Yangon, Myanmar – When Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar in November 2012, the country’s leadership unveiled an ambitious reform agenda that promised to set the country on what Obama called a “remarkable journey” towards democracy.
The 11-point plan set out by Myanmar President Thein Sein in 2012, called for the release of some 2,500 political prisoners, wrongfully jailed in the 60 years of authoritarian rule, by the end of 2013. It would also work towards achieving a ceasefire with ethnic groups embroiled in war with the government for more than half a century by January 2013, allow international humanitarian aid to reach conflict-affected areas and allow blacklisted people such as journalists and critics to freely enter and leave the country.
Despite an initial effort that saw some of these undertakings partially realised when the reformist government took power in 2011, the majority of reforms promised by the Thein Sein government have been left largely unfulfilled.
Increasing sectarian violence in Rakhine State has forced an estimated 140,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee from their homes, while unresolved ethnic conflicts in northern Myanmar has resulted in 120,000 people being relocated into IDP camps – issues that have taken the mantel as the region’s most worrisome humanitarian crisis.
At the same time, the government has continued to restrict the access of aid groups to conflict areas, while Medecins Sans Frontieres International, a France-based humanitarian group, was contentiously expelled from the country in February after it reported treating nearly two dozen Rohingya Muslim victims of communal violence.
‘Evidence of backsliding’
With no ending in sight to such issues, government opposition leaders and observers believe Myanmar’s intentions to continue down the path of reform have come to a grinding halt as some see signs that the country is slipping back into its old authoritarian ways.
The military is still a powerful and largely unreformed and unrepentant institution.
“On several key indicators there is definitely evidence of backsliding and in other sectors a slowing down or stasis. In some ways, this was predictable as the reform process is largely as organic as it is inchoate and driven by a small coterie of leaders,” said David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch.
“The military is still a powerful and largely unreformed and unrepentant institution,” he said. “There are many old problems not resolved and new ones that are naturally emerging as reforms take shape.”
Mathieson said that though the country has made unprecedented economic gains, the reform process has faltered on the corrupt legal system, arbitrary power and an overall lack of infrastructure that allowed some officials to continue exerting draconian rule over the country.
“During the period of so-called reforms, we’ve documented some of the most serious international crimes committed by state actors, including abuses that would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. That’s not reform,” said Matthew Smith, founder and executive director of Fortify Rights, citing the recent use of systematic killings and forced labour of ethnic civilians by the military in Rakhine State.
In mid-August, government officials were joined by ethnic rebel leaders in Yangon for the first of several ongoing meetings geared towards a nationwide ceasefire. Though government representatives claim the meetings may soon garner a deal, opposition leaders claim that it is unlikely to succeed as the government has shown little sign of granting ethnic groups greater autonomy.
“It is a political manoeuvre. The government knows that the process will not be held up as the sides at the table don’t trust each other,” said U Nyan Win, spokesman for the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, which is headed by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, adding that although Suu Kyi has offered to be present at the meetings, the government has shown no interest in including her.
To date, the government has refused to change an amendment in the constitution that bars Suu Kyi from running for president with the country’s highly anticipated general elections currently set for November 2015. The government’s refusal to budge on the issue is leading observers to believe the elections will be neither free nor fair.
Stunted reform measures
Myanmar’s noted back-pedalling on reform has not always been the case however, as the government moved to release hundreds of political prisoners from jail and thousands more from its blacklist since 2011. Parliament would meanwhile unleash a whirlwind of new legislation that would allow for foreign investment to flow into the country for the first time in decades.
As a result, the country has been awarded chairmanship of region’s economic union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) though the momentum for change would soon waver.
Despite Thein Sein’s pledge to free all political prisoners by the end of 2013, there were still 69 prisoners of conscience, including nine women, in prisons scattered throughout the country as of July, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.
It would not be long until international actors would begin to take notice. During his visit to Myanmar on August 9, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Myanmar’s leadership against backsliding on advances made since the US relaxed economic sanctions in 2012. The statement came following a strongly worded letter issued by the US Congress just days before pressing Kerry to take action for, as the Congress signatories wrote, “the situation has deteriorated dramatically in key areas”.
Ye Htut, presidential spokesman and the new minister for information, declined to comment when contacted by Al Jazeera, however, Thein Sein reassured the public of his administration’s commitment to the reform process amid building scrutiny during a national radio address on September 2.
“If we realistically examine the current reform process, it is undeniable that we are on the right path and moving in the appropriate direction,” he said. “All of us are doing our part for the success of the reform process through a commitment to nurturing moderation and a new political culture of acting with political goodwill for the benefit of the nation.”
The shrinking of the democratic space runs paradox to Myanmar's efforts at reform and is reflected in the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to freedom of assembly and association.
Human rights vs economic growth
But further relapses have occurred, particularly in press freedom with harsh prison sentences of 10 years being handed to four journalists and the chief executive of the locally-based Unity Journal in July for reporting on an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar. Several other journalists meanwhile await trials for crimes many observers say are trumped up charges for merely reporting.
On July 28, following a 10 day mission to Myanmar, the recently appointed UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, warned of “worrying signs of possible backtracking” in a statement, highlighting the intimidation, harassment, attacks, arrests, and prosecution of journalists for reporting on issues deemed too sensitive or critical of those in power.
“The shrinking of the democratic space runs paradox to Myanmar’s efforts at reform and is reflected in the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to freedom of assembly and association,” Lee told Al Jazeera. “Outdated legislation continue[s] to be applied to stifle freedom of opinion, expression, etc. Moreover, amended laws on freedom of assembly and association are not in line with international standards.”
In the latest fiscal year, foreign direct investment has hit record levels, growing 192.85 percent to reach $4.1bn compared to the year before, according to government data, while the International Monetary Fund has said Myanmar’s economy is poised to grow 8.5 percent this year. Lee said that sustaining growth would not be possible unless Myanmar’s humanitarian issues are promptly dealt with.
“It is a serious mistake when people say that priority should be set on economic growth. What drives the economy are people. Without guaranteeing fundamental basic human rights, no government can be guaranteed of a sustainable growth,” she said.
Still, not everybody agrees.
“Myanmar continues to make good economic progress. New investments, albeit mainly from governments, seem to be announced almost every other day,” said Gregory Miller, country manager at locally based financial advisory firm Myanmar Capital Partners.
“Hardly anyone I talk to about potential investment actually makes the current political situation, freedom of the press, Rohingya and any other pet media subject an issue when considering investment,” he said. “If they did, it wouldn’t just be Myanmar that would face problems.”