19 Jul 2013 Without increased pressure from the US and UK, the apparatus of Burma’s military dictatorship will continue to exist, says Mike Harris
This article was first published at the Daily Telegraph
If you want to know how much has changed in Burma
since the much-vaulted transition, try and put on a punk gig in the
capital, Rangoon. It’ll take two months and require the signatures of
eight bureaucrats from varying levels of government. You may never get
permission. But to punks in Burma, the idea they may even be able to
play publicly at all is progress.
This is transition Burma, a country full of contradictions where the military no longer hold captive Aung San Suu Kyi
and have released some of the thousands of her fellow political
prisoners — yet the full apparatus of the military state still exists.
The worry is, while the UK and US drop sanctions and William Hague took
the time to congratulate President Thein Sein in London for the progress
made, little is being done to keep this progress on track. With the
army implicit in the ethnic cleansing
of the Rohingya Muslims and the country on the verge of widespread
unrest, Burma is merely a few steps away from a full blown military
The transition to civilian rule is supposed to be making steady
progress, yet power lies in the same place — with the military. As one
journalist told us, “the generals have only changed their suits.” The
sight of Aung San Suu Kyi alongside 43 of her National League for
Democracy compatriots elected to Parliament in 2012 was hugely symbolic.
But it is no more than symbolism for the League to hold an eleventh of
the seats in the lower house.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a front for the
old military junta, still controls all the main institutions of state.
The USDP controls the presidency, nearly half the seats in the lower
house and over half the seats in the upper house of the Burmese
parliament. When the seats directly appointed by the military are
included, the USDP has an overwhelming majority in both chambers. The
majority of these USDP parliamentarians are former army officers or
government officials with strong military connections. The lifting of
economic sanctions will prompt new trade with Burma, but the West will
be dealing directly with these generals who control both the state and
many of the major economic interests.
While we were still watched by the secret police when we returned in
2013, we could operate openly. People came over freely to speak to us.
Burma is now a country where comedian Zarganar
(released from jail in October 2011) performs satirical skits on
corruption with the President apparently watching on TV. Artists are
pushing the boundaries of political art, Burmese producers mock the
government with films such as “Ban that scene” that parodies the
mean-spirit and laziness of bureaucratic censors and — for the first
time — horror films are being made inside the country legally.
Politics is vibrant too. Cafe88 in Mandalay hosts political
discussions that were illegal just a few years ago by former political
prisoners, TV celebrities and journalists. The media is more free as
well. Daily newspapers are back on sale and the infamous censorship
boards that ruined courageous journalism by painting physically over
articles with black ink have been abolished.
This new freedom, months old, is perilously fragile. As Index’s
report on Burma found, the transition is not underpinned by essential
legal and political reform. The current atmosphere of freedom stems from
the police and security services not using their powers to curtail free
speech. The full apparatus of the military state exists — it just isn’t
being employed to the same extent — at the moment.
For instance, using an email account for “political purposes”
carries a prison sentence of 15 years. If you use more than one account
your sentence can be increased by 15 years per email address.
Restrictions on public protest or performance are extremely strict,
particularly outside Rangoon. At the start of this month, Time Magazine
was banned under emergency legislation after it led with a front cover
of nationalist monk U Wirathu and the title, “The Face of Buddhist
Terror”. The ban criminalised the possession of even a single copy of
Time. Meanwhile newspapers face the threat of a new press law that would
bring in statutory regulation of the press.
President Thein Sein told Chatham House that in Burma “free speech
exists … but of course more freedom can and will be granted when there
is increased understanding of the duties and responsibilities that go
with it.” This isn’t good enough. To protect free speech the government
needs to put in place reform now. Pleasantries at Downing Street and
congratulations at the Foreign Office can’t mask the fact that progress
has stalled. The UK mustn’t allow President Thein Sein to get away with
stalling reform until after the next election in 2015.
Unless the UK, EU and US are willing to put sanctions back on the
table and in the meantime insist on a clear road map for reform, an
incredible opportunity for a military dictatorship to become a civilian
democracy will be lost.
Mike Harris is Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship. @mjrharris