Myanmar: The slow road to democracy

While Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom marks a step towards normality, the fallout from ethnic conflict remains.

    Much work still remains for Myanmar's pro-democracy activists following Aung San Suu Kyi's release [EPA]
    Much work still remains for Myanmar's pro-democracy activists following Aung San Suu Kyi's release [EPA]

    It is not often that you get the chance to be part of a moment that is genuinely historic. But, after more than 20 years of working on human rights in Myanmar, I truly never believed I would get to sit in Oslo and personally witness Aung San Suu Kyi receiving her Nobel Peace Prize. The moment was a true embodiment of the changes happening in Myanmar, which were hard to imagine when I opened Amnesty International's file on the newly jailed prisoner of conscience, Aung San Suu Kyi, in July 1989. 

    When I was previously in Myanmar, nine years ago, my time was restricted to tacking between prisons and government buildings and back again, talking only to government officials or interviewing some 35 political prisoners within three jails. This was in stark contrast with my return to the country this year, where I found a surprisingly new sense of normality. I was able to meet many more people, including released prisoners who had returned to "civilian" life as journalists, doctors, writers and politicians. One friend - a former prisoner of conscience whose case I'd also opened 23 years ago - and I were able to enjoy the novel experience of conversing freely. 

    Suu Kyi: Nobel prize inspired democracy fight

    Progress? Yes. But let's not be fooled by the excitement of seeing Aung San Suu Kyi travelling freely round Europe into thinking that the problems and challenges for Myanmar are over. Some of the more recently released prisoners of conscience are trying to help those who were still behind bars. Others are deploying their skills and experience to work for environmental protection and land rights for farmers. But at least everyone seems happy to talk. It was normal: normal people doing normal things. 
    On the road to Naypidaw, the new capital, we stopped at a half-way point, at one of a string of road houses, in the middle of farmland, with buffalo wandering across the highway and farmers returning from their fields. As we watched TV in that idle way of travellers, I saw images of Suu Kyi campaigning alongside the logo of DVB - Democratic Voice of Burma, the media group-in-exile. That is one thing I never thought I would witness. There was a feeling of optimism for human rights as we saw people increasingly standing up for their rights, whether through farmers' protests, demonstrations against a lack of electricity or strikes among factory workers around Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.

    "As one businesswoman told me: 'Now comes the hard part.'  She's right, of course."

    But, as one businesswoman told me: "Now comes the hard part." She's right, of course. Hundreds of political prisoners are still behind bars, the war in ethnic minority Kachin areas is entering its second year, and ceasefires with other ethnic armed groups are in their fragile infancy. There is much debate about how many political prisoners are still detained and the government has a responsibility to immediately release all those who are imprisoned solely for peaceful political activities.  

    The fallout from ethnic conflict remains - where ceasefires have been brokered successfully between the army and armed groups, the humanitarian needs of those displaced by fighting must be addressed. Meanwhile, the ceasefire between Myanmar's army and the armed Kachin Independence Organisation has broken down. Fighting resumed in June 2011 with Kachin civilians forced to porter for the army, being killed by indiscriminate shelling and having food and property destroyed. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced in the year that this conflict has raged. Sectarian violence also broke out earlier this month in western Rakhine State between the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic minority and the Rohingya, a Muslim minority. 

    Inside Story: What is behind Myanmar's ethnic unrest?

    The Rohingya are another group whose rights are not being respected. They have faced widespread repression and discrimination at the hands of the Myanmar authorities for decades, including being subjected to forced labour, land confiscation and severe restrictions on travel and marriage. They have also been rendered effectively stateless under the 1982 Citizenship Law. An unknown number of people have been killed in Myanmar's western state and houses and businesses have been burned down.

    The reform process is a delicate balance in Myanmar. Amnesty International is encouraging the government to implement what changes can be made immediately: releasing all prisoners of conscience, stopping abuses against Kachin civilians during the ongoing counter-insurgency operation, and protecting both the Rohingya and Rakhine ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Other changes will and must take more time, including legal and judicial reform. The international community should provide assistance in making these reforms, while at the same time continuing to speak out against ongoing human rights abuses. 

    One thing that hasn't changed in Myanmar is the extraordinary courage and resourcefulness of the nation's people. 

    There is much to do, but equally, as Suu Kyi's presence in Europe proves, much to be hopeful for. 

    Donna Jean Guest is deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region at Amnesty International.  She has covered the human rights situation in Myanmar since 1989.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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