Transforming the culture of human rights in Myanmar

For nearly two decades, Myanmar was a key case study in the growth of the international human rights movement, a country beset by systematic denial of basic freedoms of assembly, association and expression. It stifled a once-assertive media; suffered a brutal, decades-long civil war; and incarcerated thousands of political prisoners.

Political and economic reforms since 2011 have done much to improve this dire condition, going even further than some of the government’s critics in the local Myanmar human rights community and international movement could have thought possible. But with these tentative gains come greater challenges to turn promises into reality and address the disastrous effects of 50 years of ruinous military rule.

The world marks Human Rights Day on December 10, a reminder that as Myanmar opens up to new internal and external pressures, economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights will take on more prominence – in some cases, they will demand even more attention than the civil and political rights that have long been at the core of human rights activism aimed at the country.

The right to health, education and basic social services, as well as cultural rights and workers’ rights, are sectors that impact the majority of the country. Yet they have been little-discussed in the past despite their centrality to human rights norms.

Forcible displacement, denial of access to education, lack of safe drinking water and inadequate food production are key ESC rights issues that drive ethnic conflict, yet they are often overlooked by human rights groups that home in on violations of civil rights, political rights and international law.

The tensions may well come from Myanmar communities that wish to promote these rights because they impact more immediately on their everyday realities.

Already, many of the communities protesting against development projects, such as the Letpadaung copper mine, insist on getting access to basic services long denied or only desultorily provided by the state.

In peace negotiations, the right to preserve their own culture is a long-term demand of many ethnic groups that have waged armed conflict with the central state since independence.

Myanmar is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), or their optional protocols. In a positive move, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission recommended in June that the government ratify the covenants and the optional protocols.

Chapter 8 of the 2008 Constitution guarantees many ESC rights, even if they are interspersed with quixotic qualifications about national security and non-disintegration of the union. This chapter purportedly guides the fledging and uneven legal reform process: As new laws are passed and drafted in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, they must be in accordance with the constitution.

ESC rights must be protected from abuses of state power, such as illegal land grabs, but also guaranteed by the state, such as providing adequate housing and helping the elderly and people with disabilities.

Myanmar is party to several international human rights treaties related to ESC rights, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which the former military government signed in the 1990s and which became a hotly contested issue between government officials and women’s groups at international meetings. Another such treaty is the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The immense developmental challenges now facing the country are, more than ever, linked to the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights. As development aid and investment ramp up, ill-conceived or abusive programs pose the danger of exacerbating already deep-seated social inequalities. Communities must insist that development agencies and donors place ESC rights at the core of their program planning.

Fostering a broader understanding of these rights could also serve to address the communal, religious and sectarian fault-lines that frustrate genuine national reconciliation, in solving both the civil war in ethnic states and the conflicts between Buddhist and Muslim communities.

There is a clear way forward to guarantee that the full spectrum of rights are respected, but it will take great effort on the part of authorities.

First, the government needs to ratify the ICESCR and ICCPR and their optional protocols. The government and parliament need to cooperate in ensuring that the rights contained in these covenants, and of course in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are infused throughout the legal reform process, which will go a long way toward averting social instability as Myanmar transforms. Lack of resources for the progressive realisation of ESC rights is no longer an excuse in Myanmar, and already the government has taken laudable steps to increase the health and education budgets.

Second, the government must permit the flourishing of civil society to act as a “transmission belt” for grievances between communities and authorities, to limit disagreements or protests from turning violent through misunderstandings or through the active denial of basic freedoms by local officials.

Already, Myanmar has a robust and increasingly sophisticated civil society sector that is active in promoting ESC rights. Donors and investors also need to see civil society’s promotion of ESC rights not as an annoyance or impediment – and many do, even if they won’t admit it – but as a valuable reflection of local needs.

The government should not be afraid of signing international laws promoting the very rights their own people are demanding, and the universal application of which could avert the ruinous effects of uneven development.