Peace and political reform in Burma: what progress?

Burma’s international rehabilitation continues apace. However, critics argue that the pace of this rehabilitation has been too fast. They say the outcome of the current Constitutional review process is not yet clear; a durable peace deal with the country’s ethnic insurgencies has not been achieved; and inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims persists. There has been criticism of the UK Government for providing some training for the Burmese military.

So, what progress has been made towards peace and on political reform over the last 18 months?

Since the beginning of 2013, the Burmese Government has continued to try and bring the remaining ethnic insurgencies in the country to an end, using a mix of military force and political negotiations to do so. In May 2013 a ceasefire was agreed with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), potentially bringing the last major ethnic insurgency to an end. However, in practice low-level clashes have continued. The ceasefire in Shan State has often been shaky since the beginning of 2013, with periodic clashes between the security forces and rebels. The Burmese Government has proposed that all armed groups should sign a ‘National Ceasefire Accord’. Talks began in March 2014 but have not yet reached fruition. A draft text was agreed in April. Further talks took place on 19-21 May.

Having previously been confined to Rakhine State, inter-communal violence also broke out in central Burma in March 2013. Buddhist mobs attacked Rohingya Muslims, leaving over 12,000 displaced. In July 2013, over 20 Buddhists were convicted in connection with the violence in central Burma. There has continued to be violence in Rakhine State but not on the scale seen in 2012. For example, there was an incident in January 2014 in which the UN claimed that at least 48 Rohingya were killed. The authorities launched an investigation which refuted these claims. At the end of February 2014, Medecins sans frontieres was banned from operating in Rakhine State by the authorities – the ban remains in force.

Since the beginning of 2014 there has been much controversy over official plans, supported by donors and the UN, to hold a census, with many warning that any mishandling of the classification of ethnic identity could foment tension and violence. Buddhist groups in Rakhine State opposed allowing Rohingya to identify themselves as such. With violence rising, the authorities climbed down at the last moment. This tussle illustrated some ‘undemocratic’ side-effects of greater democracy in Burma: the rise in anti-minority sentiment on the part of many ethnic Burmans, often encouraged by militant Buddhist monks. In March, amidst growing anti-Muslim sentiment, President Thein Sein came out in support of legislation to restrict inter-faith marriage, religious conversion and polygamy. An Inter-faith Marriage Act is currently being considered by parliament. The census enumeration process began 30 March and has been extended on several occasions, most recently until 10 June, in order to include ‘hard to reach’ populations.

The ‘Burmese Spring’ had its third anniversary in April 2014. Since the beginning of 2013, the Burmese Government has taken further steps towards political liberalisation – for example, lifting a ban on public gatherings in January 2014, releasing more political prisoners (at least 39 reportedly remain) and establishing a constitutional commission to review the 2008 Constitution, which guarantees the military representation in parliament and, as it stands, rules out Aung San Suu Kyi standing as a candidate for the presidency in 2015 because she is the mother of children who are citizens of a foreign country.

The constitutional commission reported in January 2014 and an ‘implementation committee’ has now been set up which is still at work. Critics argue that the commission skirted around many sensitive issues, such as the current provision guaranteeing 25% of seats in parliament to serving military officers. Constitutional change requires a 75% vote in favour, which means that in practice the military has a veto power. There also remain fears that the bar to Aung San Suu Kyi’s standing for the presidency may not ultimately be removed. The likely candidate for the ruling Union Development and Solidarity Party, Shwe Mann – currently the speaker of parliament – has called for her to be allowed to stand. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot rely on the political representatives of ethnic minority groups to prioritise this issue. Their main objective is a fully federal political system. During May, opposition groups jointly organised rallies in favour of constitutional change. A few days ago, Human Rights Watch accused the Electoral Commission, which many view as still too closely aligned with the military, of threatening and intimidating the National League for Democracy.

Overall, the UK Government is upbeat about the progress being made in Burma since 2011, although it remains a “country of concern” on human rights. A decision to give military training to 30 Burmese military officers on a course conducted in January 2014 by the UK Defence Academy has provencontroversial. Thein Sein visited the UK in July 2013. Aung San Suu Kyi’s most recent visit to the UK was in October 2013. On 8 April 2014, the UK Government published an 18-page document, “UK activities in Burma”, which covers in depth the many aspects of the bilateral relationship.

In April 2013, the European Union (EU) lifted most of the restrictive measures then in force against Burma. Only the arms embargo and restrictions on equipment which could be used for internal repression remain in place. The EU renewed this decision in April 2014. The US has also relaxed its sanctions significantly, although less extensively than the EU. The US Government has re-established defence ties with the Burmese military, carrying out in-country human rights training during 2013.

Jon Lunn