‘Liberalization is over’? Efforts to promote democracy in Burma hit hurdles

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President Obama recently singled out Burma as a U.S. foreign policy victory — a country that had emerged from decades of military rule and turned toward the West, thanks in part to American diplomacy, Annie Gowen and David Nakamuira report for the Washington Post:

But two years after Obama made a historic visit to the Southeast Asian nation, the achievement is in jeopardy. Burma’s government has cracked down on the media. The parliament is considering laws that could restrict religious freedom. And revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed Obama to her home in 2012, remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into a pivotal election next year.

“As far as Burma’s come in the last three years, they’re getting to the really hard stuff now,” said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “That’s why there are some acute problems and legitimate fears about prospects for full success.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party (NLD), today condemned the recent circulation of a fake NLD statement about last week’s riots in Mandalay as a political attack on her party, Democratic Voice of Burma reports:

Suu Kyi reiterated the importance of containing the violence to prevent it from spreading further. However, she hypothesised that the unrest could have been staged to cause problems for her party. “The NLD usually does not comment on such incidents but we tried to be impartial on both sides to prevent further problems,” Suu Kyi said. “We released a statement this time with concern for all parties, and immediately after, someone released the fake version.”

“We don’t know who did this but we assume it is a political attack,” she said. “Using religious issues for political gain is against the Constitution and also unethical.”

“Liberalization is over,” said Daw Zin Mar Aung, a woman’s rights activist who has received death threats for her opposition to the bills. “Why would the president submit such radical laws?” she told the New York Times:

Ms. Zin Mar Aung, who like many civic leaders in the country is a former political prisoner, accuses the government of building a new national identity on the basis of nationalism and Buddhist chauvinism rather than a multicultural democracy.

Romain Caillaud, the managing director in Myanmar of Vriens & Partners, a consultancy, said he sensed more caution from the military establishment and a belief that “it’s too early to let go of the reins.”

“We were all a bit naïve about how far things could go,” Mr. Caillaud said. “They have done a lot, and they are not that comfortable going much further right now.”

Long-time observers of Burmese politics say the sudden appearance of nationalistic thugs on the streets of Burma comes as no surprise, writes Aung Zaw, founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy

Whenever Burma’s military rulers felt threatened in the past, they unleashed murder and mayhem on some segment of the population to justify the need to “restore order.”

Recently, before this latest outbreak of violence, some ethnic leaders told me that the government “lacks the courage” to hold free and fair elections next year. “As in the past, they’ll steal the election again, or if they can’t do that, they’ll find some excuse to postpone it,” they said.

Already, it seems, elements within the ruling military elite are laying the groundwork for such a scenario. When push comes to shove, they will want to be ready to put the country on lockdown to save it from the evils of democracy.

“It really seems like a military government in civilian clothing,” said Sean Turnell, one of the leading experts on the Burmese economy:

Yet at a time of failed and blood- stained democratic revolutions in the Middle East, some say the military’s continued engagement in politics in Myanmar ensures a measure of stability.

“This is a top-down, managed transition,” said Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official and one of the country’s leading political analysts. “It’s part of the reason why it may be more sustainable and successful than, say, the Arab Spring.”

One democracy campaigner, Zin Mar Aung, said she and other activists were harassed with anonymous text messages and death threats after they criticized a proposed interfaith-marriage law. She worries that the petition drive won’t work because the military does not want to fully give up power.

“We think their reforms have stagnated,” she said. “We think liberalization is over and the regime doesn’t want to give power through democratic elections.”

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