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Zoya Phan: The Significance of Change in Burma Must Be Kept in Perspective

Recent elections in Burma are a step in the right direction, but is now the time to fully normalize relations?
Image from Flickr via racoles

By Zoya Phan

On April 1st by-elections in Burma showed once again the people’s desire to be free from military rule.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has won a landslide victory. A number of media outlets have excitedly reported on Burma’s many changes, and governments around the world have raced to issue statements about this historic event. Sanctions are being lifted or suspended, and relations with Burma normalized.

But any positive steps must be kept in perspective. NLD MPs will only have around 6 percent of the seats in Parliament, while the military and the pro-military parties have around 80 percent of seats between them.

What Thein Sein and the military have created are four levels of government that guarantee their unchecked power.

Aside from the military dominating Parliament, the Parliament itself has very little power. The President and government are not held accountable to Parliament. Most of the government ministers are retired soldiers who are in the same posts now as they were when Burma was under direct military rule.

Above the President is a National Defence and Security Council, and ten of its members are military or retired military. Above the Council is the military, which is also constitutionally unaccountable to Parliament, and has an effective veto over any decisions Parliament makes. This structure of government was brought in by a new constitution, passed in a rigged referendum in 2008. It gives the military a dominant role at every level of politics and government in Burma. Nothing can happen without the Council’s agreement.

Thein Sein, now President and hailed as a reformer, was in charge of drafting this new and undemocratic constitution. What’s more, his government has dismissed suggestions that the constitution be reformed. He also refused to compromise on changing the oath for MPs to protect the constitution, even though, at one point, it looked like the newly elected NLD MPs would not take their seats if they had to take the oath.

Even though there has been some relaxation of media censorship, journalists in Burma are still not allowed to publish stories which are critical of the constitution.

What Thein Sein and the military have created are four levels of government that guarantee their unchecked power. Their interests cannot be threatened, so they feel it is safe now to allow more political freedoms in the hope of getting sanctions lifted.

This is what the NLD’s forty-three new MPs are up against. The challenges they face are immense. This is why Aung San Suu Kyi asserts that there is still a long way to go before Burma is free and democratic. This is why she keeps urging constitutional reform and the rule of law. In the excitement over the supposed changes in Burma, her cautious reminders of the challenges ahead are not being heard.

Repealing repressive laws will be a top priority for the new NLD MPs. This is because, in the past year, President Thein Sein and the military-dominated Parliament have not repealed a single repressive law. New laws that allow trade unions and protests do not replace other security laws that can be used to limit trade union activity or protests.

The United States and the European Union have talked about benchmarks that need to be met before sanctions can be lifted. These included the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the holding of free and fair by-elections, ending conflict, and allowing full humanitarian access.

Ending conflict in Burma doesn’t just mean signing ceasefires, as the international community seems to think.

None of these benchmarks have been met by the government, but sanctions are being relaxed and suspended anyway. Even if they were met, it would not mean there had been democratic change in Burma. Those benchmarks address the symptoms of the problem. All political prisoners could be released, but what about the laws that allowed them to be jailed in the first place? None have been repealed, so these prisoners could all be re-arrested at any time. Free and fair elections cannot be held in Burma because even the electoral law is unfair, as well as many other security and censorship laws, and the Unlawful Associations Act. None of these have been repealed.

Ending conflict in Burma doesn’t just mean signing ceasefires, as the international community seems to think. It requires constitutional change that creates a federal Burma where ethnic people have guaranteed rights and protections. Thein Sein’s government is still refusing to enter into dialogue about this.

Allowing humanitarian access also needs to be guaranteed by law. No President should be allowed to block international aid just because he doesn’t like the ethnicity of those in need.

So far the changes in Burma have been top down, from the President, and not guaranteed in law. These are the real benchmarks the international community should be looking at.

Like most people I am delighted to see the changes so far in my country. I hope they will continue. It’s right that the international community take positive steps to encourage deeper and more fundamental reforms, but we must also keep things in perspective. Without legal and constitutional reform, human rights abuses will continue and democracy impossible to achieve. Burma isn’t normal; it’s run by a military-backed government committing abuses that violate international law. It’s not time to normalize relations. Pressure must be maintained.

Zoya Phan is Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography is published as Undaunted in the U.S., and Little Daughter in the rest of the world.

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One comment for Zoya Phan: The Significance of Change in Burma Must Be Kept in Perspective

  1. Comment by Steve Martin on May 27, 2012 at 10:29 am

    I’ll be praying for Burma and it’s people.

    It’s a very sad thing that in this pride-soaked world, people will always try and control others and lord it over them.

    Very sad. One Day, we will be ushered into a New Kingdom. One where wholeness and justice and peace will reign.


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