Guest Column

Myanmar’s Emerging Democracy is Being Eroded

By Joe Kumbun 4 September 2019

KACHIN STATE—The French National Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man stated on Aug. 26, 1789 that “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man.” In fact, freedom of expression must be the most cherished right and is the essence of democracy.

Democracy and freedom of expression are two sides of the same coin. Democracy will not last if freedom of expression is eroded, and vice versa. In a democracy, freedom of expression is essential for citizens participation in politics and society.

After decades of the military rule, Myanmar became a so-called democracy through the 2010 general elections. Though 25 percent of parliamentary seats were granted to military representatives, the elected government, led by then-President Thein Sein, began making some political and economic reforms.

Economically, for example, it reduced the general export tax from 7 percent to 2 percent and the tax levied on remittances from foreign earnings from 10 percent to 2 percent. Likewise, the government licensed foreign multinational behemoths like telecoms Telenor and Orredoo telecoms.

Politically, the government ended its strict press censorship and reduced restrictions on freedom of expression, speech and assembly, releasing thousands of political prisoners, including then international democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

These reforms were welcomed with much fanfare both domestically and internationally. Some observers, including myself, even expected Myanmar to be a newly emerging democracy and an example for other authoritarian regimes.

These hopes rose higher and gained even more momentum when the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, swept into power in the 2015 general elections. Their campaign slogan, “Time for Change,” echoed throughout and spread across the country. People, including ethnic minorities, thought Aung San Suu Kyi and her party would save them from their marginalized and dire situation.

Unfortunately, those high hopes—for improved living conditions and continued political reform—have gradually faded away. The dream she once offered has gone unrealized, the promise unmet.

Citizens across the country, and journalists and political activists in particular, have been sued and imprisoned for speaking up for justice and truth, either by the government or by the military.

Instead of trying to limit unjust military lawsuits against people, the NLD government—itself comprised of former political prisoners and pro-democracy activists—is also involved in suing the activists.

On Sept. 2, two young Kachin activists—Mr. Paul and Ms. Seng Nu Pan—were jailed over a simple street performance that demonstrated the dire situation of internally displaced persons on the commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the resumption of their civil war. This verdict and others concerning activists and journalists, one after another, highlight the decay of freedom of expression in Myanmar.

It is understood that the civilian government can only do so much to rein in the military and its police force. However, its leaders—including President Win Myint, de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and elected members of Parliament—should not keep silent. They should listen to the expression of the people.

People, and particularly ethnic minorities—for example, the ethnic Karen, Arakan, Kachin and others—now perceive that the NLD government and the military are two sides of the same coin. This is not a good sign for the NLD government that so many once believed would be reformers and nurturers of democracy.

Understandably, the government is trying to address the economic downturn, reform the Constitution, stop the civil war and make peace, but it should not turn a blind eye and plug its ears to the denials of citizens’ freedom of expression—the core principle of democracy.

If the government continues to neglect the freedom of expression of its citizens, Myanmar’s nascent democracy will not last, but will be consigned to being a relic of history instead of a free and flourishing society.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.

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