After decades of repression, reform has come to Burma. But much remains to be done. This week the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will debate Burma’s progress, and particularly whether to drop its designation of Burma, or Myanmar, as a “country of concern.”
For years Burma competed for the world title of worst government. North Korea usually took home the crown, but Burma’s leaders in the capital city of Naypyidaw never gave up trying. The long-lived military junta waged war on the Burmese people, suppressed democratic freedoms, and locked the nation into grinding poverty.
But now change is underway. The military has formally stepped back, though the institution retains enormous influence if not effective control of the government. Political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have been freed. Controls over opposition parties and independent journalists have been relaxed. Peace agreements have been reached with many ethnic groups seeking autonomy. The government also has begun distancing Burma from China, the country’s assertive northern neighbor.
Western nations have responded by lifting sanctions and offering assistance. President Barack Obama visited the country last November.
Nevertheless, the reform glass, while half full, also is half empty. Conflict continues with the ethnic Kachin, and the Muslim Rohingya continue to suffer from sometimes violent discrimination. Political prisoners remain and no one knows if the military is prepared to yield power when national elections are held in two years.
In preparation for the UNHRC debate, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, issued his latest report, which finds much progress, along with the need for additional reforms before Burma will have fully escaped a half-century of military dictatorship.
Ojea Quintana observed that “The reforms in Myanmar are continuing apace, which is a good sign for the improvement of the human rights situation in Myanmar.” He pointed to the release of additional political prisoners as well as attempts by the government to stem torture and create “a more open environment … for people to express themselves, including a freer media environment.” He also cited “Progress in realizing the right of people in Myanmar to assemble and demonstrate.” Parliament’s role was developing, along with “efforts to develop the capacity of judges and lawyers in international human rights law.”
However, much remains to be done, which is not surprising for a country ruled by a dictatorship reaching back to 1962. Ojea Quintana highlighted “the escalation of military offensives, which has brought further death, injury and destruction to the civilian population” in Kachin State. He worried that “The ongoing large military presence, which remains behind the reach of accountability mechanisms, means that serious human-rights violations are continuing there.”
Moreover, “Rakhine State is going through a profound crisis that threatens to spread to other parts of the country and has the potential to undermine the entire reform process in Myanmar.” Tens of thousands have been displaced and are in camps, while “feelings of fear, distrust, hatred and anger remain high between communities.”
Despite the release of many prisoners of conscience, Ojea Quintana reported that “there still remains a significant number,” perhaps 250, locked away. Torture and deadly beatings continue to occur in “places of detention” such as Buttidaung prison in Rakhine State, in which Muslim prisoners are targeted for abuse.
Ojea Quintana also cited “important gaps” in press freedom, including “the lack of access to information for journalists” and threats to revoke licenses “used by state authorities as a tool for censorship.” Broadcast media reforms lag. Laws regarding freedom of assembly still fail to meet international standards and “implementation on the ground” undermines “reform at the top.” For instance, “Permits for assembles are being granted and denied arbitrarily and on political grounds,” and security personnel sometimes use excessive force.