Democracy in Myanmar: Challenges Ahead

Freedom has long been an aspiration for Myanmar, but it seems that the beleaguered nation of over 58 million is now moving in a positive direction. Isolated for decades by military rulers who banned political parties and sent their leaders to jail, Myanmar’s latest military-backed government is initiating a process of political and economic reform in the hopes that it will usher democracy in the country. Major developments to this end were the release of some 302 political prisoners, including Myanmar Nobel Laureate leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the withdrawal of the ban on political parties. The government, however, is maintaining its stranglehold on critical media.

Political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi (center) as he is released in Yangon on January 13, 2012.

Political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi (center) as he is released in Yangon on January 13, 2012.

Since Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) won its independence from Britain in 1948, it has been tangled in the world’s longest ethnic conflict with its various tribal groups, including the Karen National Army and the Kochin Independence Army, which have been major destabilizing factors in the path of democracy. The good news is in January of this year the government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Army. Since the country won independence, Myanmar’s majority ethnic group, the Burman, have dominated the army and held the highest posts in government while non-Burman have sought autonomy. Hope is high, but if Burma wishes to recover and stay on the track of development, the ethnic fighting needs to end and not remain another excuse for military rule.

Rangoon (now Yangon), once a flourishing port of the British Empire that defined the term plural society, has long endured a state of shambles under unpopular military rule and now can’t resist recovering its old pride. After the generals took over power in 1962, Myanmar turned from pluralism to forced Burmese nationalism. Thousands of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews fled the country.

Myanmar political instability has been a contagious factor in the region. The mountainous northern reaches of Myanmar, rich in jade and timber and crisscrossed by traffickers dealing in heroin and methamphetamines, are among the most unstable areas in Southeast Asia. In 2009, the U.S. State Department listed Myanmar as one of only three countries that “failed demonstrably” to follow the U.S. international anti-drug conventions.

During the height of the Burmese junta, the foremost demand placed on Myanmar by the international community, including the United States, was to release political prisoners and restore the political process. Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has now been legalized, and it is contesting 45 seats in parliamentary elections slated for April 1, 2012. Other parties are following suit.

Ms. Suu Kyi spent most of the past two decades under house arrest. Many political and student leaders had served long jail terms since the student uprising against General Ne Win’s military government in 1988. Along with the political opponents, Burmese journalists were jailed, beaten, and blacklisted. The media was threatened and strangled in order to curb its freedom of the press.

U.S diplomatic relations were downgraded in 1988 following the Burmese student uprising and were completely broken off in 1990 when Myanmar isolated itself from rest of the world. Transcending Chinese hegemony in the region, Beijing eyed Myanmar’s geopolitical advantages, seeking to harness the untapped natural resources and to utilize its strategic apertures. Flouting UN sanctions, China was the only country to prop up Myanmar’s military juntas in the years since, playing a role similar to that with North Korea.

Unlike past governments, the current, military-backed, Burmese junta intends to move from a military dictatorship to a state of greater pluralism. The attempt appears genuine and has earned Myanmar some gestures of international goodwill. Significantly, the United States is now considering full diplomatic relations. Britain, Australia, Canada, the European Union, and others are also responding on their own terms.

Aung San Suu Kyi (center) greeting supporters last year.

Myanmar, however, does not yet enjoy full media freedom. Since last year when the nation’s long-entrenched military junta stepped down, censorship has ended on certain subjects such as health, entertainment, fashion, and sports, but reporters are just now testing their limited freedom. The newly-elected but military-backed government of President Thein Sein continues to censor reporting on politics, government, and other subjects deemed to be sensitive. Though the media in Myanmar have gained new freedoms, it also faces a new threat from lawsuits filed against it by the government.

According to an Associated Press report, “rule of law can be assured only if there is media freedom”, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in response to a question about the issue. “I believe that restricting media freedom amounts to restricting the country’s development.” Citizens’ rights and freedoms are playing an important role on the global stage of today, and the government of Myanmar should address its shortcomings in that area before its people force it to.

For a full analysis into Myanmar’s geopolitical situation, see our article in this issue titled “Democracy Springs in Myanmar”.

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