Burma: Liberalisation to conceal repression?

Burma, also known as Myanmar, held its first elections in 20 years in November 2010, and the new ‘civilian’ government took office in March 2011. However, as many international observers have reported, the elections were fraudulent and undemocratic. A quarter of the seats on Parliament are reserved for the military, and a military-backed party controls 80% of the rest. According to reports, the government continues to imprison political opponents,  use convicts as human shields for the military, violently repress ethnic minorities, silence critics through censorship of the press, and limit access to information through surveillance of the internet, among other claims. The result is absolute military rule wearing the mask of democracy; a mask that the government thinks it can continue to wear as long as it controls the press and the internet.

According to reports, the government routinely suspends independent newspapers for publishing politically-tinged articles. Twenty-three journalists are in prison and have allegedly been tortured for information on their colleagues. Police raid the internet cafes and in May, the government sent new regulations to internet cafes which ban the use of USB drives, hard disks, CDs, and internet telephony programs like Skype. This is in addition to previous regulations that require internet cafes to keep clients’ personal data and information about their internet activities. The 1996 Electronics Act, which covers the Internet, TV and radio and is routinely used to imprison reporters, also bans the private use of modems without a permit. These actions seem to suggest that the government intends to keep the Burmese people in the dark about potential threats to its legitimacy, including the civil war with Burma’s ethnic armed groups.

However, Burma has been warnedand is nervous – that continued repression could lead to Arab Spring-style uprisings. As an attempt to appease international observers and the Burmese independent press, in June the government unveiled a new censorship policy that allows 178 journals and magazines to publish their content without prior government approval. Publications are now divided into two groups – Group 1 contains journals and magazines covering topics such as art, sports, and children’s literature, whereas Group 2 covers news, economics, crime, and religion. Group 1 publications are only censored subsequent to publication, but if government censors object to the content, they receive a ‘warning.’ Four warnings and they receive a fine. According to many Burmese editors, very little has changed, because journalists for Group 1 publications merely practice self-censorship now, knowing their publications will be fined if their articles are deemed objectionable. Group 2 publications continue to be censored prior to publication.  And the status quo is maintained.

The Burmese government clearly feels pressure to liberalise. But incremental changes – many of which, like the new press rules, have little effect – are not sufficient to counteract the overwhelming evidence that grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law still exist in Burma. The international community must therefore continue to build support for the creation of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into these crimes, and hold the Burmese government accountable.

By Elizabeth Raulston

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