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Human Rights Abuses Rampant in Myanmar While Fair Elections Remain Elusive

The country's slow democratization continues to be marred by mass humanitarian and electoral issues.
Photo by David Longstreath/AP

Amid increasing shows of liberalism from Myanmar's civilian leadership and a burgeoning economy, it would be easy to mistake the progress the country has made in the years since military rule dissolved in 2011 for sweeping reform.

But with the continued uncertainty surrounding planned elections in 2015 and consistent reports of the suppression of human rights and freedom of speech, the process of Myanmar's seemingly steady democratization points to a grimmer reality, one that remains mired in the inequality and bloodshed that has dominated the state's modern history.


The nation of over 51 million, many of which still reside in rural villages and townships, has come a long way since the junta released its tight grip on the country and ceded power to the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein more than three years ago.

The military's release of thousands of political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her 15-year house arrest late in 2010 (though after a highly fraught and dubious election in favor of a military-backed party), and easing of press restrictions are exemplary of measures previously unheard of in the Southeast Asian nation under the junta's dictatorship.

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The recent lifting of US-led sanctions has allowed the passage of greater trade and foreign investment and put an economic heartbeat back into the natural-resource rich nation, though at the cost of potential corruption and mushrooming wealth inequality. Myanmar's ascension to the seat of host for the regional economic power group the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has also proved its growing legitimacy as an expanding market economy.

But an economy does not a democracy make.

Last week, Myanmar's electoral commission announced that by-elections to fill 35 seats in the legislature that were planned for later this year would be cancelled ahead of the Asean summit in November and preparations for the 2015 general election.


Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy party (NLD), said that while it was unenthused about the by-elections, the electoral commission's decision to cancel them did not bode well.

Skepticism surrounds next year's elections, which are expected to be held in November. As it stands, a quarter of Myanmar's legislature in the upper and lower houses are held by military appointees and the rest are elected by voters.

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Suu Kyi, for her part is still battling to run at all. A constitutional rule, written by the junta and effected in 2008, disqualifies the 67-year-old activist from holding the presidency because she has two sons who are foreign nationals — both were born to Suu Kyi's late British husband.

The US state department has backed Suu Kyi's push to make the elections more free and fair, requesting the Myanmar government make moves to amendment the constitution, though time for the Nobel peace laureate is fast running out.

In addition to Myanmar's electoral woes, reports of rampant human rights abuses have increased along the country's northern border regions, where the military has been accused of systematically torturing ethnic Kachin civilians. Meanwhile, in Myanmar's second-poorest region of Rakhine, the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority lives in conditions comparable to apartheid.

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In June, Thailand-based NGO Fortify Rights International released a report detailing horrific abuses as a result of renewed fighting between government forces and ethnic separatists in Kachin and Shan States.

In some documented cases, civilians with perceived sympathies toward the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were forced by government authorities to dig their own graves, while others were raped, tortured, brutally beaten, and forced to lick pools of their own blood.

"Next to nothing is being done to stop the abuses, let alone hold perpetrators accountable, and that needs to change if Myanmar is ever going to find peace in ethnic territories," Matthew Smith, the report's author told VICE News when the report was released.

A International Committee of the Red Cross report on the experiences of displaced people in Kachin state in North East Myanmar.

Violence remains unbridled in Rakhine, where simmering sectarian tensions between the region's Buddhist majority and Muslim minority group have resulted in scores of deaths — though the exact number remains unconfirmed — in which the government and Buddhist-dominated military have reportedly been complicit.

An estimated 140,000 Rohingya civilians have also been displaced by the clashes, many of them forced to live in squalid refugee camps, and have been denied medical care after the state expelled humanitarian NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres from its borders in March.


On Wednesday, UN officials who visited Rakhine said the humanitarian situation is "stabilizing" thanks to the efforts of aid organizations, but is still "unacceptably dire for far too many people."

A backtracking of the government's previous willingness to relax restrictions on journalists and freedom of speech is also indicative of Myanmar's somersaulting political reforms in recent months.

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Amnesty International has condemned Myanmar's crackdown on political expression. Prison sentences were recently handed down to journalists as well as activists holding peaceful protests and anti-government marches.

A new "Printers and Publishers Registration Law," introduced earlier this year appears to undermines an earlier "Media Bill" seeking to expand the rights and freedom of the press.

The new bill prohibits the any material seen to threaten "national security, rule of law or community peace and tranquility," and allows the government to revoke any licenses granted to media organizations. Travel restrictions and court orders have also prevented local and foreign reporters from documenting some of the country's more controversial topics in restive areas such as Rakhine and Kachin.

Three years after official military rule ended, the scars of violence and repression have seemingly reopened in the lead-up to a highly contestable "free" election. The test for the international community is to find a balanced solution that stems both further economic and humanitarian repression of Myanmar's people.


Members of congress called for a change in US policy toward Myanmar to prevent the further "backsliding" of its reform commitments ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to the country last month.

The US threat of restoring broader sanctions may press Myanmar's government to make some of the necessary constitutional reforms ahead of next year's elections, but it will also require broader cooperation and engagement from the regional business community to withhold foreign investment from those areas where human rights abuses seemingly continue unabated.

VICE News' Danny Gold and Scott Pham contributed to this report.

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Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields