A remarkable set of meetings took place this week in Rangoon, with more than 650 representatives from Burmese civil society groups gathering to discuss the status of the country’s reform process.
Today the group issued a scathing report on the stalled reform effort. After acknowledging advances in the first period of the transition, in particular the government’s release of most political prisoners and the loosening of censorship and surveillance, the report minced no words. The transition process has excluded opposition actors, ethnic minority groups, and civil society. Burma’s parliament is “no more than window-dressing.” In some cases, the report noted, “situations have regressed.”
The report noted a worsening atmosphere for freedom of expression and lack of meaningful progress on legal reform. “In the first few years, people thought that freedom of expression was growing, but now it is under threat,” said one steering committee member.
Most pressing of all, the group said, is the fact that prospects have dimmed for reforming Burma’s deeply flawed, military-authored 2008 constitution, which subordinates civilian rule to the military and gives military officers 25 percent of parliamentary seats, ensuring the military’s capacity to veto constitutional amendments. “Myanmar cannot be said to have genuine democracy,” the group noted, “until the 2008 Constitution is amended and Parliament is fully elected by the people.”
Meanwhile, the report notes, much of Burma’s citizenry remains in poverty and many are at continuing risk of violence. The liberalization of the economy has mainly benefitted the elite class, it said.
Armed conflict has continued or resumed in several ethnic areas, the group said, and there has been a breakdown in ceasefire talks between the army and ethnic groups. There’s been no progress on a more comprehensive political settlement with ethnic groups. Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced in conflict areas, even as the government continues to sell land concessions to companies that undertake extractive mining, logging, or clearing of land for rubber plantations.
“The economy is in the hands of the army and its cronies,” said one of the group’s leaders in Rangoon.
The report is well timed. In four weeks, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other Asian countries will meet in Burma at the annual ASEAN summit and East Asia Summit. The event may be the last and best chance for foreign leaders to press the government and army – still the real power behind the scenes – to deliver on commitments for genuine democratic reform. US President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, incoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and others should press Burma’s president, Thein Sein, to publicly commit to constitutional reform ahead of the 2015 elections, undertaking legal reforms that uphold the fundamental freedoms of all Burmese, and ensuring protections for vulnerable minorities, particularly ethnic Rohingya and other Muslims.
Today’s unified statement by Burma’s civil society should end the wishful thinking present in capitals around the world about the state of the reform process in Burma. It’s up to Obama and other world leaders to deliver the message to Burma’s government.