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Burma: improvement is not achievement

A young child participates in an Australian pro democracy rally for Burma. Photo by Rusty Stewart on flickr.
31 January 2013
A young child participates in an Australian pro democracy rally for Burma. Photo by Rusty Stewart on flickr.

There is a long way to go if Burma is to be considered truly free, fair and reformed, writes YVONNE LAM.

So, Burma is on the road to democracy. The country has received some positive international attention recently in light of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ushering in of a new moderate president. And although these political milestones are improvements from the autocratic regimes of decades past, we must avoid starry-eyed syndrome. Improvement does not equate achievement. To truly achieve peace and democracy in Burma, much more needs to be done.

Since taking power in 2011, Thein Sein has been earmarked as a new reformist leader for Burma. Untainted by personal and political scandals, he stands miles apart from the corruption and cronyism of leaders past. Though official testimonies which describe him as a pious Buddhist practitioner smack of PR spin, his calm public demeanour has distinguished him from the fiery temperament of former president Than Shwe.

His desire to co-operate with Suu Kyi has won him some favour. Shortly after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, Thein Sein invited the Nobel-prize winner to Naypyidaw for a meeting in August last year. This olive branch has been offered several times since, and the president has even publicly praised Suu Kyi for her inspirational efforts. The president’s willingness to establish amicable ties with the democratic visionary clearly contrast with the previous regime’s frosty relations with Suu Kyi.

Observers have also noted the president’s raft of social, economic and political reforms. On the same day the NLD swept to victory in parliamentary by-elections in April 2012, Burma recorded its first foreign exchange auction. The state has also initiated talks to bring placate ethnic minority tensions. However, although these preliminary reforms are significant and optimistic, they are far from completing Burma’s goal of true democracy.

According to the Freedom House Index, Burma’s press is considered ‘not free’. For the past 40-odd years, the state’s control of the media has been an exercise in power of the most deceitful and cunning kind. The control of major newspapers and television channels demonstrated the state’s preoccupation with image-control at the expense of the needs and wants of its own people.

Since 2011, the government has gradually eased restrictions from ‘soft’ publications on arts and sports. In August 2012, President Thein Sein announced a major back-pedal of the country’s 48-year-old media censorship. Media publications, including those dealing with politics and religion, are no longer required to submit their work to the state’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD) prior to publication.

This move attracted optimistic attention around the world. But despite initial claims, censorship persists. Magazines and journals are still required to submit their stories to the PRSD post-publication. State officials say this is for archival purposes. Local journalists say pre-publication censorship has simply been replaced by post-publication monitoring. Furthermore, the government has issued a 16-point guideline which forbids publications from inciting dissidence, or negatively criticising the state. Censorship has not been abolished. It has just taken another form.

In response to Thein Sein’s reforms, many countries have eased economic restrictions or waived Burma’s debts. The United States, however, has maintained sanctions on Burmese exports. It has made it clear that these sanctions function as a carrot for Thein Sein’s government to enact real reforms towards ethnic minority groups.  

At present, little is being done about violence towards ethnic minorities. Thein Sein’s celebrated reforms are limited to the urban areas, sidelining already-marginalised ethnic communities. Despite the president calling on the military to suspend activities in Kachin State, attacks still continue. Meanwhile, violence is still raging against Muslim Rohingyas in the Arakan province. The conflict has displaced more than 28,000 people, and human rights groups blame the state’s lack of response to the crisis.

Thein Sein’s reforms are band-aid solutions to lift the state’s international image, and cover up the glaring holes in its policies. Headline-grabbing reforms are nothing if the state continues to enforce media restrictions, or continues to ignore the massive injustices inflicted upon ethnic groups.

It is important that the international community does not adopt an immediate rose-tinted view of Burma. The president may be a moderate politician, but Burma’s journey to democracy does not stop there. 

If Facebook is anything to go by, Internet users are voting with their mouses. Suu Kyi’s Facebook page has attracted more than 570, 000 likes. Comparatively, the president’s page has less than 350 likes. The differences run deeper. Suu Kyi’s page has been set up by Burma Campaign UK, an influential London-based non-government organisation that lobbies parliamentarians and the United Nations to put Burma’s plight in the spotlight. The page is frequently updated with Suu Kyi’s speeches, interviews around the world, as well as activities with her political party, the National League of Democracy. Thein Sein’s page, on the other hand, contains inflammatory attacks on the president, and lacks any official accreditation. In short, it pales in comparison to the polished presentation, and immense popularity, of Suu Kyi’s page.

The popularity of Suu Kyi, in grassroots and virtual form, is undeniable. Furthermore, her seat in Burma’s parliament, and her position as chair of the Committee of Rule of Law and Stability, imbue her with actual, state-sanctioned political power. Her official political titles, combined with her charismatic and infectious influence, put her in a favourable position to give Thein Sein’s reforms a reality check. Suu Kyi herself has said that real reforms must prove to be irreversible. Democracy in Burma still has a long way to go. The international community must be cautious as not to be swept away by the state’s preliminary reforms.  Democracy begins with starry-eyed ideology, but can only manifest with diffuse and concrete policies. It is absolutely imperative that the international community maintains its scrutiny of the state. The bright light of reforms must not blind us from the problems that still persist in Burma.

Yvonne Lam is an undergraduate student studying in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. This article was written as part of the course Southeast Asian Landscapes of Power.




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