Wednesday 4 July 2012

Burma: the difficulties of democratisation

Bhavin Vyas

David Cameron and the symbol of struggle: The Prime Minister became the first to visit Burma since independence in 1948 but the struggle for democracy continues. Photo: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images.

“We want to help see the changes that can bring the growth of freedom of human rights and democracy in your country."

With these words, David Cameron became the first Western leader to officially visit Burma (Myanmar) since Aung San Suu Kyi won a succession of by-elections in April. Cameron also became the first British Prime Minister to visit since Burma gained independence in 1948, and his presence was not only momentous but telling too. He was in Burma with a message of reward – that of lifting EU sanctions in return for reforms made by the government. 

Though the international community remains cautious, the reforms were clearly seen as promising enough to relax long held sanctions. ASEAN approved Burma’s bid for chairmanship in 2014, the US appointed its first ambassadorfor 22 years. Burma, once a prosperous nation in British colonial times, was beginning to be welcomed back from isolation after more than 50 years of junta rule. However, the recent ethnic violence has threatened international integration and the road to democratic reform. It leaves Britain and the international community asking potent questions surrounding its role and what steps to take given its promise to lift sanctions.
Ethnic violence and instability
The recent ethnic violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has already claimed over 50 lives since clashes began in the Rakhine state in May. The clashes erupted in response to the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman, for which three Muslim men have since been sentenced to death. Revenge attacks between Buddhists and Muslims escalated the clashes and in response, President Sein declared a state of emergency and handed administrative authority to the army over Rakhine state. This has left a familiar uneasy feeling. Burma has long been a hotbed of oppression, emergency rule and ethnic strife. Arbitrary state violence helped the junta maintain power and control.

It has shockingly highlighted the fragility of ethnic relations in Burma. Rohingya Muslims have lived for many generations in Burma but are seen by the government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are not officially recognised as one of the country’s ethnic minorities. Rakhine state has the highest concentration of Muslims in Burma, and there have been long-standing religious tensions in the region. 

The recent violence has again exposed the ethnic rifts in Burma, and threaten to derail democratisation. Photo: KHIN MAUNG WIN AP.
Since the clashes, tens of thousands have started to flee back to Bangladesh. The UN has estimated that over 90,000 have fled, with more than 30,000 already in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. Dhaka has since closed its border with Burma, turning away thousands each week, which will only propagate the violence.

The long road ahead

The violence also exposes the long road still ahead for the government and the Burmese people. Back in 2008, mass protests forced a constitutional referendum, which set into motion events that led to the dissolution of the junta, to be replaced by a military backed civilian government. With the dissolution of the junta, major reforms took place; political prisoners were released, press and internet cencorship laws were relaxed, a ceasefire was agreed with ethnic rebel groups, and anti-fraud laws were introduced. Symbolically, Suu Kyi was released after 15 years of house arrest. 

However, as is the case in countries embracing democracy after years of authoritarian rule (see Egypt, Algeria, Yemen for recent examples) the footprint of the old regime is still deeply embedded in Burmese society. Signs of arbitrary state control have not disappeared; corrupt judiciary, violent police and security services, and terrible prison conditions are still visible. A Reuters exposé on prison conditions shows the lack of transparency upheld by the government over the release of political prisoners. Despite 650 being released since May 2011, it is still unclear how many remain imprisoned or when exactly they will next be released. The decision remains arbitrarily in the hands of the quasi-civilian government. The gulags still exist in the country.

Much in the same way, brutal systematic attitudes towards women have yet to change. Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) reported that soldiers entered the war-torn state and raped a 48 year-old woman. Another KWAT report stated 43 cases of sexual violence and rape, of which 21 were killed, by the Burmese army in Kachin since June 2011. Kachin has long been a ground for struggle between the state and rebels seeking independence and as a result has become neglected by the government, creating a humanitarian crisis

Britain must stand by Burma

As such, there still exists no model of strong justice in the country. The indelible mark of a junta rule makes it hard to bring those soldiers who commit such acts to justice. Cases against soldiers have been readily dismissed by courts. This poses difficult questions for the country and international backers such as Britain. Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent trip to Britain has been a boon for Cameron. She is a celebrated symbol of struggle against oppression, but Britain must remain watchful not to allow initial reforms to distract from the struggle still ahead. The internal situation in Burma is hence destabilising for several reasons. It brings to question whether a democratic institution should be established first to allow a just society, or vice versa. 

For his part, Cameron has pledged to offer support for better and stronger governance through public financial management training, on the rule of law and strengthening parliamentary democracy. There is also a promise of £3m in peace-building work to address ongoing violence in Burma, as well as support for education and healthcare. Britain must also ensure that help is not wasted, as in the example of £2m in aid to Kachin that locals have yet to see. 

Britain can do little about the violence directly, but it must exert pressure through support. Burma needs structural changes, and support rather than sanctions from Britain are necessary. The current violence threatens Burma into becoming a state of unfinished reforms, with an authoritarian social fabric and ethnic strife, but Britain must stand by it to help it through.

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