Glass Half Full in Myanmar

Last Sunday evening, I was in midtown Yangon, outside the headquarters of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). I was at a rally with 5,000 other people watching counts from Myanmar’s election announced on a big screen TV. Families, teenagers, elderly people, and groups who would have been afraid to participate in such a rally a few years ago, were there, waving flags, singing NLD songs and cheering wildly as precinct after precinct went to candidates from NLD. It was apparent early on that NLD was sweeping the election, and today the landslide is official.

Having documented ongoing human rights abuses in Myanmar (also known as Burma) for the last five years, I tend to be cynical about change in the country. I have a “glass half empty” attitude, wary of positive spins on democracy and progress touted by individuals, investors, and governments whose top priorities don’t necessarily include human rights. My work regularly brings me to groups and individuals suffering under severe and often overlooked human rights abuses in the country. But Sunday night, amidst the crowd of regular Burmese people openly excited for their future, I forgot my cynicism and had an honest feeling that the glass was half full.

Four days later, writing in the less festive environment of a Yangon tea shop, I still feel that the glass is half full. But only half.

The NLD victory and the fact that the military has not intervened (as it did in the 1990 vote) is surely a positive sign, but in a lot of ways the hardest work remains to be done. The Myanmar constitution ensures that, no matter which political party controls the government, the military still has ultimate power. This is problematic not only for democracy, but also because the military is the perpetrator of so many human rights violations in the country – and these violations will likely continue despite an NLD-led government. For example, in the last five years Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented forced labor in Karen state, torture and extrajudicial killing in Kachin state, and government forces that stood idly by while nationalist extremists slaughtered Muslims and burned their homes in Rakhine state and massacred schoolchildren in central Myanmar – events which resulted in over 100,000 displaced persons.

Today, fighting continues in Kachin and northern Shan states. On election day, the military shot and killed two civilians in Shan state. The election euphoria was clearly absent in the Kachin capital city Myitkyina, where people are more concerned about peace than politics. If the elected government cannot control the military then these violations will not stop.

The military, government ministries it controls, and businesses working with it are major drivers of land confiscation. PHR estimates that at least 100,000 people have lost their land to dams, special economic zones, and agricultural and other development projects since the dictatorship ended in 2011. These land confiscations are driving people into poverty.

Buddhist nationalism also remains a major threat to human rights, and one that the NLD has been reluctant to address. No Muslims were elected to Parliament, in part because most were banned from running by the Union Election Commission, but also because a lot of parties including the NLD refused to let Muslim party members run. This disenfranchisement is particularly acute in Rakhine state, where over a million Rohingya were banned from voting and Rohingya members of Parliament were forbidden from running for re-election. Nationalism enables systematic abuses of the Rohingya and is driving flight and trafficking.

Given the long list of ongoing human rights abuses, it is easy to be pessimistic about Myanmar’s future; but here’s why I think the glass is half full.

Even if the NLD is ushered into a non-democratic government structure in which the military remains dominant, the most recent election resulted in widespread popular engagement in politics. The space to discuss these issues, as well as to engage the government on a few types of human rights abuses, is slowly expanding.

PHR’s partners have engaged government agencies on land confiscation issues to attempt to get fair compensation for displaced persons. We are not yet close to calling this a victory, but at least we are able to sit at the table and discuss the issue with the government. A poll of political parties suggests that land confiscations are the issue that parties are most concerned about. The current Parliament opened a committee to investigate land taken from farmers. Although it has limited powers, it seems to be a small step toward justice for affected people. Civil society groups have engaged the government on LGBTI rights, and the government has had limited talks with ethnic armed groups on how best to deliver health care and education. None of these things would have been possible five years ago, and I feel that it represents the very beginning of engaging the Myanmar government in a human rights dialogue.

The moral arc of Myanmar might be starting to bend toward justice. But the momentum is just starting. We need to continue to document abuses and engage the government, and use this opportunity to bring rights dialogue into the mainstream in the country. This means continuing to support civil society organizations to document abuses and their impacts on people, and then push the government to remedy them. The human rights abuses that have defined the old Burma will not stop with the election of the NLD. But we now have more opportunity to engage the government to develop a culture of human rights in Myanmar.

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