Myanmar’s democratic deficit 

The hopes that surrounded the November 2015 general election in Myanmar now seem a distant memory as democratic rights are systematically crushed in the military-controlled country. 

Peaceful critics of the army and government are increasingly being arrested, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has called for repressive laws to be repealed. 

It said the arrests of satirical performers, activists and journalists reflected a “rapid decline in freedom of expression” in Myanmar under the National League for Democracy (NLD). It is a remarkable statement by the rights group considering how repressive the authorities were before the installation of the supposedly democratic government three years ago. 

The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, exiled across the border in the Thai city of Mae Sot, said in March that at least 45 political prisoners had been convicted since the supposed democratic icon, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, took office in April 2016.

Another 94 inmates await trial in prison, while 225 others are on bail pending trial, said the rights NGO.

On April 23, the Supreme Court upheld the seven-year prison sentences for the two Reuters journalists accused of breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. 

Reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who won Pulitzer prizes this month for their work, were prosecuted after their investigation into a massacre by soldiers of Rohingya Muslim villagers in Rakhine State.

The prosecution went ahead despite a police captain, Moe Yan Naing, revealing to the court that his boss had ordered that the reporters be entrapped. Moe Yan Naing was subsequently jailed for his unscripted courtroom confession. 

Troops were also jailed for the Rakhine State murders covered by the two reporters but still, the pair remain in jail. 

The 73-year-old Suu Kyi has mostly stayed silent on the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. However,  last June she defended her friends in the military, saying the reporters were not arrested because of their journalism but because “they broke the Official Secrets Act”. 

And yet, despite her atrocious record in office, where the NLD has repeatedly defended Myanmar’s military and failed to challenge its human rights abuses, Suu Kyi’s party looks set for another electoral victory next year. 

The Reuters case gains considerable international attention but similar abuses are replicated across the union and Burmese journalists increasingly self-censor. 

Numerous corrupt business deals go unreported and the nation’s wealth – in its jade, forests, oil and gas – continues to be siphoned across the border into China, while the media remains too scared to provide scrutiny.   

“Myanmar’s government should be leading the fight against the legal tools of oppression that have long been used to prosecute critics of the military and government,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s regional spokesman. “During military rule, Aung San Suu Kyi and many current lawmakers fought for free expression, yet now the NLD majority in parliament has taken almost no steps to repeal or amend abusive laws still being used to jail critics.”

And the aged Suu Kyi appears willing to accept international condemnation for her failure to condemn the actions of the generals with whom she shares power. 

Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law has been used repeatedly by the generals against online critics with a broadly worded provision that does not allow for pretrial release on bail. 

Any citizen can use Section 66(d) to sue for alleged online abuse, regardless of whether they were the subject of the remarks. It carries a threat of up to three years in prison without bail, which is deeply controversial for alleged defamation and means it is often used to jail journalists and political activists after prolonged trials.

Filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was recently arrested on criminal charges for his Facebook posts criticising the role of the military under the junta-era 2008 constitution. The rights campaigner was denied bail at a court hearing on April 12 although he has liver cancer.

The constitution, imposed in the chaos of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2007, enshrines military control of the ministries of home affairs, border security and defence.

It means troops can carry out acts of rape and murder in Myanmar’s border provinces but then the generals can control the legal system to prosecute anyone who mentions it. The plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State has been heavily covered by the international media, partly because of access from democratic Bangladesh. But other brutal operations are carried against ethnically distinct groups, including Karen, Shan and Kachin, without the glare of media scrutiny.  

“During Myanmar’s long military dictatorship, numerous governments and donors made freedom of expression and freeing political prisoners the cornerstone of their policy,” HRW’s Adams added. “At a time when Myanmar’s transformation to a rights-respecting democracy hangs in the balance, where are those same voices?”

The willingness of the Burmese population to accept the ongoing power of the generals and the refusal to question the silence of the NLD points to the legacy of decades of subjugation since the 1962 coup. It appears the population remains deeply isolated and unwilling to demand more from its politicians. A new generation of younger leaders is needed and it appears unlikely to emerge from within the ranks of the NLD.  


Children openly smoke near Yangon in January. Picture credit: Asean Economist