BURMA/MYANMAR: Will government overcome the grim?

The world is commemorating International Human Rights Day today, 10 December 2015. However, the mood differs in Burma; the situation in the country is absolutely grim. This is despite the fact that just four weeks ago the Burmese people have finally been permitted, by the ruling military junta, to elect a popular government.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has received information that the Yangon Regional government has vigorously denied permission to the Association of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters-HRDP of Burma to commemorate International Human Rights Day today. The HRDP has held the ceremony for over 10 years even in the face of tremendous difficulties and is the only rights group to do so in Yangon. The AHRC has learned that the Yangon Regional Government gave no reasons for denying permission to celebrate the event today at St. Michael’s Anglican Church.

Although the Burmese people have positively greeted the political change brought by the historic general election, oppression against the public continues. The winning party is formulating the governing background to form a new government on March 2016. People in Burma are still concerned most about having a peaceful transition of power.

The same would be the biggest concern for the new government. It is faced with multiple challenges, like bringing about constitutional reforms, ongoing internal insurgencies in certain parts of the country, and a continuation of military interference in every institution in the country.

All that the country has achieved, under a half a century of military dictatorship, is turning it into the second poorest country in Asia. It is fourteenth out of 15 countries in South Asia and the Pacific region in the rule of law index besides being one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Despite the peace talks and a nationwide ceasefire agreement, ongoing fighting between ethnic armed groups and the Burmese military has caused thousands of Internally Displace Persons (IDPs). These displaced IDPs, including women and children, are living in fear while suffering other privations. Systematic human rights abuses such as arbitrary detention, sexual violence, torture, and forced labor in the conflict area have also been reported.

The military is playing the major role in the legislature, judiciary and administrative departments of the country. According to the 2008 constitution, 25 percent of the parliamentary seats are reserved for military representatives. They have veto power to decide whether or not to amend the constitution. Further, four out of seven judges of the Supreme Court are former military officials. The real challenge is to find a way to eliminate the corruption and bribery in the judiciary.

Former military officials have appropriated administrative positions in most of the government departments. The takeover is being opposed by the Yellow ribbon movement launched in September 2015. This movement is demanding an end to the practice of appointing military officers as judicial officers in the Burmese courts, or in other words, the end of militarization of the judiciary. It was inspired by the Black Ribbon movement, which was initiated by health officers who opposed appointing military officers to the health department.

The quasi-military government has also been trampling upon freedom of expression and speech. It had brutally cracked down on the non-violent student protest that sought to amend the National Education Law in March this year. The crackdown resulted in the arrest of hundreds of students with some of them later being released on bail. More than 60 students are still detained in prison for more than eight months while awaiting trial.

The students had exercised their rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association, but their rights have been denied and they have been put under partial “litigation”. Earlier this year, one of the writers, Htin Lin Oo, was charged with insulting religion for criticizing the people and monks who used Buddhism as a tool to discriminate. Though Htin Lin Oo was following the true norms and values of Buddhism, he was sentenced to two years of rigorous imprisonment. This is the maximum punishment under Section 295(A) of the Penal Code that deals with ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feeling of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.

Many land and labor rights activists have also been arbitrarily arrested for engaging in peaceful protests.

From the balance sheet of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, one can clearly see is that it is detached from the public and is completely politicized. The commission did not effectively or independently resolve even a single complaint, out of more than 3600 complaints, after the reform of the commission in 2014.

The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the international community to closely observe the situation of the Burmese reform process during this important time. Burma, this year, becomes one of the signatory countries of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The AHRC believes that people, in general, will have the freedom to express their political will under the new government. On the occasion of International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2015, the AHRC calls upon the government of Burma to release all political prisoners. They should ensure freedom of movement despite intimidation, arbitrary arrests, torture and all other inhuman practices and ill-treatment.