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Burma’s grim reality

President Obama and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi hold a news conference at her residence in Rangoon, Burma, last year. (Nyein Chan Naing/European Pressphoto Agency)

By Editorial Board
July 7, 2015

JOURNALISTS IN Burma are “stifled” by a “climate of fear,” Amnesty International reported recently, finding “repression dressed up as progress.” The military government, after several years of pretend negotiations, recently vetoed constitutional changes that would have limited its power. Peace talks with ethnic groups have collapsed.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration, in its annual human rights report released just over a week ago, cheers a “trend of progress since 2011.”

Wai Wai Nu, a Burmese activist who recently visited Washington, is not surprised by the discrepancy. “The international perception is quite different from the reality,” she told us. “The human rights situation is deteriorating.”

Conditions in Burma, a Southeast Asian nation of about 56 million people also known as Myanmar, did improve in 2012. Wai Wai Nu herself, imprisoned in 2005 at age 18 because her father was a pro-democracy politician, was released along with hundreds of other political prisoners. Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader who had spent the better part of two decades under house arrest, also was freed and allowed to contest and win a by-election for parliament. The U.S. government, eager to pocket a foreign-policy success, eased its sanctions on the generals and former generals running the country.

The administration’s hope, shared by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, was that the regime would negotiate its own demise, in the fashion of South Africa’s apartheid government. Alas, the generals seem to be reading from a different script. They have eagerly shed their pariah status, welcoming an influx of investment, but they seem determined that there will be no Nelson Mandelas in their country. Elections are scheduled for the fall, but Aung San Suu Kyi will not be permitted to run for president, and one-quarter of parliament seats will be reserved for the military without election.

Things are especially bad for the ethnic minority known as Rohingya, of which Wai Wai Nu is one, and for other Muslims. “People can demonstrate freely — against Muslims,” Wai Wai Nu noted. “But when people ask for their rights, or their education, or their land, they are arrested and charged.” And not only Muslims: Phyo Phyo Aung, another young former political prisoner, recently led a protest march — and was charged with violating the law in every township she walked through. There’s an “illusion of change,” Yan Htaik Seng, a project manager with BBC Media Action, told us, but censorship and fear-inspired self-censorship keep the media in a straitjacket.

U.S. officials hope that fall elections, even if held under an imperfect constitution, will empower pro-democracy parties enough to spur further change. That remains the sensible goal in a season of disappointment. But its fulfillment would be more likely if the administration acknowledged reality and adjusted policy accordingly, including, as Amnesty International argued, by pushing for an end to repression. As the organization’s Southeast Asiaresearch director Rupert Abbott said, “Authorities are still relying on the same old tactics — arrests, surveillance, threats and jail time to muzzle those journalists who cover ‘inconvenient’ topics.”

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