Guest Column

Only One Side of the Story of Reform in Burma

By Khin Ohmar 17 October 2013

The statement by Burma’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wunna Maung Lwin, on 13 September at the 24th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, on the country’s recent reforms or “progressive developments,” made for interesting reading. Indeed, it seems to suit many, not least the Burma government, to impose a simplistic narrative on events in the country over the last two years. Yet such a narrative is only one side of the story.

Wunna Maung Lwin talks of “the government and people…working together on reform agenda.” In fact, while positive and potentially democratic in outcome, the changes have been far from democratic in process. Rather, they have been very much “top-down,” instigated by the previous military junta and orchestrated by the current military-backed quasi-civilian government, with the people merely cast in the role of hopeful and wary onlookers.

The changes are to be welcomed, but it is important not to misrepresent them. Until the Burma government works collaboratively with all political parties, ethnic nationality groups and civil society organizations, its claims will ring hollow and its achievements will remain fragile.

His statement reports that the Burma government has been “striving to fulfill the fundamental desires of the people,” including to “live in peace where the rule of law prevails.” The stated intentions of the Burma government are admirable, but, again, they are only one side of the story. The reality is that it is not “rule of law” but “rule by law” that characterizes President Thein Sein’s Burma. New repressive legislation, such as the draft Associations Law, the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law, and the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, represents a more sophisticated and subtle tactic than the knee-jerk violence and disappearances of times past. Under this veil of legitimacy, the Burma government can restrict people’s rights, control civil society, and silence those who pose a threat to the regime’s supremacy – as other countries in the ASEAN region do – without the international community questioning its policy of engagement and investment.

Yet, the Foreign Minister’s statement claims that “a series of new legislations…have contributed to the emergence of a conducive political climate.” Legislation in Burma in fact contributes to repression and censorship, which may be conducive to the maintenance of government control, but certainly does not represent a conducive political climate as it is generally understood, namely one that promotes democracy, free expression and human rights.

Instead, the Burma government should ensure that legislation adheres to international human rights standards. As a matter of urgency, it should establish an independent human rights commission and reform the judiciary into an independent and competent body, in order to begin tackling the scourge of impunity that plagues Burma. If the Burma government genuinely wants to establish the rule of law, building sustainable democratic institutions are a pre-requisite.

Wunna Maung Lwin speaks of the “ten amnesties…granted by the President,” while failing to mention the continual judicial harassment and imprisonment of political prisoners and human rights activists, such as Daw Naw Ohn Hla, who has recently been sentenced by a compliant and corrupt judiciary to two years’ imprisonment with hard labor for exercising her right to peaceful and legitimate protest. A revolving-door system is not the same as opening the doors.

The statement claims “tangible results” regarding peace negotiations with ethnic non-state armed groups. Some fragile ceasefires certainly represent progress of sorts for the Burma government and beleaguered ethnic groups such as the Karen. However, ongoing fighting in Kachin and northern Shan States, increased militarization in ceasefires zones, persistent human rights abuses involving attacks on civilians and army impunity, and political stalemate regarding constitutional federalism, development and resource-sharing, do not represent a tangible breakthrough.

Furthermore, the “all-inclusive political process” referred to must include all ethnic groups, political parties, civil society organizations, religious minorities and women’s groups – in short, all those who have long been disenfranchised and persecuted by the Burma government.

Finally, Wunna Maung Lwin reassures his audience that the situation in Arakan State is “gradually returning to normalcy.” Such a claim contradicts recent reports by Physicians for Human Rights, the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum among others of the “ghettoization” of Rohingyas in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, restrictions on humanitarian aid access, ethnic cleansing and even incipient genocide.

Furthermore, according to Wunna Maung Lwin’s statement, the “communal violence should not be portrayed or construed as religious or racial conflict.” Yet the fact that violence has been perpetrated against whole communities for the sole reason that they are Muslim – and in many cases Rohingya – allows for little other interpretation. Discriminatory and draconian laws (both proposed and enacted) governing citizenship and permitted numbers of children, the segregation of communities based on religion and race, and the unequal pursuit of Muslim over Buddhist perpetrators, support these allegations. Moreover, they suggest a state-sponsored system of South Africa-style apartheid in Arakan State.

The statement claims that segregation of Muslims and Buddhists is on humanitarian grounds, which should be applauded if so. It is strange then that the authorities are reportedly restricting the flow of humanitarian aid to Rohingya IDP camps, despite claims that Burma “has been cooperating with the United Nations, INGOs and NGOs to facilitate their humanitarian assistance.”

Furthermore, the people of Burma “do not accept the term ‘Rohingya’ which has never existed in the country’s history.” And yet the Rohingya people do exist. They exist inside Burma in huge numbers, but their human rights are simply not recognized. The situation is dire for them and threatens to get a lot worse. And yet there is apparently “no reason to harbor security concerns for anyone in Rakhine State.”

While one must not blame the Burma government for all violence that occurs on its watch, it must bear a heavy responsibility for failing to do its utmost to quell any violence and to bring perpetrators to account, including for recent outbreaks of more widespread anti-Muslim violence that has scarred communities across the country.

Positive reforms and initiatives in Burma should be welcomed. However, an honest dialogue must take place between the government and people, as well as with the international community, with all sides of the story told, however complex the narrative. Otherwise, reform and national reconciliation in Burma will remain illusory and genuine democratic transition elusive.

Khin Ohmar is the Coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of regional and Burma civil society organizations supporting the collective efforts of all peoples working towards democracy, peace, justice and human rights in Burma.