Burma will allow observers from South-East Asian countries to monitor April’s elections that observers consider a key test of the country’s reform process. But pro-democracy and human rights groups today highlighted continuing violence and atrocities in Kachin state, constraints on media freedom, and lack of judicial independence as major obstacles to the country’s transition.
The government invited the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to send five observers and 18 parliamentarians – two from each neighbouring state – to monitor the poll. Permitting foreign monitors is a small but symbolic step for the formerly state, observers suggest.
Since the end of direct military rule, Burma’s nominally civilian government has taken a reformist path by introducing liberal economic reforms, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, expanding freedom of expression and association, and allowing Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to contest the April by-elections for 48 parliamentary seats.
The polls will be a key indicator of the government’s commitment to reforms and, consequently, of the inclination of the US, European Union and United Nations to lift sanctions.
But the reforms have yet to impact the northern Kachin state where violence and rights abuses continue unabated, according to a Human Rights Watch report released today.
Researchers documented unlawful killings, rape, torture of civilians during interrogations forced manual labor at gunpoint of men as old as 70, and conscription of teen combatants as young as 14. Troops also “deliberately and indiscriminately fired on Kachin civilians with small arms and mortars,” to force people to vacate terrain, the report said.
“There’s still a long way to go before the people of Burma, particularly those in conflict areas, benefit from recent promises of reform,” said Elaine Pearson, the group’s deputy Asia director. “The international community should not become complacent about the serious human rights violations still plaguing” the country:
The Burmese government has committed serious abuses and blocked humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of displaced civilians since June 2011, in fighting in Burma’s northern Kachin State, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Some 75,000 ethnic Kachin displaced persons and refugees are in desperate need of food, medicine, and shelter, Human Rights Watch said. The 83-page report, “‘Untold Miseries’: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State,” describes how the Burmese army has attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged properties, and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations and raped women. The army has also used anti-personnel mines and conscripted forced laborers, including children as young as 14, on the front lines.
The Kachin Independence Army is also guilty of “serious abuses,” including the abuse of child soldiers and landmines, says the group, which “found no tangible signs that the authorities in the KIA or the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) – the KIA’s political wing – are seriously addressing either practice.” “It is essential that support for recent reforms not lead to international complacency about the serious human rights violations still plaguing Burma,” the report said. “Legal and political changes are only beginning to make headway and there is a long way to go before all Burmese benefit from them.”
But Western states and international bodies need to balance support for the reform process with a realistic approach to conflict resolution when reviewing sanctions, say analysts.
“The international community to be effective needs to realize what can be achieved in such a short timeframe. A 50-year conflict cannot be settled overnight,” said Aung Naing Oo, deputy head of the Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute.
“They need to be pragmatic. If they’re basing sanctions on ending a long-running conflict, then they’re wide of the mark.”
The elections are unlikely to take place on a level playing field when independent media are silenced or intimidated, internal and exiled media groups said today.
Media operates under “too many swords of Damocles to be free,” said a joint statement by The Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma and the Burma News International network.
Media law should not only address freedom of the media and freedom of expression, “but also constitute a safeguard for the security and rights of members of the media community,” says the joint statement.
“However, at present, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board (PSRD) is still very much alive,” the groups note. “Additionally, restrictions on reporting of events taking place in the ethnic areas are still in effect.”
Burma – also known as Myanmar – is playing catch-up with other Asian tiger economies, but it has the benefits of being able to learn from and avoid the mistakes of its neighboring ASEAN dynamos, writes Ajay Chhibber, the UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director:
First, the country has abundant natural resources that are largely untapped, including gas, oil and rare earths…. Smart environmental planning and regulations can help avoid the damage to the ecosystem so often associated with extractive industries. Furthermore, revenues from extractive industries, when used wisely, equitably and transparently, can improve healthcare and education. …..
Second, many Asian countries focused exclusively on rapid growth but neglected to build the social policies needed for their citizens to weather economic downturns, health crises or natural disasters. Social protections, such as health insurance and disaster management systems, can go a long way towards helping families overcome external shocks that would otherwise push them back into poverty just as they were pulling themselves up.
“Timing is crucial,” Chhibber concludes:
In the medium term, building institutional capacity is vital. So too is improving the quality of education and healthcare, and reducing inequalities. But to keep the momentum of change, people must see immediate benefits to reforms even in the short term……It is clear that Myanmar must develop so as not to be further isolated in a rapidly changing and growing Asia. This historic opportunity for its people and its desire for major reform must also receive rapid, well-targeted support from the international community.
In short, the reform process and any subsequent democratic transition must address people’s material needs as well as procedural rights.
Burma’s transitional process is also likely to be hampered by the absence of “an independent and rights-respecting judiciary,” writes James Ross, author of Summary Injustice: Military Tribunals in Burma:
Without a clear and unwavering commitment from the government and other power-holders in Burma not to interfere in judicial proceedings, ploughing foreign aid or technical assistance into the existing system will not bring change. The government and the military will need to stop telling judges what to do and demonstrate they will not take reprisals against those who rule against them, such as by ordering political prisoners released or holding corrupt officials accountable.
“Even in the best-case scenario, reform will take time,” says Ross. “Real inroads will need to be made against corruption in the judicial system.”
Legal education needs a massive overhaul. Standards of professionalism will have to be created. A culture of judicial independence will have to be established. And even without constitutional amendments to ensure the impartial selection of judges, the government needs to accept more input from civil society, opposition parties and ethnic minority groups on candidates for judicial appointment.
While the release of political detainees has been a signal achievement of the reform process, activists fear that former prisoners are not receiving adequate rehabilitation in terms of education, health and social support programs.
“As many were in prison for decades, they need to catch up with the social changes in society,” Bo Kyi, co-founder of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), tells Irrawaddy:
Apart from the horrific treatment political prisoners receive during their detention, many have found it impossible to get a job or return to normal life after their release. Lawyers are not allowed to return to practice and many companies are afraid of losing lucrative contracts or facing penalties for hiring ex-political prisoners.
Although there are a handful of ex-political prisoners who are in the political arena, “it is not easy for most of them to go back to their political lives and be productive members of their communities after being in prison for many years,” said Aung Zaw Htun, who is coordinator of the Network for Family Members of Political Prisoners in Rangoon.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based democracy assistance group, has an extensive grants program supporting Burmese democrats and civil society, including initiatives to provide accurate and reliable information about developments in Kachin State.