The More Things Change…

By The Irrawaddy 12 March 2015

After violent crackdowns on student protests in Burma attracted worldwide condemnation, many are no doubt wondering whether the country’s much vaunted political reforms are back to square one.

The European Union and United States both denounced the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, and many observers in Rangoon have speculated that the old guard and hardliners in the Burmese political class are flexing their muscles ahead of this year’s general election. After disturbing images from the Letpadan crackdown, and the tightening of screws on civil society groups and the media, some have suggested that the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council is more actively exercising its power to deal with growing levels of dissent as it sees fit.

Political instability and conflict inevitably leads to more authority for security forces, which are then given carte blanche to exercise more power and control over the population. Over the last 50 years, the Burmese public have witnessed men in uniform extending their own power and ignoring the ballot box. It is only natural for the people of this country to wonder, as they wonder now, whether the events of the last week play into the hands of established political forces.

International donors and western governments are concerned that ongoing protests, ethnic conflicts and religious violence will hamper the election. To them, the question must be posed: what have those in charge done to warrant trust that a free election will be held?

In an information vacuum, rumor fills the void. Despite President Thein Sein’s order to set up a commission of inquiry into Mar. 5 crackdown on student protests in Rangoon, the public has no knowledge of who was in control and who is taking responsibility for attacks on demonstrators. The lack of an unequivocal message from the opposition is also a cause for concern among many Burmese. With no transparency, a lack of accountability and an increasingly intolerant approach to dissent, it is little wonder that observers believe a new wave of rigid and hardline policies are returning to Burma, a reaction to the last three years of political and economic liberalization.

It is time for the international community and western donor governments to rethink their policy approaches. Political influence needs to be brought to bear to assist in Burma’s transition to a strong and stable democracy—one that guarantees the rights of its citizens to associate freely in public and peacefully petition the government. To many ordinary citizens of this country, at the moment it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.