`Is Burma finally becoming a truly democratic nation or do Burma`s

Is Burma finally becoming a truly democratic nation or do Burma’s ethnic nationals tell
a different story?
Recently the Burmese government have received international praise for their efforts to
lead Burma into a democracy. President Obama even made an unprecedented visit to
Burma in November of 2013. However, Burma’s journey towards democracy is in its
early stages and the plight of Burma’s ethnic nationals seems to indicate that Burma is a
long way from the eventual goal of democracy.
In many ways, Thein Sein’s government is taking steps towards democracy. For
example, there have been improvements in the relationship between the Burmese
government and the leader of the democratic party, Aung Sang Suu Kya. Her release
from house arrest, alongside movements towards involving her more in political issues,
are examples of Burma taking small steps towards democracy. The results of this move
towards democracy are also evident in the lives of other Burmese citizens: there has
been a slight easing on media restrictions, the release of over 900 political prisoners
(although the UN has requested that they release all political prisoners) and liberalizing
reforms actioned in Rangoon and Naypyidaw which are beginning to initiate change in
ethnic national areas.
Furthermore, the Burmese government appears to be open to negotiating peace with
the ethnic minorities in Burma. This is demonstrated through the peace talks held on 20
February 2013 between government peace negotiators and 11 ethnic resistance groups.
They discussed methods of rebuilding trust between the ethnic nationals and the
government. They also agreed to facilitate further talks to attempt to resolve the
ongoing crisis in Kachin, where there has been fighting between the Kachin
Independence Army and government forces. These discussions are so important
because they signify that the government is showing some readiness to work alongside
the ethnic people.
However, the significant progress being made is undermined by the rift between the
proclaimed good intentions of the government and the actions of the Burmese military
towards ethnic nationals. An illustration of this is the continuing military offences
against the Kachin and Shan people. The Burmese army have violated ceasefires and
used rape as a weapon of war. Their other offences include the confiscation of land,
forced relocation of citizens, torture and killings. These atrocities have resulted in tens
of thousands of these citizens fleeing to the jungle where they face severe depravation.
In particular they face shortages of food, clean water, shelter and medicine. The
government has also denied international humanitarian aid to these internationally
displaced people, even though this conflicts with international humanitarian law.
Similarly, in the Chin State there are army units stationed in every village which has
resulted in severe persecution in the form of forced labour, slavery (there is a 70 000
strong child army) and rape. Despite the fact that this clearly contradicts the
government’s proclaimed intention to promote democracy and peace, there have been
no disciplinary measures to stop police and military action since 1962.
The Burmese army is able to commit these atrocities against the ethnic nationals
because the Burmese constitution does not have adequate rulings in place to prevent
‘the inevitability of the generals ruling in one form or another.’1 This means that the
Burmese army is able to live according to a different law than the Burmese people are
subject to. For example, military-owned corporations are not taxed as other Burmese
businesses are. The revenue stream from this could be spent on measures that would
Peter Popham, author of ‘The Lady and the Peacock’
have a positive impact on all Burmese citizens such as health and education programs.
Despite the efforts the government is making to nudge Burma towards democracy,
significant progress will not occur until there is a governing force to hold the military
accountable for their actions.
Moreover, the constitution also prevents the people (particularly ethnic national
people) from speaking out against injustices committed against them. The government
who passed the constitution in 2008 restricted the right to speak against it by passing a
law that sentenced anyone criticizing the constitution to time in prison. This mentality is
still very much alive today and this can be demonstrated by the policies enacted by the
Burmese regime based on keeping the ethnic nationals subjugated. Many ethnic
nationals are denied free education after grade 10, indigenous languages are banned
and free medical facilities are virtually non-existent. Keeping the ethnic nationals
depraved means that they are voiceless when it comes to speaking out against the
Burmese regime and military. This results in a situation where, although democracy is
the common goal, the dominating faction (the military) are not held accountable for
their actions and the less powerful group (the ethnic nationals) are unable to protest
when their human rights are not adhered to. A democracy cannot be formed on this
So is Burma becoming a democratic nation? Although we can safely say that Burma is
not a truly democratic nation yet, it is difficult to decisively say whether Burma is on the
road to becoming one. It is definitely merited to say that President Thein Sein and others
have made significant attempts to promote a transition to democracy. However, this
does not mean that we should overlook the fact that, in practice, Burma’s ethnic
nationals do not have the right to speak out against their oppressors in regards to
humanitarian issues. This is in fundamental opposition to the principals of democracy.
Megan Brickley
875 words