A Not-so-bright Future for Burma

By Monique Hurley | 27 Jul 15

On 3 March 2015, the Australian Embassy issued a joint statement with a number of other countries welcoming the political reforms that have taken place in Burma, particularly the announcement that a general election will take place in November 2015.  As time passes, and November 2015 draws closer, it appears increasingly unlikely that fair and transparent elections will be held in Burma at any point in the country’s not-so-bright future.

Since the election of the current, quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein in 2010, the Burmese government has been praised by Australia, the United States and others for the progress that the country has made in transitioning to democracy.  In particular, there have been some welcome reforms, including the release of political prisoners and a long overdue overhaul of the county’s legal system and parliamentary structure.

This praise has been accompanied by increased foreign aid, with Australia giving Burma $20 million between 2013–2015 to help the government achieve its reform priorities, including activities to strengthen democratic institutions.  Further, the Total Australian Official Development Assistance allocated to Burma for 2015–2016 is set to be $60.5 million.

The praise and aid efforts have, however, largely overestimated the progress made by the Burmese government.  While it is important that elections held in Burma are conducted in a fair and transparent manner, any general election in the coming months would be largely pointless.  This is because Burma’s Constitution, in its current form, preserves Burmese military supremacy and prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from running for President.

The constitutional problem

Burma’s 2008 military-drafted Constitution is flawed in many ways.  In particular, clause 59 of the Constitution has the effect of excluding popular opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from being elected President.  The unusual section bars individuals who have a spouse or child who is a “citizen of a foreign country” from being eligible for presidency.  This law was introduced specifically to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband and two children fall in this category as British citizens, from running for the top job.

The Constitution gives an unprecedented amount of power to the Burmese military, over which the President does not have sovereign power.  It also provides that military nominees must hold 25 per cent of the seats in the Burmese parliament.  In turn, this gives the military an effective veto on any changes to the Constitution, which requires a 75 per cent vote.

While a promising law was passed earlier this year allowing for a referendum on the Constitution which could have been held as early as May 2015, it now appears increasingly unlikely that any such referendum will be held before the general election later this year.

Slow progress

Aung San Suu Kyi has questioned whether international praise has made the incumbent Burmese government “complacent”, and is concerned that “reforms will turn out to be a total illusion”.  Recent events in the country suggest that she has a valid point, as President Thein Sein’s government has taken some backwards steps in Burma’s transition to democracy.

Such setbacks include the Burmese government’s consistently poor treatment of Rohingya Muslims.  As explained by Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior Thailand researcher, “the Burmese authorities, particularly the military, have a clear policy to push them out from Myanmar using persecution in almost every form possible.”  One example of such persecution is the government’s decision to rescind temporary ID cards.  This has had the practical effect of taking away the voting rights of Rohingya Muslims in any upcoming elections.

Also of alarming concern are the:

  • significant increase in the number of activists and protesters detained as political prisoners by the Burmese government;
  • Burmese government’s proposed new laws which restrict interfaith marriages; and
  • alleged use of rape and sexual violence by the Burmese Army to “demoralise and destroy the fabric of ethnic [minority] communities”.

In March earlier this year, Burma Campaign UK welcomed a report by the British government which admitted that there have been “a number of worrying setbacks” in Burma’s reform process. This was in response to the “rose-tinted glasses” campaign run by Burma Campaign UK, which sought to highlight the above issues and how the British government takes a “rose-tinted view” of the political landscape in Burma. While these comments by the British government provide some of the “healthy scepticism” sought by Aung San Suu Kyi, they do not send a loud enough message to the Burmese government. That message should be that backward steps and failure to deliver real political reform as promised will result in consequences, and a potential review of the assistance given to the country by the United Kingdom (and other countries like Australia who provide Burma with aid).

Prospect of progress

Aung San Suu Kyi now fears that the election will be postponed.  She sees the election scheduled for later this year as the “real test” as to whether Burma is “on the route to democracy or not”.  While there have been signs that President Thein Sein is prepared to discuss reform, real change has been less than forthcoming.  This is particularly the case in light of the recent policy shift in relation to political prisoners, which suggests that President Thein Sein is less than willing to pursue a genuine reform agenda.

Any postponement that unnecessarily protracts the reform process with the deliberate effect of delaying progress should be a cause of great concern to the Burmese people, as well as countries aiding a regime that has failed to deliver on its promises.  In the same way that countries were quick to applaud Burma for its progress, it is important that those countries condemn, or at the very least offer a bit more “healthy scepticism” about the Burmese government’s failure to deliver real political reform.

Monique Hurley is a staff writer at Right Now and a lawyer working in the Northern Territory.  You can follow her on Twitter here: @monique_hurley

Feature image: Wally Gobetz / Flickr