For some, things in Burma are looking good.
The country has seen a transition from a military junta to a civilian government. After 15 years of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is now not only free, but a Member of Parliament. The censor in chief has closed his office after almost fifty years of suppressing free expression.
The international community is ecstatic, eager to reward the Southeast Asian nation for its progress, and who better to shower with accolades than its president? Thein Sein is set to receive the International Crisis Group’s top peace award in 2013 after losing out on a Nobel Peace Prize. He, along with Aung San Suu Kyi, has also been listed in Foreign Policy’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, and made TIME’s top ten in their informal poll for Person of the Year. Singapore’s national broadsheet The Straits Times has also recently named him their inaugural Asian of the Year.
But are these honourable mentions premature? Changes as radical as the ones the Burmese government claims to be taking place do not occur overnight. Nor do they reflect the realities that lie under the surface, such as the devastating ethnic violence against the Rohingya in Western Burma and the ongoing civil war in Kachin State.
The political situation in Burma is better than it was, but it is still a hotspot for human rights abuses. Activists are still in prison, dissidents are still being killed, and the blessings of detached commentators in the West do little to hide the fact that little has changed for many of the country’s citizens.
Straight from his re-election, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president in history to visit Burma, or Myanmar, as its rulers prefer it to be known. His visit was hugely symbolic, a pat on the back for the highest achiever in the developing-countries stakes. But ultimately, there are political agendas at work behind the scenes, and it largely boils down to money.
As Obama noted at the beginning of his speech at Yangon University, it stands as the gateway between the two highest populated countries on the planet, India and China, and bridges South and Southeast Asia. The economic potential for the country is huge, and the reforms are helping to turn that potential into a reality.
However, activists and commentators from the region tell another story about the transition, and the implications for Burma’s ethnically varied population.
Debbie Stothard is the spokesperson for human rights group Altsean Burma, and has been monitoring the changes. “If you analyse all the legislative and institutional changes that have taken place, you can see how the open door policy has changed things in Burma,” she says. “In those [pre-reform] days people were always worried about whether they could get a visa. Now, the main stress is whether they can get a hotel room.”
While she recognises that there are some positives to come from this newfound openness, she also advises caution: there is a purpose to the transitions in Burma, and some conditions have actually deteriorated. “All these changes have been geared towards convincing the international community to lifting all economic sanctions, and also to attracting as much foreign investment as possible,” she says.
Away from the government’s international hard sell, life is getting tougher for some of Burma’s residents. The recent violence in Arakan State has forced up to an estimated 100,000 people, mainly Rohingya Muslims, to flee the country. Aung San Suu Kyi has been the darling of the Western media for two decades, but has faced criticism for failing to speak out on this issue. The largely Buddhist government has done little to quell or settle the violence, and has even been accused of supporting the use of force against the Rohingya population. The country has seen pro-government Buddhist monks marching to support the expulsion of Rohingya, demonstrating how much has changed since the Saffron Revolution of 2007, when monks were shot by the Burmese military during anti-government protests. At the same time, fighting continues between the Kachin Independence Organisation and the state military in Kachin State after a 17-year ceasefire was broken last year.
For Ehna Doh, editor of Karen newspaper Kwe Ka Lu, Arakan State is not the only part of Burma seeing things get worse. He recently returned from documenting scenes around the deep sea-port project planned in Dawei. The project, which has attracted large-scale investment from neighbouring Thailand, is aimed at attracting even more international investment into Burma by developing a special economic zone. However, it has also come under fire from both sides of the border; an editorial in the Bangkok Post described it as a project that is now “short of money, backers, business confidence and popular support.”
“It will not bring much economic [benefits] to the local people. The most of the beneficiaries will be the developers, such as Thailand, the ITD and the government of Burma,” Ehna Doh explains. “You know, Burma is open, but the economic policy and environmental policy is not that strong; the Army is still in control of most of the major economic [changes] and corruption is rife”.
While the economic model is laid out for developers to take advantage of the area, Ehna Doh is concerned that the pressure to open up to foreign investment and trade will overshadow the lack of safeguards or laws to prevent unethical treatment of the local villagers or surrounding land. New legislature in Burma is geared towards the government having overall control over land rights, which legalises arbitrary land confiscation if it is considered to be in the national interest. The industrial developments also carry environmental concerns. “The situation on the ground is not improved; the local people will face eviction, [there will be] environmental problems, lands being grabbed or destroyed, and there are no laws to prevent this,” he says.
After all is said and done, there have been changes and improvements made in the Burmese socio-political sphere. But just because one is out of hell does not mean they have reached heaven, and this fairytale has not ended ‘happily-ever-after’. An over-idealisation of the Burmese democratic transition in the West has largely aided the economic drive and perpetuated an attitude of ignorance of the situation in Burma where human rights abuses are now linked to business activities. As Debbie Stothard says, “In the past human rights violations in Burma were perpetrated by men with guns. Now we are beginning to see them perpetrated by men with guns accompanied by men with briefcases.”