Burma watch

A Difficult Time in Transition As 2017 begins, hopes that the transition to peace and democracy in Burma will be quick or easy are being severely tested. After half a century of military rule, few citizens expected that political progress would be smooth. But the scale of new challenges within a year of the National League for Democracy assuming office has ensured that any honeymoon period has been short. Initially, all had appeared to be going well. This was highlighted at the “21st Panglong Peace Conference” in late August, when over 1,000 attendees from across the country met together to discuss nationwide peace and federal reform. Subsequently, however, a number of regressive trends have emerged to overshadow initiatives for national reconciliation. Following fatal attacks on the police by a militant Islamist group in the Rakhine state, the national armed forces (Tatmadaw) launched an intensive security operation affecting the local Muslim population, many of whom self-identify as “Rohingya”. More than 1,500 homes were reportedly destroyed, at least 30,000 inhabitants fled their homes, and over 80 people died, prompting an international outcry. At the same time, despite the success of the Panglong meeting, the Tatmadaw intensified military operations against ethnic armed organisations in the Kachin and northern Shan states, which launched counter-attacks in return. Another 20,000 local inhabitants were internally displaced, as the Tatmadaw brought in attack aircraft in the heaviest use of aerial power in Burma’s modern history. Presently, there are around 500,000 displaced persons in the different ethnic borderlands. Finally, in urban areas, too, there have been concerns about the country’s democratic fragility as growing numbers of charges are brought under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. With the NLD’s advent to office, many citizens thought that this controversial law would be consigned to history. But its use is currently on the rise, and in January the Tatmadaw reportedly sued nine students for “defamation” in a propeace play they staged in Pathein. Hopes of peace and reform, however, are not lost. Both in Burma and abroad, the widespread perception is that most recent setbacks are due to Tatmadaw hardliners using their powers under the 2008 constitution to re-assert their dominant position. This criticism was expressed on a January visit by the UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee who singled out “three legs of the government” (i.e. the Tatmadaw-controlled ministries of home, defence and border affairs) that are creating an uphill battle for human rights while the NLD is still new in government. The stage is delicately set. Liberal change has undoubtedly come to many aspects of national life during the past few years. International aid has continued to grow and, despite the current setbacks, many initiatives are underway in the fields of education, health and economic reform. In 2017, the NLD is promising to get its reform programme back on track. But to sustain democratic progress, there are two warnings from Burma’s troubled history: first, nationwide peace is essential; and second, the NLD has to move from advocating to implementing national reform. Its success will depend on this.