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Myanmar’s Rights Record Deteriorates in 2014

Buddhist monks and other people take part in a protest to demand the revocation of the right of holders of temporary identification cards, known as white cards, to vote, in Yangon on February 11, 2015. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy: Reuters)

By Joshua Kurlantzick
March 1, 2015

This week, Amnesty International released its assessment of Myanmar’s 2014 human rights record. Although Myanmar’s bumpy road to reform had been well-documented, the report is even more negative than I had expected. Program toward improvement in political and civil rights in Myanmar “stalled” and went into reverse in 2014, Amnesty reported in the Myanmar chapter of its annual global assessment of freedom. According to the report, discrimination against Muslims, particularly in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State, worsened last year, the government prevented humanitarian aid from reaching refugees in areas where the army is still battling ethnic insurgencies, and Naypyidaw maintained what Amnesty called “severe restrictions” on freedom of assembly. These were just a few of the lowlights for Myanmar in 2014.

In the first two months of 2015, which are not covered in the Amnesty 2014 report, human rights have apparently deteriorated further in Myanmar. The country is still more open, in terms of both political and civil rights, than it was during the decades of military junta rule, but already this year Myanmar has witnessed serious outbreaks of conflict in the northeast. There have been numerous reports of rights violations by both ethnic Kokang insurgents and by the military in the northeast conflict during the past two months. Aid workers trying to evacuate displaced people in the northeast have had their convoys, which were flying the symbol of the Red Cross, fired upon.

There are also, unfortunately, few signs that the core problems revealed by Amnesty’s report will be addressed by President Thein Sein’s government—or by whatever government is formed after elections to be held later this year. As I noted earlier this week, the Myanmar military still operates without sufficient civilian control, fostering a culture of impunity for officers and generals that only abets rights abuses. The ethnic insurgencies in the north and northeast still fester due to a lack of trust-building between Naypyidaw and many of the ethnic militias. The ongoing insurgencies continue to cause refugee flows and facilitate rights abuses by both sides.

Meanwhile, no prominent Myanmar political leaders, including National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders, are willing to take a public stance clearly denouncing the anti-Muslim hate-mongering propagated by Buddhist Burman nationalist groups. This hate-mongering has helped create an environment in which attacks on Muslims in western Myanmar go ignored by most Burmese or are even applauded in public discourse. The hateful environment further suggests to the nationalist paramilitary groups which have emerged in recent years that attacking Muslims has no consequences. In addition, although the media environment and the environment for public expression is far freer than it was under military rule, Myanmar’s leaders still seem unwilling to create the foundations of a truly free press, allowing for journalists to be routinely harassed by authorities and jailed for their reporting.

Will the elections later this year resolve these ongoing challenges? A peaceful change in government would be a milestone for Myanmar, but just having a new, elected leadership will not do much to address these entrenched problems. In fact, although I wholly support Myanmar’s election process, an NLD government might frankly have a tougher time establishing civilian control of the armed forces, as well as reaching a permanent peace with the myriad armed insurgencies.

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