Monks protesting on the streets of Myanmar. The political change that began in 2011 has gradually strengthened freedom of expression in Myanmar.
Photo: Racole/Creative Commons
Developments in Myanmar (Burma)
The situation in Myanmar is very complex, with a series of political, social, ethnic and economic problems that are difficult to resolve individually, and even more difficult to find a common solution to. After 50 years of military rule, the country now has a largely democratically elected government, which is facing major challenges.
For a number of years, Myanmar has been undergoing a threefold transition: from isolation to openness, from military rule to democracy, and from war to peace. These processes run in parallel and all demonstrate difficulties. Despite this, the new Government has legitimacy with the people and the opportunities for economic growth have been strengthened, partly due to the lifting of international sanctions, at the same time as the Government is taking measures to facilitate foreign investment.
An advisory commission led by international experts has been appointed to manage the internal strife in Rakhine State, the peace process has become more inclusive and many political prisoners have been released.
But the vast majority of people still have a deep distrust of the authorities that derives from historically rooted exclusion and inequality. There is also a major lack of capacity in the hierarchical state administration that functions according to military norms and structures.
Myanmar is characterised by its diversity of ethnic groups (the official figure is 135), with most having a claim to territory, natural resources and self-determination. There is also religious diversity and religious intolerance towards dissent.
Ever since Myanmar became an independent state in 1948, some of the country's ethnic minorities have led an armed struggle for independence. The fighting and oppression of minorities have led to refugee flows within the country and to neighbouring countries. One of the reasons behind General Ne Win's coup in 1962 was to end the plans for increased autonomy for minority peoples.
Conflicts still continue in the states of Kachin and Shan in north-eastern Myanmar and Rakhine in the west. The national truce agreement has only been signed by 8 out of a total of 21 ethnic armed groups.
The minority peoples in Myanmar have limited autonomy and are severely economically disadvantaged. Their access to education and health care is much worse than for Burmese. Near the Bangladeshi border in Rakhine State lives a Muslim minority of about a million inhabitants, Rohingya, who are particularly vulnerable. Rohingyas are stateless, not recognised as an ethnic group and lack civil rights. They are described by the UN as one of the world's most discriminated peoples.
From military rule to democracy
The military has mismanaged economic and social policy for 50 years. This has led to a stagnant economy, a deteriorating education system and a health system considered the second worst in the world by the World Health Organization (WHO). The seizure of power in 1962 was followed by a wave of nationalisation, dismantling of civil society, isolation from the outside world, the introduction of a one-party system and more comprehensive control and surveillance of citizens. Dissatisfaction with policy culminated in extensive demonstrations in August 1988, which were met by a military coup and massacres of protesters.
November 2015 saw free general elections to parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory. Despite massive popular support, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been the best known individual in the fight for freedom in Myanmar, could not take office as president due to the Constitution's strict wording that the president's family members may not hold non-Burmese citizenship.
30 March 2016 was a historic day when President Htin Kyaw and the largely democratically elected Government were sworn into parliament. For many, this was the day they had been waiting for many years. Despite a well-known democratic deficit in the Constitution, the country now has a president and a government that represent the will of the people, even though 3 out of 18 ministers have been chosen by the military from among their own members.
According to the president, the new Government will prioritise national reconciliation and peace, improved living conditions for the people and the creation of a Constitution based on democratic principles in order to establish a federal union.
With a solid majority in both the upper and lower houses, Aung San Suu Kyi's Government has the opportunity to implement changes in Myanmar, but this opportunity is limited by the military's veto on constitutional change. Since the Government came to power, some of the repressive laws previously used to harass and oppress activists and dissidents have been removed or reformed, but much remains to be done.
Already after a week or so, the new Government also released a further 300 political prisoners. There now remain around 100 political prisoners, and more than 100 awaiting trial, charged with offences that could be considered political or concern the exercise of freedom of expression or assembly.
Respect and protection of many of the most fundamental human rights continue to face major challenges in Myanmar.
Free and independent media
One of the more obvious signs of the recent political reforms includes a more open media climate. Pre-publication censorship on print media was lifted in 2012. However, decades of hard state control has led to a significant self-censorship among journalists.
Considerable parts of the censorship for political information on the internet have ceased. Privately owned newspapers are allowed for the first time in nearly 50 years. Exile media has played an important role in the independent news reporting and in recent years has returned and now acts openly within the country. New media legislation is being developed.
Poverty and inequality in Myanmar
Myanmar is ranked 148 on the UN Human Development Index. According to the latest data from the World Bank, 32 per cent of the population (nearly 17 million people) live in poverty in Myanmar, and further third live just above the poverty line.
This latter group is considered extremely vulnerable and at risk of once again falling into the poverty trap when they are exposed to crises, often related to health problems. Women are affected to a greater extent than men. The poorest are also heavily in debt.
In rural areas, poverty approaches 40 per cent, and the majority of the poor live in those parts of the country that are most frequently exposed to natural disasters. Poverty is also related to the size of families and to a low level of education. Inequality between the financially most vulnerable and the financially strongest groups in society are estimated to have increased in recent years.