Behind Burma’s cosmetic changes

Zarganar speaking at the birthday celebration of detained democracy leader Min Ko Naing

Humor has always been a major tactic used to illustrate truth in Burma. It comes as no surprise then that after his release, political prisoner and well-known comedian Zarganar has unleashed an onslaught of jokes aimed at Burma’s “new” government. When asked what he thought about President Thein Sein’s efforts at national reconciliation, he said it was like “applying make-up to a paralyzed old woman and sending her out into the street.” Zarganar’s point is a significant one—how much can you dress up something to look like democracy when it is still a broken military system?

There has been a lot of discussion about whether Burma is finally on the path to reform, now that Aung San Suu Kyi is free, and a parliament is in place. However, it is important to look beyond the facade and see the big picture. The major reason why the National League for Democracy and many ethnic groups did not support the 2010 election was because of the new Constitution. Amongst other undemocratic problems, the Constitution is far from democratic and was drafted so that the military has broad and vague powers, and is free from parliamentary control.  Moreover, the eruption of conflict in Northern Burma as well as in Eastern Burma is largely because ethnic groups feel that they do not have equal rights in this “new” government.

The systematic abuses that have been committed against ethnic communities since Thein Sein came to power in March are a strong signal that the military in Burma still has supreme power and autonomy from any control. Even if the Parliament weren’t so heavily dominated by former-military officials and regime cronies, it would still not have the ability to stop mass atrocities. Burma Lawyer’s Council recently released a briefer about how a system of impunity has been embedded into the constitution that subverts the rule of law in the country. Military officers and government officials can still get away with egregious crimes, since there is very little to stop them.

President Thein Sein might be viewed as a reformer, but it is uncertain how much actual power he has with hardliners and top generals still holding powerful positions. There have been periods of small relief like this in the past where Aung San Suu Kyi is able to travel, talks are held, and hope is possible. And yet, each time those hopes were dashed when hardliners made efforts to silence moderates. Furthermore, Thein Sein has been in the inner circle of Than Shwe, the previous dictator, since 1992, so it is likely to assume that even though he may say he wants reforms, Than Shwe is not far behind him pulling the strings.

Even with all the talk of reform, the Parliament does not seem eager to lift even the most basic restrictive laws. On August 30th the Parliament rejected a bill to revoke the Emergency Provisions Act (EPA), an oppressive law that has kept Burma in a state of emergency for decades and gives authorities sweeping powers.

Over 200 political prisoners were released last week, but there are still around 1,700 in prison. At least 350 of those political prisoners are being kept in jail because of the Emergency Provisions Act. Burmese officials can release political prisoners, but the EPA and other ridiculous laws are still in place, and so they can arrest and lock people up again.

Even when good laws are in place they are not often followed. Burma is a signatory to the UN Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but Burma’s military still uses rape as a weapon of war against ethnic women. Burma did pass last week a law allowing labor unions, but we have still yet to see whether it will actually be followed.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that some Burmese officials are working to try and at least present some face of reform to the international community. With important decisions happening at the UN and the ASEAN Summit this fall, Burmese officials want to win over as much support as they can.

Activists praying during the 4th anniversary of the Saffron Revolution

While the international community isn’t paying attention to the ongoing atrocities and humanitarian crisis in ethnic areas, they are alert to what is happening in Rangoon, the main city. This in some respects has given civil society groups room to operate. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy has been able to organize and hold gatherings.

Other activist groups have also begun to test the limits. Last month, on the 4th anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, a group of 200 protestors marched to Sule Pagoda, only to be eventually dispersed by 400 riot police. At the end of August, the major student group in Burma, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, that has had to operate underground for years, stated that they want to become a legal organization. “We just want to test how the government will respond to our activity,” said the group’s spokesperson.

Another youth group, Generation Wave, has also started to have a public face in the country. Hip hop star and former political prisoner Zayar Thaw, a founding member of Generation Wave, has been very active since his release—calling for more youth to join. These brave activists are courageously testing the political waters of the country. There have been no mass arrests of activists recently, though individual arrests and harassment still happen.

Right now activists face the nerve-wracking situation of organizing, and then hoping that another day goes by that they don’t get arrested. When international attention fades will urban activists face the same terrifying fate as their ethnic counterparts?

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