Although China dominated much of the discussion at the 2014 ASEAN Summit, the gathering of the Southeast Asian nations in Myanmar provided the host country an opportunity to showcase the progress it has made since the implementation of key political and economic reforms. Despite these efforts, the country’s political system continues to be fragile and uncertainty over the role of its security sector remains.
The Union of Burma was officially established on January 4, 1948. Unlike most former British colonies, Burma did not become a member of the British Commonwealth. The political system was modeled after a bicameral parliamentary system and multiparty elections were held several times. The civilian government fell victim to a military coup led by General Ne Win in 1962; and since that time, Myanmar’s military has continued to hold either direct or indirect power over the political system.
All aspects of Burmese society were brought under centralized control, including business relations, the media, and all forms of economic production. The Burmese political system was a one-party system headed by the military and all forms of protests against military rule was ruthlessly crushed. The implementation of the Adaptation of Expression Law in 1989 resulted in the name change of Burma to Myanmar and Rangoon to Yangon. However, many countries do not believe Myanmar’s new regime to be legitimate, coming only a year after the military brutally crushed a popular uprising (the 8888 Uprising) in 1988 and just preceding their overturn of a popular election handily won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Most Western liberal democratic states still refer to the country as Burma.
Under the military rule of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces), the country has witnessed enormous human rights violations, including human trafficking and rampant sexual violence. With the heavy censorship of the state media, all forms of anti-military rhetoric and protests have been effectively silenced. Large numbers of anti-military activists and politicians were taken as political prisoners, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Tatmadaw also engaged in violence against ethnic minorities over the years, especially groups in the historically rebellious provinces in the east of the country (e.g., Kachin, Karen, Shan). More recently, the Tatmadaw has increasingly targeted Rohingya Muslims in its western region, whether by refusing citizenship to this ethnic group, limiting their mobility, or even forcefully expelling them. Religious tensions between Myanmar’s Buddhists and Muslims have resulted in ethnic violence and pograms, which the Tatmadaw has only exacerbated by violating the Rohingya’s political and religious freedoms.
Beginning in 2010-11, Myanmar underwent an unprecedented political reform process, initiated by President Thein Sein, a former military commander who adopted a moderate and reformist stance concerning the country’s political system. He would officially dissolve the junta (the State Peace and Development Council) to take power in an elected civilian government, albeit one still dominated by the Tatmadaw. In accordance with a 2008 constitution that outlined a map towards a more democratic political system, Sein’s administration actively pushed to reform the corrupt political system, relax media censorship, eliminate of human rights violations, and the restructure the economic system. Importantly, the reforms included the release of pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest as well as the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission.
The Tatmadaw also engaged in political dialogue with the National League for Democracy, paving the way for by-elections in 2012 that resulted in a significant victory for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. These political reforms seemed to belatedly validate Myanmar’s ASEAN membership, as highlighted in their recent hosting of the latest ASEAN summit. Myanmar’s government also relaxed its censorship of the state media, including the Internet, which allowed the news of these reforms to travel worldwide. The newly established National Human Rights Commission advocates for the release of thousands of political prisoners – though this process has been slow due to the fact that the Tatmadaw still denies the imprisonment of political prisoners.
In order to tackle corruption issues, Myanmar passed a series of anti-corruption laws in 2012 that increased wage labours in the public sector. An investigation into the misuse of funds by various governmental ministries was initiated. Much of these reform policies are targeted towards the reorganization of the country’s economic system, involving both anti-corruption laws and changes in taxation laws in order to attract foreign investment. Notably, in the period after 2011, foreign investment peaked at 20 billion USD, representing a 667 percent increase from the previous year. The sharp increase in foreign investment has strengthened the Burmese currency and the economic liberalization also promises to strengthen the country’s economy through the establishment of regional and international trade relations.
Yet the International Crisis Group outlines some key challenges to the successful implementation of these democratic reforms. Historically, the Tatmadaw has been wary of civilian politics. Support for these reforms largely arises from the fact that the Tatmadaw has kept the power to veto potential changes to the charter. It has also been guaranteed five out of eleven seats on the National Defence and Security Council, which is an institution that has the authority to grant amnesties, as well as the ability to appoint the commander-in-chief and declare states of emergency. The Tatmadaw continues to make key security and military decisions, due not least to its authority over the key ministries of defence, home affairs, and border affairs.
Myanmar remains under international scrutiny for the continued limited freedom of its media as well as the state’s consistent maltreatment of its ethnic minorities. The military seeks to alter this legacy by playing the role of the peacemaker between the central government and marginalized ethnic minorities, as part of a strategy to win the 2015 general elections. For example, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing recently brought the leaders of all major groups to Rangoon for peace negotiations, leading to the approval of a draft national ceasefire agreement, though key points of disagreements must still be dealt with. Undoubtedly, this effort is fueled by the country’s recent liberalization process which has produced high expectations within the international political community.
The key point, as asserted by the International Crisis Group, is that Myanmar’s military still needs to implement further fundamental internal reforms, including the alteration of its international image and perception, the elimination of violence against ethnic minorities, as well as addressing its legacy of abuse and political repression against the Burmese people.
Lema Ijtemaye is a Research and Communications Intern at the Centre for Security Governance.