Guest Column

Violent Crackdown, Rise in Conflict Do Not Bode Well for Burma’s Transition

By Saw Nyi Nyi 12 March 2015

When more than 100 students, monks and journalists get arrested, beaten up and detained in a violent police crackdown on a peaceful protest, what does it say about Burma’s democratic transition?

The answer is simple: Burma has not changed one bit and all the talk about “the opening up” of the country and the positive steps towards democratic elections later next year are merely a façade that is being put up so that the former junta elite and some players in international politics can reap the economic benefits of reconnecting the country to the world.

Seeing how students have been beaten badly by the rapid action police teams that have received European Union training in crowd control makes one wonder about the future direction of the “seven-step roadmap to democracy,” the old regime’s plan for Burma’s top-down transition.

All the local and international institutions, organizations and companies that have rushed in following Burma’s much-lauded transition in recent years must answer these tough questions before they continue their race to gain benefits from the surge in foreign investment and development aid.

This also includes international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), who are now flooding the country and are seeking to heal its ills by applying overseas aid and democratization concepts and approaches.

Junta-era tactics are still being deployed; plainclothes Special Branch police are everywhere, spying and taking photos of protestors and media, just like in the old days. In Rangoon, in true regime fashion, barbed-wire fences have been put up again around City Hall following the increase in recent protests at Mahabandoola Park and Sule Pagoda.

These developments raise questions as to how different the Thein Sein government is from the military regime and whether this intolerance of dissent will grow as we approach the elections, which are tentatively scheduled for November.

If so, then what is the source of all the praise and optimism about these supposedly “free and fair” elections in Burma? Is the international community, which has announced support for the elections, oblivious to all these developments in the country?

Do the events of recent months—the collapse of the nationwide ceasefire process, the Kokang conflict, the crackdown on student protests—not worry them one bit? Does it augur well for conducting free and credible elections?

As the old fault lines of ethnic conflict come to the fore again and tensions increase and lead to violence, like in Kokang, prospects for the success of the elections are beginning to look dim.

In areas of conflict, tens of thousands of displaced voters will be disenfranchised. Students might not being able to register themselves or could be denied to register as voters; while in Arakan State tensions are growing as white card holders have been refused the right to vote.

Do the INGOs or the international community really care about these developments that threaten Burma’s democratic transition?

If we really do care for the future of this country and do not want to push it through the dark corridors while willfully ignoring the ills that are inflicted upon it, we must do some soul-searching and take a step back and start afresh.

Let us not do a mad rush to out-compete each other over donor funding, or grab whatever natural resources are left in the country, in the name of supporting democracy. At least, let us not tarnish democracy and the very principles that make it stand.

Saw Nyi Nyi is a political analyst on Burma issues.