 20, the badly beaten bodies of two Kachin schoolteachers in northern Shan State were discovered, prompting an investigation which determined that they had been raped and murdered. Suspicions fell on a deployment of Burma Army soldiers stationed nearby, leading the military at one point to threaten legal action against anyone implicating its personnel in the killings. To date, no suspects have stood trial.
Fighting flared on Feb. 9 in Shan State’s Kokang Special Region between the Burma Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic Kokang rebel group. Though by no means the only conflict to punctuate 2015, it would go on to become the year’s most sustained and deadly, sending tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring China and leading the government to declare martial law in the region.
The President’s Office announced on Feb. 11 that it had revoked the right of so-called white card holders to vote in a constitutional referendum that was ultimately scrapped. The largest group of the cardholders was Rohingya Muslims, and the decision and minority’s subsequent disenfranchisement from voting in the November election were criticized by human rights groups, the United Nations and Washington.
As the calendar turned to March, tensions rose between student protesters, their supporters and police in the town of Letpadan, Pegu Division, where a standoff was playing out as authorities refused to let the protestors continue a march to Rangoon, about 80 miles southeast. Nearly 200 protestors had begun their march more than a month earlier in Mandalay, traveling hundreds of miles on foot to voice their opposition to the controversial National Education Law passed in September 2014.
As the stalemate dragged on, a smaller solidarity demonstration sprung up in Rangoon, and took an ugly turn when authorities moved in to break it up forcibly. Police were accompanied by plainclothes thugs wearing red armbands printed with the word “duty” in Burmese, a tactic that critics said hearkened to the junta era.
On March 10, the standoff at Letpadan came to a head, with more than 100 protestors jailed after police unsheathed their riot batons and brutally cracked down on the demonstration, injuring several and prompting condemnation both at home and abroad. Dozens of those detained in March remain on trial facing a variety of charges.
In the Kokang Special Region, fighting continued and Burma again provoked the ire of China when a stray bomb landed in Chinese territory, killing five villagers there.
The high-profile trial of two Burmese men and a New Zealand national who were business partners of the V Gastro Pub in Rangoon concluded, with the trio sentenced to two and a half years in prison with hard labor for “insulting religion,” after a promotional flyer circulated online in December 2014 depicting the Buddha wearing headphones.
A report from The Associated Press exposed slavery-like bondage in the Thai fishing industry, with hundreds of men, many Burmese, found laboring in the Indonesian archipelago under in appalling conditions. Many of these slave laborers were repatriated to Burma over the months that followed, in what was just the first of two grim regional human trafficking stories to make international headlines in 2015.
April brought two high-level dialogues in quick succession: the first featuring 48 parties and the second, six of Burma’s political heavyweights. Their common participants were NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, Thein Sein and the two parliamentary speakers. The latter meeting marked what at the time was the closest forum approximating the four-party talks on political reform that Suu Kyi had long sought. Participants agreed to meet again, but little more was learned about what was discussed.
The president assigned a press corps and enlisted the Podesta Group, but lost a presidential adviser, who would resign shortly after helping to set up a new political party. Meanwhile, the declaration of commitment to a nationwide ceasefire agreement, which Thein Sein signed with 16 ethnic armed groups on March 31, looked unlikely to bring any immediate reduction in conflict, as three ethnic armed groups reported fighting with the Burma Army little more than a week after the accord was agreed.
The month of May was dominated by a regional story with roots in Burma and Bangladesh, as a crackdown on human trafficking in Thailand led traffickers to abandon their living cargo, mostly Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis, at sea. Thousands of refugees and economic migrants began washing ashore in Indonesia and elsewhere, with thousands more said to be stranded on the high seas, as Asean nations struggled to cope with the growing crisis. A regional summit at the end of the month aimed at addressing the situation yielded little in the way of solutions, with Burma deflecting blame and other Asean member states reluctant shoulder the burden of resettling the so-called boatpeople.
Back in Naypyidaw, Thein Sein signed a controversial population control bill into law, the first of the four pieces of “race and religion protection” legislation criticized by human rights advocates as targeted toward Muslims.
The results of Burma’s 2014 census were released, revealing that the country’s population stood at just shy of 51.5 million people. The number was well short of the 60 million figure that had commonly been cited prior to the census, and the government withheld data on religion and ethnicity, citing that information’s potential to cause instability.
The writer Htin Lin Oo became another case study in arbitrary enforcement of the criminal code when he was found guilty on June 2 of causing religious offense. The former NLD official was sentenced to two years in prison for a speech in which he said that bigotry and racism were incompatible with the central tenets of Buddhism. Yes, you read that correctly.
Also at the intersection of Buddhist nationalism and politics, there were growing signs that the NLD was beginning to fall out of favor with the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, the country’s foremost nationalist group. In a speech, one of Ma Ba Tha’s senior members told followers to vote for the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Pary (USDP), in a further indication of Burma’s increasingly intertwined religious and political spheres.
The release of more than 30 townships’ eligible voter lists was met with alarm as the NLD complained that 30 to 80 percent of the rosters were inaccurate, raising the prospect of mass disenfranchisement in the election. The story was one of the major issues in the lead-up to the vote as the Union Election Commission (UEC) continued to insist that corrections could be made, while dishing blame for the shortcoming on a variety of other actors.
After three days of debate, parliamentarians voted on a series of proposed constitutional amendments, with all but one—a trivial change to wording—failing to clear the 75 percent threshold needed for passage. The amendments were approved by large but insufficient majorities, with appointed military parliamentarians and a faction of elected lawmakers blocking the proposals.
A controversial high-rise project near Rangoon’s revered Shwedagon Pagoda was scrapped after months in limbo, as city officials bowed to pressure from some groups, including the influential Buddhist clergy, to nix the developments. Concerns that the project could impact the sacred shrine’s structural integrity had suspended construction on the five developments, and the successful campaign to have the high-rises cancelled was viewed as a major political victory for Buddhist nationalists that heritage advocates also applauded.
Another victory for the Buddhist nationalist movement came the same day, with passage of a second “race and religion protection” bill in the Union Parliament, this one restricting interfaith marriage.
The election commission announced on July 8 that Burma’s general election would take place four months later, on Nov. 8, and a second raft of charter changes largely met the same fate of constitutional amendments the month prior.
Aung Thaung, a senior USDP lawmaker and notorious hardliner, died in Singapore on July 23, two weeks after he was hospitalized suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.
With July coming to close, the full extent of flooding began to become clear as pictures circulating on social media and in the press painted a picture of large swaths of the country underwater after weeks of heavy rains. All told more than 100 people died and 1 million people were affected across 12 of Burma’s 14 states and divisions.
The release of the NLD’s election candidate list earns the party weeks of negative press, with several prominent figures who were expected to be given candidacies shunned and local NLD chapters claiming their nominations were ignored by the central leadership. Additionally, the party fielded no Muslim candidates in an apparent attempt to blunt nationalist attacks.
The USDP, meanwhile, was grappling with turmoil of its own following the late-night ouster of chairman Shwe Mann, who was purged in a surprise shakeup of the party leadership. The drama played out in what a US official would later say recalled “the dark old days of dictatorship,” with armed security personnel surrounding the USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw as the party pecking order was rearranged.
Just one week later, Parliament returned for its last session ahead of the Nov. 8 election. Its most consequential vote was arguably the USDP-majority legislature’s move to pass the last two “race and religion” laws, on monogamy and religious conversion. In another telling metric of the USDP schism laid bare by the Shwe Mann sacking, lawmakers voted to postpone consideration of a bill on recalling sitting parliamentarians, which was brought to the floor after a recall petition was filed against the speaker. Some interpreted the outcome of that vote as indication of substantial support for the Shwe Mann faction within the party.
The election’s official campaign period kicked off on Sept. 8, a largely subdued affair in which only the country’s two largest parties, the NLD and USDP, rolled out notable launches of their electoral bids. Suu Kyi hit the road just days later, travelling to Karenni State for rallies that drew thousands of red-clad supporters, a scene that would repeat itself with every stop on the campaign trail made by the popular party leader.
As the campaign period entered its third week, Ma Ba Tha members escalated their divisive political rhetoric, calling the NLD the “party of Islamists” at a rally held to celebrate the race and religion legislation passed by Parliament, which NLD lawmakers opposed. The party said it had filed election complaints against Ma Ba Tha, contending that the Constitution forbids the use of religion for political purposes, but a UEC claimed the commission was not empowered to take action against religious figures or organizations.
More political muscle flexing from Ma Ba Tha as the group held a 10,000-strong rally in Rangoon to celebrate passage of the race and religion laws.
NLD complaints continued into the second month of campaigning as attacks turned from verbal to physical, in one case involving a ransacking in Kachin State and another a sword-wielding assailant in Rangoon.
Long-laid plans for the election were thrown into doubt as political parties revealed on Oct. 13 that the UEC had floated the idea of postponing the vote, citing the lingering aftermath of the flooding that had affected much of the country over the previous months. Less than 12 hours after word got out, the commission reversed course and said the election would go forward as planned.
Eight ethnic armed groups and the government inked a so-called “nationwide ceasefire agreement” on Oct. 15, though critics pointed out that several rebel armies, including some of the nation’s largest, opted not to sign, citing ongoing Burma Army offensives and the government’s exclusion of some groups from the accord.
More than 26 million people turnout out to cast ballots on Nov. 8, a day marked by long queues at some polling stations and a smattering of reported irregularities, but a vote otherwise widely praised. Polls closed at 4pm and counting of ballots began, with NLD party agents reporting widespread success as initial tallies came in from across the country.
Those reports proved accurate in the days to come, as the UEC released election results in batches beginning on Monday and lasting until the following Sunday, with the exception of a handful of races in remote Kachin State constituencies. It was on Nov. 13 that the party notched enough seats to ensure that it would choose the country’s next president.
Jitters over how the ruling party and military would handle the opposition’s decisive victory gradually subsided as senior members of the defeated USDP and Burma Army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing gave every indication that they accepted and would honor the result.
The post-election euphoria was tempered by tragic news out of Kachin State, where at least 113 “hand-pickers” were killed when a pile of mining tailings collapsed. Not the first of its kind but the deadliest, the incident heaped additional scrutiny on the jade mining industry in Hpakant Township, epicenter of the prized gem’s extraction, which an environmental watchdog said earlier this year was valued at $31 billion in 2014 alone.
As the month came to a close, a reminder of the harsh realities that are likely to await the incoming government, as renewed fighting was reported in the Kokang Special Region, coming after a peaceful few months that had apparently prompted the lifting of martial law just two weeks prior. The same day, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) claimed that its troops exchanged hostilities with a combined Burma Army and Shan State Army-South force, underlining complex battlefield dynamics that will not always comport with the narrative of Burma’s November democratic triumph.
The victorious Suu Kyi met separately on Dec. 2 with Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, meetings she had requested shortly after the NLD’s overwhelming election victory became clear in November. The three parties offered only vague details about the content of their discussions, but statements by both the incumbent president and the military further bolstered their previously stated intention to do their parts to ensure a smooth transfer of power.
Three days later, the NLD chairwoman met with Than Shwe, the retired senior general and former leader of the military junta that ceded power in 2011. Following the meeting, Than Shwe’s grandson quoted the former junta chief as referring to Suu Kyi as Burma’s “future leader,” fueling speculation that she might still have a shot at the presidency, despite the constitutional ban currently in place.
A bipartisan transition committee began meeting to hash out details of the power transition and a new investment law was passed on Dec. 17, as entrepreneurs look to next year as a potential business bonanza, given the political developments of 2015.
The President’s Office announced on Dec. 18 that a long-awaited political dialogue aimed at ending decades of civil war would begin on Jan. 12, ensuring that the peace process will make a prominent early 2016 appearance on the agenda of the nation’s big political stakeholders.
Burmese migrant workers Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were sentenced to death in Thailand on Dec. 24 after their conviction for the September 2014 murders of two British backpackers on the island resort of Koh Tao. The case had been plagued by controversy from the outset, with claims by rights activists that the pair had been tortured into confessing and questions over the integrity of forensic evidence linking them to the crime. The decision prompted several days of protests outside the Thai embassy in Rangoon, while military chief Min Aung Hlaing issued a public call for a review of the evidence. Both men are expected to appeal the decision in the new year.
Additional research by Feliz Solomon and Yen Snaing.