Crackdowns on ethnic armies and journalists have raised fears that the reform process is going into reverse
The Nation October 10, 2014 1:00 am
Nobody expected it to be a walk in the park when Myanmar’s military rulers announced they were loosening their iron grip and steering the country towards democracy.
But after half a century of military rule, anything was a breath of fresh air.
Needless to say, the move was welcomed by the international community, and foreign investors rushed in to secure their place and get a head start when sanctions and other restrictions applied by their home countries were lifted.
Since the reform process started in early 2011, the country has also witnessed a steady release of political prisoners from jail. The most notable was, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for a decade and a half.
This week, the government announced that it would release another 3,000-plus prisoners for the sake of “peace and stability” and “the rule of law”, though the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says the pardon covers no political prisoners. About 75 remain in detention, according to the NGO.
But, amid the positive developments unfolding in Myanmar, there is real anxiety that the military could reverse the process and reapply its iron grip, though few are willing to talk openly about their fears.
Such concern is understandable: the oppressive laws that permit the government to detain people for criticising its actions are still in place.
Sad to say, the trend of positive reform is beginning to crumble. Observers had been hoping the recent reverses were just temporary hiccups, but they now fear a sea change against reform.
One sign is the authorities’ treatment of the news media. Journalists are facing increasing intimidation, and being imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour merely for doing their job. The website of The Irrawaddy, a respected weekly magazine, was hacked a few days ago, likely in response to its reports on meetings between controversial nationalist monk U Wirathu and his Sri Lankan counterparts.
It now appears that the political space the top brass had initially allowed is being gradually closed again. In a way this is a wake-up call for the citizenry and the international community, an indication that real change will only come if and when the generals say so.
Another victim of the reform reversal is the ethnic Rohingya and their fellow Muslims in Myanmar. The Rohingya, who have been living under apartheid-like conditions for decades in Rakhine State, are not recognised as citizens. The authorities call them illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
A campaign to boycott Muslim businesses is being led by hard-line Buddhist monks. Meanwhile, authorities are turning a blind eye to attacks on Muslims’ homes and villages.
There has also been talk of making peace with the ethnic armies that have been fighting wars of independence for decades. Negotiations are ongoing, but it didn’t take long for the true colours of the military to emerge.
Renewed fighting in Karen State and heavy shelling in Shan State show what a hollow and hypocritical stance the government is taking as it pushes for a national ceasefire.
This half-hearted behaviour is making a mockery of its supposed push for peace. In this and other areas, hope that the reform process was pushing Myanmar forward on the road to democracy is now being eroded.