Since President Thein Sein took office in March 2011 his quasi-civilian government has pursued an ambitious reform agenda. Critics argue, however that despite the top-down reforms towards democracy, the military retains the power to block further liberalisation under the 2008 Constitution, and would have a vested interest in doing so, should its extensive involvement in key economic activities, such as jade, timber, oil and gas exploitation, and dam construction, be at risk.
|On 22 October 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy and human rights activist, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD, the main opposition party), and Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1991), will collect the 1990 Sakharov Prize which was awarded to her in absentia on 10 July 1991. She was at that time under house arrest and held incommunicado by the ruling military junta.|
Slow, uneven and fragile reforms
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, but as the case of Nay Myo Zin demonstrates, they may be re-imprisoned at the president’s discretion to serve the remainder of their sentence. Freedom of assembly continues to be restricted, as unauthorised demonstrations still attract hefty criminal penalties, and produce new political prisoners. While pre-publication censorship has been relaxed, the press is still obliged to deliver copies of publications to the authorities, so may be threatened with suspension or revocation of their licences. Privately-owned newspapers are now allowed, but the draft Public Service Media bill is criticised for creating an uneven playing field between state-run and private media. While trade unions have been legalised, workers do not yet fully enjoy their rights in practice. A new foreign investment law has opened up the economy to foreign direct investment. But large-scale land grabbing is taking place, to the detriment of farmers, in the name of development projects of national interest. According to Article 37 of the Constitution the “Union is the ultimate owner of all land and all natural resources”. Civil society protests against foreign investments, which entail damage to the environment and displacement of people, have led, for example, to the suspension of the Myitsone dam’s construction.
Unlocking the constitutional deadlock
The Constitution gives the military extensive emergency powers, impunity from persecution and 25% of the seats in the two houses of Parliament. As amending the constitution requires over 75% of the votes, the army has a de facto veto right. The Constitution’s eligibility clause bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, even if her party wins the 2015 general elections, because her children are foreign nationals. Critics and Aung San Suu Kyi herself argue that fundamental change of the Constitution prior to 2015 is a prerequisite for genuine democratic transition, whereas the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) warns of “serious dangers” that would arise from this.
Obstacles to national reconciliation
Although most armed ethnic groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the government, raising hope of a nationwide agreement, commentators believe that lasting peace depends largely on building an inclusive economy, particularly in resource-rich areas like Kachin State. In 2012, long-simmering ethnic conflicts between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State escalated into sectarian violence, leading to what Human Rights Watch calls “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya, allegedly with the security forces’ complicity.
EU policy towards Myanmar/Burma
The EU has a comprehensive strategy to support Myanmar/Burma in the run up to the 2015 general elections and is supporting the Myanmar Peace Centre to promote national reconciliation. In June 2013, Parliament strongly condemned widespread and systemic human rights violations committed against the Rohingya, and called for the root causes of violence to be addressed.