THINGS BEGIN TO CHANGE IN MYANMAR

THINGS BEGIN TO CHANGE IN MYANMAR

The military's unbroken, 49-year grip on power officially ended in March 2011, when the ruling State Peace and Development Council made way for a nominally civilian government led mostly by retired generals.

Myanmar’s parliament convened in January 2011 and selected former Prime Minister Thein Sein as president. Although the vast majority of national-level appointees named by Thein Sein are former or current military officers, the government has initiated a series of political and economic reforms leading to a substantial opening of the long-isolated country.

Still a lot has to be done. The military regime has not answered opposition calls to amend the 2008 constitution or state clearly how the electoral process will be managed and the terms that new political parties can organise. In a speech to military retirees, before he himself retired, long-time junta leader Than Shwe said that the transition to a parliamentary system meant various parties with different opinions would appear, but he warned that the new parties should "avoid anything that leads to harming state interests".

See Separate Article on Thein Sein

Parliament Convenes in January 2011

Myanmar’s parliament convened in January 2011.Simon Montlake wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: Myanmar “took another step toward civilian rule after nearly five decades of military dictatorship with the convening of its new, semielected parliament. But the military seems set to retain its grip on the process, to the frustration of regime critics. The joint parliamentary session in the regime’s purpose-built capital, Nyapyidaw, was the first since multiparty elections held in November. The US and other Western governments panned the poll, which were won overwhelmingly by a regime-backed party, as deeply flawed. A quarter of seats in the upper and lower houses are military appointees. [Source: Simon Montlake, Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2011 =]

“Some 600 legislators were bussed to the parliament complex under tight security, and reporters and other observers were kept away. Exiled Burmese news media reported that lawmakers were unable to bring cameras, mobile phones, and any recording devices to the parliament. Such secrecy has become a hallmark of Burmese politics. =

“The parliament does not have representation from the National League for Democracy, which refused to participate in the elections. The NLD's leader, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest a week after the poll and has since been rebuilding her political base in Rangoon, the former capital. The NLD won a previous election in 1990 but the military annulled the results. =

“Under Burma’s 2008 constitution, the joint parliament is tasked with selecting a president and two vice presidents. The military bloc in parliament has the right to nominate their own candidate and is allied to the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which won 80 percent of contested seats. Richard Horsey, an independent analyst of Burmese politics, says that Than Shwe is more likely to back another candidate as president. He argues that the junta chief has designed a political system in which the president, as head of state, must share power with the military commander in order to prevent another strongman emerging. “He’s set the whole machine up so he can step back and take his hand off the lever without it blowing up in his face,” says Mr. Horsey.

Than Shwe Retires

In February 2011, a few days after parliamentary elections, the BBC reported: “Burma's long-standing leader Than Shwe is not on a list of presidential nominees, suggesting he will no longer be the country's official ruler. Parliament has put forward five names, reports say, from which a president and two vice-presidents will be selected. The most prominent figure listed is Thein Sein, the prime minister in the outgoing military government, and a trusted ally of Than Shwe. [Source: BBC, February 1, 2011]

Analysts believe Than Shwe will remain a dominant force in Burma. Some analysts say the 77-year-old general is unlikely to relinquish all power and is expected to either remain as head of the powerful military or take a significant behind-the-scenes political position. Speaking to the BBC's World Have Your Say programme, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that it was too early to assess what effect Than Shwe's apparent decision not to seek the role of president would have. "I am not sure what role General Than Shwe is going to play in the future. All I know is that he does not seem to be on the list," she said. "Whoever is in charge of the army will have at least as much power and influence, if not more, than the president himself," she said. The appointment of a president was the final step in Burma's so-called "roadmap to democracy".

In April 2011, AFP reported: “Myanmar strongman Than Shwe, who ruled with an iron fist for almost two decades, has retired as head of the military after handing power to a nominally civilian government, officials said today. The postman-turned-dictator last week disbanded the Junta, the State Peace and Development Council, following the November polls. “Senior General Than Shwe and Vice-Senior General Maung Aye retired on March 30 after handing over power to the new government. They are staying at their homes in Naypyidaw. We cannot say their plan for the future. So far they are taking a rest,” a Myanmar official told AFP on condition of anonymity. [Source: AFP, April 4, 2011]

In November 2011, AFP reported: “A top Myanmar official insisted feared strongman Than Shwe has no government role, in the first public confirmation that the former junta head had released the reins of power. "The senior general is really retired," Thura Shwe Mann, lower house speaker told reporters after the final session of Parliament in Naypyidaw. Than Shwe officially stepped down from his role as head of Myanmar's "Tatmadaw" armed forces after the military junta was disbanded in March. The senior general, whose face had been emblazoned across the front pages of state newspapers on an almost daily basis, has been virtually invisible since then. But few believed he had fully relinquished his grip on the impoverished nation, despite controversial November 2010 polls which brought a nominally civilian government to power. [Source: AFP, November 25, 2011 >>]

“Thura Shwe Mann said the ailing 78-year-old is "absolutely" not involved with the army-backed United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which won an overwhelming majority in the election. "To be more clear, the senior general is absolutely not concerned with the party, nor the government, nor our parliament, nor legislative organizations," he said, at the first public press briefing the top official has ever given. The military strongman knew the risk of retiring only too well, having put his predecessor, the late dictator Ne Win, under house arrest in 2002 after his family members were convicted of plotting to overthrow the regime. >>

Than Shwe 'Not Presidential Nominee'

In February 2011 the BBC reported: “Burma's long-standing leader Than Shwe is not on a list of presidential nominees, suggesting he will no longer be the country's official ruler. Parliament has put forward five names, reports say, from which a president and two vice-presidents will be selected. The most prominent figure listed is Thein Sein, the prime minister in the outgoing military government, and a trusted ally of Than Shwe. [Source: BBC, February 1, 2011 |||]

“The upper and lower houses of parliament each put forward two names as candidates for the posts of president and vice-president. These comprised two from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which won a big majority in the election, and two from parties representing Burma's ethnic minorities. The lower house named Thein Sein, leader of the USDP and outgoing prime minister, and ethnic Karen politician Saw Thein Aung. Sai Mauk Kham, an ethnic Shan from the USDP, and Aye Maung from the Rakhine National Democratic party - which is not a military proxy party - were chosen by the upper house. A quarter of seats in the new parliament are reserved for the armed forces and they chose the fifth candidate; Tin Aung Myint Oo - the outgoing regime's fifth-in-command. |||

“At the first sitting Thura Shwe Mann - the junta's number three leader who stood down from the military to run in the polls as a civilian - was appointed lower house Speaker. The former Culture Minister Khin Aung Myint was named as Speaker of the Upper House. The main Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition party remains outside formal politics. But Aung San Suu Kyi told the BBC that the NLD is thriving. "I think it's at its strongest because we have a lot of young people now supporting our cause. And in a much more active way than we have ever done in the past," she told listeners around the world. |||

Thein Sein Picked as New President

The appointment of a president was the final step in Burma's so-called "roadmap to democracy". Former prime minister and junta member Thein Sein was selected for the job. Associated Press reported: “The prime minister of Burma's outgoing military government has been appointed as president, handing a key junta member the top job in the post-election administration. Thein Sein, 65, is the country's first civilian president after nearly 50 years of military rule. His appointment by parliament is the latest step in Burma's self-declared transition to democracy after elections in November. [Source: Associated Press, February 4, 2011 <>]

“The military's delegates in parliament and their civilian allies hold an 80 percent majority in the new legislature, which chose the president from a pool of three vice-presidents named yesterday. Thein Sein is the most prominent of the three and was seen as a shoo-in for the head of government. An upper house parliamentarian, Khin Shwe, said Thein Sein won 408 out of 659 votes. <>

“Thein Sein is a former general who served as the junta's prime minister from October 2007. He heads the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party which won a huge majority in November's elections. Thein Sein has an image as a "clean" soldier, not engaged in corruption. As prime minister and the fourth-ranking military leader in the junta, however, he did not have much decision-making power.” <> See Separate Article on Thein Sein

Myanmar's Junta 'Dissolved' as Civilian Government Sworn In

Myanmar’s junta was officially dissolved after a swearing-in ceremony for the new civilian government, the latest phase of a transition to democracy. Associated Press reported: “State television and radio reported that the new government headed by President Thein Sein was sworn in by parliament in the remote capital of Naypyitaw. The closed-door inauguration was announced only after it took place, in keeping with the junta’s secretive style of governance. [Source: AP, March 30, 2011 ><]

The news reports said the new government’s arrival marked the end of the junta’s long-time ruling party, the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, which has been in power since 1988. “The SPDC is officially dissolved,” the state media reported, saying that the dissolution was ordered by junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who wielded absolute power since 1992. State media did not mention what becomes of Gen. Than Shwe. The dissolution of his party would render him effectively retired. The 78-year-old now no longer holds his two official posts as SPDC chairman and armed forces commander.

“Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, a senior defence official, was named the new commander of Myanmar’s armed forces, said lawmaker Phone Myint Aung, who attended the inauguration. The new government’s 30—member Cabinet is dominated by former military officers who retired in order to run in last November’s elections. About a dozen of the ministers were members of the junta’s Cabinet. Only four of the appointees are strictly civilian. ><

“Ms. Suu Kyi who still heads the opposition group, the National League for Democracy, said she hoped relations with the new government would be better. “We always want good relations with the government. I hope that the relationship improves,” Ms. Suu Kyi said over the weekend. “We will work for good relations.” ><

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The new president was elected through two months of parliamentary deliberations that followed national elections for both houses of the parliament in November. But the new administration is designed to give an outward show of “transfer to civilian rule” while leaving military rule in place. Thein Sein served as prime minister of the military junta, and nearly 90 percent of the ministers in the new Cabinet were ministers or military leaders in the former administration. A quarter of the 224 upper house seats and 440 lower house seats are set aside for military appointees. A constitutional revision is necessary to change this system, but revision requires approval by more than three-quarters of the parliamentary seats. This means the military in effect has veto power over the matter. Than Shwe, supreme leader of the junta, has retired as commander-in-chief of the national armed forces but seems to receive a steady stream of internal military information. He probably intends to continue to exercise his influence over the military. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 2, 2011 >>]

Nevertheless, a faint ray of hope is in sight. A quarter of members in both houses of the parliament belong to pro-democracy or ethnic minority parties. So, it may be said the foundation has been laid in the parliament to represent the voices of people who were ignored during the period of junta rule. Popular pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was not allowed to run in the election but resumed her activities after being released from house arrest. >>

Myanmar Eases Limits on Political Parties

In November 2011, Associated Press reported: “Myanmar's president has signed a revised law on political parties in an apparent attempt to encourage Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) to accept the political system and reregister as a party. President Thein Sein signed the amendments to the Political Party Registration Law as senior U.S. diplomats were ending a visit to encourage his government to push forward with democratic reforms. Bringing Suu Kyi's party back into the fold would also give the government greater legitimacy at home and abroad. The group was delisted as a political party last year after it refused to register for November 2010 elections, saying they were being held under undemocratic conditions. [Source: AP, November 5, 2011 <<]

“The amendments of the party law signed by Thein Sein alter three areas of the law to accommodate Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. The law, originally enacted in March 2010 by the previous military junta, prohibited anyone who has been convicted of a crime from being a member of a political party. Suu Kyi had been convicted on a trumped-up charge, and would have had to leave the party she helped found. The clause has now been dropped, clearing the way for former political prisoners to engage in politics. Another article was amended to say that registered parties shall "respect and abide" by the constitution rather than "safeguard" it. The change was evidently made to accommodate criticisms of the charter by Suu Kyi's group without making them illegal. The third amendment says that any party that registers after the general election must run candidates in at least three constituencies in by-elections to remain legally registered. The original law said a party had to stand at least three candidates in the general election, which would have been an impediment to Suu Kyi's party, since it boycotted the 2010 polls. <<

Suu Kyi's NLD Party Wins Legal Status and Registers to Run in By-elections

In December 2011, AFP reported: “Myanmar authorities today gave Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party the green light to rejoin mainstream politics, paving the way for the Nobel laureate to run for a seat in the new Parliament. The announcement in state media follows a series of reformist moves by a new military-backed government dominated by former generals, who are now reaching out to political opponents and the West. A brief announcement in the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Tuesday said that the country’s election commission had approved the NLD’s application to re-register as a political party. [Source: AFP, December 13, 2011]

In one of a number of dramatic developments, Suu Kyi has said she will take part in by-elections to be held in early 2012. On relations with the new government she said earlier, “I am very confident that if we work together... there will be no turning back from the road to democracy.” Earlier her party said it had chosen the image of a fighting peacock gazing at a white star as its new symbol, replacing its trademark bamboo hat, which was used by a breakaway group that participated in the 2010 election.

A week and half later, Associated Press reported: “Aung San Suu Kyi formally registered her party for any upcoming elections, returning the Nobel laureate to the political arena. Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy leader Tin Oo and other party members registered the party at the Union Election Commission in the capital, Naypyitaw. NLD spokesman Nyan Win said the party would contest all vacant seats in an upcoming by-election and that Suu Kyi would soon announce in which constituency she would run. [Source: Associated Press, December 23, 2011]

Allowing Suu Kyi's party back into the political fold will likely give the government greater legitimacy at home and abroad. It has already won cautious praise from international observers and critics including the United States, for introducing reforms. During her visit to Myanmar early this month US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she wanted to ensure that future elections were ''free, fair and credible in the eyes of the people.''

In January 2012, the Myanmar approved National League of Democracy’s run in by-elections, It marked the return of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to mainstream politics for the first time in over two decades.

Myanmar Frees Hundreds of Political Prisoners in 2011 and 2012

As Myanmar opened up it released large numbers of political prisoners in part to appease demands by the international community. In October 2011, Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “Myanmar freed at least 300 political prisoners as part of a general amnesty for 6,359 prisoners. But many prominent dissidents were left almost behind bars. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said she was encouraged by "promising signals" of reform but that it was too early to announce steps Washington might take in response. "We hope many more will be released," said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, herself freed from 15 years of house arrest last year. "I'm really thankful for the release of political prisoners," she told supporters. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, October 12, 2011 ==]

“The United States, Europe and Australia have said freeing Myanmar's political prisoners is essential to even considering lifting sanctions that have crippled the pariah state and, over years, driven it closer to China. After weeks of rare overtures, including a loosening of some media controls and more dialogue with Suu Kyi, the number was less than many had expected. ==

“The most prominent freed dissident appeared to be Zarganar, a comedian sentenced in 2008 to 59 years in a remote prison after criticizing the then-ruling generals for their sluggish response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people. Also freed was Sai Say Htan, a leader of the Shan State Army. The ethnic rebel group fought successive military regimes that ruled following a 1962 coup. He was sentenced to 104 years in prison in 2005 for refusing to help draft a new constitution. Many more remained in jail, including a group of activists who led a failed 1988 uprising. In May 2011, 14,600 prisoners were freed but few were political prisoners. ==

In January 2012, hundreds more political prisoners were released. Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote; Myanmar's government said on Saturday 302 of the 651 detainees it freed this week were political prisoners whose release had been sought by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. They were freed so they can play a part in the political process, Home Minister Lieutenant-General Ko Ko told reporters, suggesting they might be allowed to run for parliament despite their prison records, one of the demands of rights groups such as Human Rights Watch. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, January 14, 2012 ++]

"Organisations and associations at home and abroad demanded the release of prisoners of conscience after sending in the list they had compiled," Home Minister Ko Ko told reporters. "A total of 302 were granted amnesty, after examining the list of 604 sent by the NLD," he said. Of those on the NLD list, 107 had already been freed, the credentials of 51 could not be checked, 13 had been counted twice, one had died and two had been transferred to the Ministry of Religion Affairs, he said, without elaborating. That left 430 names but 128 were deemed to be common criminals and "kept under detention for the sake of the rule of law," Ko Ko said, adding 13 of these had Taliban connections. "A total of 302 out of the 430 were freed so that they can take part in the national reconciliation and political process," he said. ++

“The exact number of political prisoners who were detained under the junta that stepped aside last March is unclear. Rights groups and the United Nations have put it at about 2,100. But Home Minister Ko Ko told U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana in August the number was 600, or about 400 after an October 12 amnesty. Suu Kyi's NLD put the total at about 500. The party was providing help to more than 460 people it considered prisoners of conscience, Naing Naing, the party official in charge of such assistance, told Reuters, and there were "a few dozen" more who had not sought its help. ++

“U.S. President Barack Obama called the release a "substantial step forward" in the Asian country's democratic reforms. "Much more remains to be done to meet the aspirations of the Burmese people, but the United States is committed to continuing our engagement," he said in a statement on Friday. ++

“Those freed included Min Ko Naing and other members of the "88 Generation Students Group," which led a pro-democracy uprising in 1988 in which thousands of protesters were killed. Also freed was Shin Gambira, a Buddhist monk who led street protests in 2007 crushed by the army. He was 27 years old when sentenced to 68 years in prison that year. Khin Nyunt, a once-powerful chief of military intelligence, was also released. Leaders of ethnic groups were also let out. Sai Nyunt Lwin, 60, said he and all other leaders of his former Shan Nationalities' League for Democracy (SNLD) had been freed.” ++

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party Sweeps 2012 By-Elections

In April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy won historic by-elections by a landlside. The by-election was held to fill vacancies created by the resignation of lawmakers due to such reasons as the promotion to Cabinet posts after they won seats in the 2010 general election. Although some voting irregularities were reported, the government can be given credit for allowing international observers and completing the vote without confusion.

Only 46 seats out of the more than 600 seats were contested. The NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested. However parliament remained dominated by the military and the rival party it created.. Even though the NLD swept to victory in the by-election, its seats in both chambers account for less than 10 percent of the total. Members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, formerly a junta support organization, and unelected lawmakers who were appointed by the military make up 80 percent of the country's legislature. The two remaining seats in the by-election, both for the senate, were won by the USDP and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, the UEC said. The NLD will have 37 lower house, four senate and two regional assembly seats.

Before the election there were reports of irregularities, local intimidation and attacks. Aung San Suu Kyi charged voters lists included dead people, said the election was open to fraud and complaied about “many, many cases of intimidation” and vandalism of signboards. “I don’t think we can consider it a genuinely free and fair election,” she said. The election was postponed in three constinuencies in northern Myanmar due to worries about political unrest. And violence linked with the kachin insurgency.

The election was monitored by representatives for the U.S.. Europe and Southeast Asia. Election monitors from Cambodia , which holds the ASEAN chair, declared the vite free and fair and urged Western nations to lift sanctions. ASEAN foreign priased the “orderly” conduct of the polls U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton congratulated Myanmar for holding the poll. "Even the most repressive regimes can reform, and even the most closed societies can open," she said.

Reuters reported: “Voting stations opened at 6 a.m., some under the watch of small numbers of observers from the European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), who were given only a few days to prepare inside Myanmar. Some said they considered themselves "election watchers" rather than observers. "The day isn't over yet, but perhaps this is the first really authentic election held in this country for some time," said Robert Cooper, a long-time friend of Suu Kyi and counselor to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. "The pace of change has been breathtaking," he told Reuters while touring polling stations north of Yangon. [Source: Reuters , April 1, 2012]

See Separate Article on Aung San Suu Kyi’s Victory in the 2012 By-Elections

Voter Irregularities in the 2012 By-Elections

AP reported: “Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party alleged Sunday that "rampant irregularities" had taken place on voting day. Party spokesman Nyan Win said that by midday alone, the party had filed more than 50 complaints to the Election Commission. He said most alleged violations concerned waxed ballot papers that made it difficult to mark votes. There were also ballot cards that lacked the Election Commission's seal, which would render them invalid.

Reuters reported: “The election has not gone smoothly. Suu Kyi has suffered from ill health and accused rivals of vandalising NLD posters, padding electoral registers and "many cases of intimidation." Some of these infractions, however, have been quite minor and are typical of elections across Southeast Asia, where vote-buying and even assassinations are commonplace. The NLD on Friday said a betel nut had been fired by catapult at one of its candidates and a stack of hay had been set on fire close to where another was due to give a speech. It made fresh claims of irregularities on Sunday and said some ballots papers had been covered in wax to make it tricky to write on. It accused the USDP of waiting outside some polling stations and telling voters to back their party. [Source: Reuters , April 1, 2012]

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials from her party complained of a litany of “irregularities” during the campaign, but the alleged infractions — defacing of posters and campaigning by government officials on behalf of the ruling party in contravention of Myanmar’s Constitution — appeared minor compared with the harsh treatment of the opposition in years past. Voters in Myanmar appeared to relish what in established democracies has become a mundane process. They were careful to follow the procedures: showing their identity cards, ticking their choice on the ballot, folding the ballot and dropping it in the ballot box.[Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 1, 2012]

Impact of the NLD’s Victory in the 2012 By-Elections

AP reported: “The by elections followed months of surprising reforms by a nominally civilian government that does not relish ceding ground to Suu Kyi. But the leaders of Burma, also known as Myanmar, are making a push to appear more democratic in order to emerge from decades of international isolation that have crippled the economy. Burmese democracy activist Maung Zarni, who is also a research fellow with the London School of Economics, cautions that Suu Kyi's victory would only be symbolic. He said even if her party won all of its seats, it would only represent eight per cent of the total seats in parliament. [Source: AP, April 1, 2012 \/\]

"Politics is a numbers game. She is not likely to have much leverage, politically speaking, with the military junta," Zarni told CBC News on Sunday from a secret location in a neighbouring country. "At the end of the day, who calls the shot is the military." Zarni said, for him, the biggest triumph was to see Burmese coming out to the polls to vote for Suu Kyi's party, calling it a "psycho-social" victory for his people who have remained cowed under an oppressive military regime. \/\

Reuters reported: “The win dealt a crushing blow to a ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) created by the former junta that ceded power a year ago to a quasi-civilian government. However, the participation of the NLD, Suu Kyi in particular, is expected to boost the credibility of a parliament that has been widely dismissed as a rubber stamp for government policies. [Source: Prak and Chan Thul, Reuters, April 3, 2012]

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Significantly, local election commission officials said that four candidates from the National League for Democracy in the country’s capital, Naypyidaw, were running ahead of their rivals from the ruling party by large margins. Naypyidaw, a newly constructed city, is overwhelmingly populated by civil servants, and the strength of the opposition there, if confirmed, would suggest disaffection from within the ranks of the government. One of the seats being contested in Naypyidaw is the former constituency of President Thein Sein. Mr. Thein Sein, a former general, was forced to resign from Parliament when elected president last March, a requirement in the country’s Constitution. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 1, 2012 ***]

“From a strictly numerical standpoint, the results will not affect the balance of power in Myanmar — fewer than 10 percent of the seats in Parliament were in play. But voters on Sunday described it as a joyous day, another step toward democracy as the country undergoes radical changes under President Thein Sein, who offered an olive branch to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi last year as part of his reform program. In a neighborhood of crumbling buildings and trash-strewn streets, Daw Khin Maung Mya, 76, said she was filled with emotion after voting. “I feel like crying when I talk about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said after casting her vote. “It felt so good to vote for her party — only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can save us from deep poverty.” Voters said they felt more free than in the past to express themselves, both in the voting booth and in public. “We used to fear speaking with foreigners about democracy,” Daw Kyi Kyi Tun, 50, a former schoolteacher, told a reporter after voting in Yangon. “Now we have courage.” ***

Reuters reported: Myanmar President Thein Sein said that landmark by-elections were carried out successfully, signaling acceptance of a result that will boost the political clout of his party's biggest rival. "It was conducted in a very successful way," the retired general told reporters during a summit of Association of South East Asian Nation leaders in Cambodia, his first public comment on Sunday's elections for vacant parliamentary seats...Sceptics in the democracy movement say Suu Kyi is working too closely with a government stacked with the same former generals who persecuted dissidents, fearing she is being exploited to convince the West to end sanctions and make the legislature appear effective. Others have almost impossibly high hopes for her to accelerate reforms once she enters parliament. [Source: Prak and Chan Thul, Reuters, April 3, 2012]

Aung San Suu Kyi's Party Steps Back from Boycotting Myanmar’s Parliament Opening

In late April 2012, Associated Press reported: “ Burma's main opposition movement says Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of her party's newly elected MPs will not attend the opening session of parliament because of a disagreement over the wording of the oath of office. The National League for Democracy rejects the part of the MPs' oath that says they must safeguard the constitution, which it wants to see amended in part because it says it places too much power in the hands of the military. Aung San Suu Kyi's absence was expected, as the party had already said it would not attend the assembly until the issue was resolved. Opposition MP Ohn Kyaing confirmed the refusal to attend but said he believed the issue would be overcome quickly. [Source: Associated Press, April 23, 2012]

Within a week the situation was resolved. Simon Roughneen wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “Aung San Suu Kyi will take her seat in Myanmar's military-stuffed parliament after reversing a brief boycott over the wording of an oath of fealty to the country's junta-era constitution. It appears that the wildly-popular Aung San Suu Kyi yielded after sounding out other Burmese opposition figures and constituents. Speaking to reporters in Yangon the recently-elected MP said "we are not giving up; we are just yielding to the aspirations of the people." [Source: Simon Roughneen, Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 2012 ~~]

“The event highlights the challenges facing the Burmese opposition as they make their long-awaited foray into the country's parliamentary politics – and into an institution still dominated by the same army that formally-ceded power after a November 2010 parliamentary election that in turn followed five decades of harsh military rule. But Myanmar's government, headed by former general Thein Sein, has loosened in recent months and pledges more reforms. ~~

See Separate Article Under Aung San Suu Kyi and the 2012 By-Elections

Optimism But Racism amd Dark Forces Remain in Myanmar Politics

In April 2012, The Economist reported: “Myanmar's path to democracy is more perilous than it seems. The country's transformation rests on two people, Miss Suu Kyi and the president, Thein Sein. The president is one of recent history's great surprises: a former general who has become a great liberalising reformer. He has astonished the world by his readiness to bring change—just this week the country's crazy fixed exchange rate was replaced by one close to the market price. Mr Thein Sein won Miss Suu Kyi's trust and persuaded her to forsake two decades of principled but futile ostracism for the mucky world of political compromise. [Source: The Economist, April 14, 2012 #]

“But a lot depends on the “civilian” government, which succeeded the junta after rigged elections in 2010. It is dominated by former soldiers, including the president, and many of them take a harder line than Mr Thein Sein appears to do. Few will welcome the new evidence of Miss Suu Kyi's popularity (see article). The risk is of a backlash. Nearly a decade ago, under a former dictator, Than Shwe, the generals spelled out a “road map to democracy”, but until Mr Thein Sein took power, their goal always looked as if it was to perpetuate the army's dominance. It is far from clear that they have given up that aim. #

“Moreover, for all Myanmar's progress, the country still has a dauntingly long road to travel. Hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up. The by-elections involved less than one-tenth of the seats in parliament. Even after a general election due in 2015, the opposition will be circumscribed by a constitution enshrining the army's dominance. Miss Suu Kyi wants to change the constitution; the army chief has said he wants to defend it. And little suggests that the generals want a fair deal for the ethnic groups on Myanmar's borders, many of whom have waged insurgencies for decades. Tens of thousands of Kachin people have been displaced in recent months, despite the government's own calls for a ceasefire. #

“There was a time when Myanmar was a simple struggle between democrats and autocrats. As the country has reformed, so the situation has become more complex. Mr Thein Sein must press forward with political change before the backlash comes. Now that Miss Suu Kyi is in parliament, she will need to make the compromises that are an inevitable part of everyday politics. That means not just articulating what is wrong with Myanmar, but also taking part in putting it right. For this, she needs to build a party that is less dependent on her own leadership and charisma. #

The consultants Maplecroft said there are signs of “neo-nationalistic discrimination” spreading beyond anti-Muslim sentiment. “Although the violence has so far been directed at Muslims, the leaders of the 969 Movement have also spoken out against other non-Burmese ethnicities, particularly those of Chinese descent. “Failure to stop the group’s growing influence could result in foreign-owned businesses being targeted or boycotted. This could have strong implications for extractive industries, as the group’s main accusation against the Chinese is based on their profiting through the export of Myanmar’s natural resources without benefiting the local population.” [Source: William Boot, The Irrawaddy, April 11, 2013]

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Australian: “The much praised political reforms taking place in Burma are a ploy by the country's dictatorship to seduce foreign governments and neutralise opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, says Win Tin, one of the country's most senior democracy leaders. Win Tin, a founder of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, warned that grassroots frustration could explode in street protests similar to the Saffron Uprising of monks and activists in 2007 that was brutally crushed. "It can happen any time," he told The Times, "The simmering discontent is there. When Daw (Madam) Aung San Suu Kyi goes into parliament . . . the world will think that there's democracy in Burma, but inside the repression is still going on; there is fighting in the ethnic areas and people are still very poor. The hardliners will consolidate and think that they have it easy now (from the international community). It's a very dangerous thing...President (Barack) Obama said that there is light in Burma and we see the light...But here in Burma we are still inside the tunnel." [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Australian, January 6, 2012]

Internet, Politics and Racism in Myanmar

Facebook is the main forum for popular political discussion in Myanmar. It also has been used to stir up racist and anti-Muslim sentiments. According to Reuters: “Sectarian hatred in towns and villages in Rakhine State is mirrored online. "They should shoot at least one (to) make them shut up," read a comment on Facebook under a photo purporting to show rioting Muslims. Twitter users are railing against "Rohingya terrorists," one under the hashtag "#OneThingWeAllHate". These sentiments were echoed by nationalistic blogs such as Won Thar Nu, which ran gruesome photos of what it said were Buddhist victims. It accused the Rohingya of staging a "foreign invasion". [Source: Reuters, June 11, 2012]

“Anti-Muslim postings on Facebook, including those with images of the recent deaths and destruction in Meikhtila, have been ‘liked’ by thousands and solicit approving howls from Burmese netizens who show no restraint in expressing their neo-Nazi views in public on-line domains,” Maung Zarni commented. [Source: William Boot, The Irrawaddy, April 11, 2013 \+/]

“Religious tensions are now being whipped up again in the main city, [Rangoon], largely by Buddhist nationalists using what many pro-democracy activists here thought would be a tool for promoting peace: the Internet,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The paper quoted leaders of the 88 Generation movement of pro-democracy activists expressing dismay at the Internet becoming a tool of extremists. \+/

Changes After the 2012 By-Elections: Hardline Vice President Becomes a Monk

After the 2012 by-elections the United States and other countries began talking about relaxing sanctions whiles reforms and changes continued with Myanmar. In May 2012, AFP reported: “A Myanmar Vice President with close ties to the former junta Chief Than Shwe has become a monk, officials said. Tin Aung Myint Oo's actions are being seen as a move that observers believe could strengthen the hand of the country's reformers. Oo, who is seen as one of the more reactionary members of the regime, entered a monastery on May 3, a Myanmar government official said. Another official confirmed he remained in the monkhood. "He's still a monk. We didn't know about his resignation," he said. [Source: Agence France-Presse, May 16, 2012]

AP reported: “Government officials and family members say that Tin Aung Myint Oo resigned in early May for health reasons. They spoke on condition of anonymity because it is customary for changes in the government to be announced only once a vacant position is filled. A hard-liner and ex-junta official, Tin Aung Myint Oo left his post after returning from a health checkup in Singapore and has since become a Buddhist monk, the family members said. The 61-year-old had served as the No. 5-ranking official in the former junta who was in charge of the military's economic arm. His views were believed to be at odds with the liberal approach of Thein Sein. [Source: Associated Press, May 17, 2012]

Tin Aung Myint Oo's sudden absence has stoked speculation that he has stepped down, raising questions over whether he will be replaced by a more moderate figure. In the end he was replaced with a hardliner. Associated Press reported: “A former general known as a political hardliner has been nominated to fill the recently vacated position of Myanmar's vice president.One of the military's representatives in parliament that his bloc has nominated Myint Swe to fill the job that Tin Aung Myint Oo vacated. Myanmar has two vice presidents, and the military has the right to name one of them. Parliamentary approval of his nomination is just a formality. [Source: Associated Press, July 10 2012]

European Union and United States Relax Sanctions in 2012

In January 2012, the European Union suspended travel bans on the Myanmar president and other top officials in the Myanmar government. In April 2012, the EU countries agreed to suspend most sanctions for a year. In April 2013, the European Union agreed to end almost all sanctions against Myanmar. See Foreign Relations

In April 2012, Reuters reported: “The European Union agreed to suspend most of its sanctions against Myanmar for a year. The suspension, which does not apply to a separate arms embargo, will allow European companies to invest in Myanmar. The EU had frozen the assets of nearly a thousand companies and institutions, and banned almost 500 people from entering the EU. It also prohibited military-related technical help and banned investment in the mining, timber and precious metals sectors. The EU is rewarding a shift that has seen many political prisoners freed and a range of repressive measures lifted.[Source: Justyna Pawlak and Sebastian Moffett, Reuters, April 23, 2012]

"President Thein Sein has taken important steps towards reform in Burma, and it is right for the world to respond to them,"British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement. "But those changes are not yet irreversible, which is why it is right to suspend rather than lift sanctions for good." In a statement released by foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, the EU urged Myanmar to free remaining political prisoners and remove restrictions on those already released. The EU has already offered 150 million euros ($200 million) in development aid for this year and next, a sharp rise from the less than 200 million euros it has given since sanctions were launched in 1996.

In April 2012, the United States eased sanctions for NGO projects. In July 2012, a U.S. ban on imports from Myanmar was allowed to expire without being renewed. In n September 2012, the U.S. eased trade restrictions on Myanmar goods and waived the visa ban for Myanmar officials and removed sanctions that blocked the assests of Myanmar President Thein Sein. In November 2012, before Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar, the import ban was eased.

In May 2012, the BBC reported: “The United States has eased some sanctions on investment and relations with Burma in response to political reform there. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said broader laws on sanctions against Burma would remain in place to safeguard against "backsliding". Restrictions on investments have been relaxed and the first US ambassador in 22 years has been announced. The move follows limited democratic reform in Burma. Striking a note of caution, President Barack Obama told the US Congress the administration continues "to have concerns, including remaining political prisoners, ongoing conflict and serious human rights abuses in ethnic areas". [Source: BBC, May 17, 2012]

In July 2012, Reuters reported: “President Barack Obama eased sanctions against Myanmar to allow U.S. companies to invest there, calling it a "strong signal" of support for political reform taking root in the southeast Asian country. But Obama said Washington remained concerned about the lack of investment transparency as well as the military's role in Myanmar's economy and made clear that U.S. firms would be required to make detailed disclosures on their dealings there. "Today the United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma," Obama said in a statement, praising the country for "significant progress along the path to democracy." [Source: Reuters, July 12, 2012]

Foreign Leaders Visit Myanmar

In April 2012 British Prime Minister David Cameron became the first British prime minister to visit since Myanmar won independence from Britain in 1948. He took several business executives with him. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Myanmar the same month.

In November 2012, President Obama gave a historic speech at Rangoon University raising human rights concerns, including the military’s role in parliament, ethnic conflicts, national reconciliation, and abuses against Rohingya Muslims. See United States, Foreign Relations

Other high-profile visits were explicitly more economically motivated, including visits in May 2012 by India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and in September 2012 by China’s top legislator, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress.

Problems in New Myanmar

See Copper Mine Protests

Rohingya, See Minorities

Myanmar Opposition Holds First Party Congress

In March 2013, members of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party gathered for their first ever congress. Erika Kinetz and Aye Aye Win of Associated Press wrote: “It is a party dominated by a single strong leader. Top positions are made by appointment. Decision-making is quiet and circumscribed. That party is not Myanmar's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which grew out of decades of military dictatorship. It is the National League for Democracy, led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and currently the country's best hope for building a viable political opposition after half a century of authoritarian rule. The NLD is holding an all-party congress to elect its own leadership for the first time in the group's 25-year history— an important step toward making it more reflective of its democratic ideals. It is a sign of how far Myanmar has come with political reform that the gathering is allowed at all. But it's also a test for the NLD, which is working to transform itself from a party of one into a structurally viable political opposition in time for national elections in 2015.[Source: Erika Kinetz and Aye Aye Win, Associated Press, March 8, 2013]

"Our party must be renewed and reformed," said Tin Oo, who is overseeing the organization of the congress. "We are going to advocate for democracy, so our party must be based on democratization." The renewal began as nearly 900 NLD representatives from across the country gathered at a restaurant in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, where the three-day congress is being held. Above them, red NLD party flags, decorated with golden fighting peacocks, fluttered in the early light. The mood was ebullient. "I am very excited to be here," said Nan, a 46-year-old woman from a ruby-rich area of the northern Mandalay region who goes by one name. "We hope to see the NLD transform into a more democratic structure, in line with the changes taking place in the country."

Forged under authoritarian rule, the NLD has been, in some ways, a mirror image of the country's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. Unable to convene party meetings, with its leaders often jailed and the party itself officially banned for much of its existence, the NLD could not hold elections. Leaders had to be appointed. Secret and summary decisions had to be made. And in the unforgiving narrative of repression that has long governed Myanmar, there were heroes who were not to be questioned any more than the villains they fought.

Tin Oo is aware that he himself stands as evidence of the urgent need to groom a new generation of leaders for the party, whose top ranks include men who are quite literally toothless. An energetic 86-year-old, Tin Oo is one of three surviving founders of the party. But the effort to inject fresh blood and expertise and bring more ethnic minorities and women into leadership positions has also brought conflict. Some longstanding members of the NLD — many of whom made enormous sacrifices while less courageous souls stayed out of politics — now feel supplanted. "We try our best to balance the old and the new," Tin Oo said. "But there are quite a lot of quarrels."

AFP reported: “Although hugely popular in Myanmar some experts question whether the NLD is ready to run an impoverished nation whose economy, education and health systems were left in tatters by the corrupt former junta. The party is expected to win national elections in 2015, if they are free and fair. But experts say it must first salve internal divisions which again flared ahead of the conference as four members were banned from attending, accused of trying to influence the voting. [Source: AFP, March 9, 2013<><>]

Aung San Suu Kyi called for her party to unify amid concerns that internal squabbles could undermine its push for power at historic polls in 2015. Speaking at the first ever congress of her popular but politically callow National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Suu Kyi urged a revival of the "spirit of fraternity" which saw it build a huge base during iron-fisted junta rule. But she acknowledged "there was some fighting" within the party, something analysts attribute to the reluctance of an elderly cabal of senior advisors -- veterans of the democracy struggle to give way to an eager younger generation. "We have to act with restraint" the Nobel Laureate, who is expected to be re-elected as party chairman today, said urging delegates not to fight over positions. "The spirit of fraternity is very important. We have been strong in the past because of this spirit." <><>

Myanmar Frees More Political Prisoners in 2013

In April 2013, AFP reported: Myanmar “pardoned dozens of political prisoners, activists said, a day after the European Union agreed to end almost all sanctions against the former pariah state. At least 59 political prisoners were included in the latest amnesty, Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) told AFP. "More than 200 political prisoners are still in prison," he added. "Political prisoners should be recognised as political prisoners and be released unconditionally." The amnesty included 40 former rebels from eastern Shan state jailed for drug trafficking, he said, describing them as "victims of politics".Another activist, Nyan Lin from the 88 Generation group, confirmed that at least 30 political prisoners were released. His figure included 17 Muslims arrested and charged under the emergency act after religious clashes in the central town of Kyaukse in 2003. A Myanmar government official told AFP that in total 93 inmates -- including three foreigners -- were pardoned, but did not identify them. "This release aims to allow them to participate in building the country and is also based on humanitarian grounds," he said. [Source: Agence France-Presse, April 23, 2013]

Associated Press reported: “Myanmar has routinely denied the existence of political prisoners, saying all people sentenced to jail have been convicted legitimately of breaking the nation's laws. Nevertheless, hundreds of prominent political detainees have been freed since Thein Sein took office two years ago after a long-ruling army junta was dissolved. In February, Thein Sein appointed a 16-member committee to review the cases of inmates identified by opposition groups as prisoners of conscience. Some cases are complicated because they involve bombings or threats to state security or national stability. Rights groups say many other people were wrongfully convicted and given extreme sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes elsewhere. [Source: Aye Aye Win, AP, April 23, 2013 ::]

“Ye Aung, a former prisoner and a member of the government committee, said at least 59 political prisoners were released Tuesday and that at least 300 others remain incarcerated, most of them members of ethnic minorities. Opposition leaders and rights groups have accused the government of using political prisoners as "bargaining chips" — releasing some to prove progress, holding others to push the West to ease more sanctions. "Amnesties almost always coincide with international events. Today's amnesty coincides with the lifting of EU sanctions," said Ko Ko Gyi, who was released from jail last year and is one of the country's most prominent former political prisoners."The government should acknowledge the existence of political prisoners and release them all," he said. ::

“One of those released Tuesday from Yangon's notorious Insein prison, Zaw Moe, said he was among at least five political prisoners freed there. But he said he could not be content because "many of my friends remain" behind bars. "I'm worried about them." Zaw Moe had been sentenced to an 18-year term in 2008 for alleged links to dissident groups fighting against the former military government. ::

Future of Myanmar

Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “Burma's political evolution is far from finished. The constitution reserves powerful positions for those with military backgrounds and pointedly excludes Suu Kyi — far more beloved in Burma than Thein Sein — from becoming President. (The constitution can be revised, but any amendment must be approved by a parliament in which one-quarter of the seats are filled by soldiers.) Much of the country still lives hand to mouth. Ethnic strife continues to plague some borderlands. Now that international sanctions have been suspended or scrapped, Western businessmen are flocking to Burma's commercial capital, Rangoon. Yet foreign investment in Burma actually declined in the first nine months of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011. Business cronies are feasting on the nation's rich natural resources, grabbing lands and sweetheart contracts. The scale of graft is epidemic. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013 ^^]

“The country's biggest test will come in 2015, when general elections are expected. In a September speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, Thein Sein acknowledged the "authoritarian" nature of the junta he once belonged to and congratulated Suu Kyi "for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy." But how will his administration react if Suu Kyi's NLD defeats the military's proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party in future elections, as most Burmese expect will happen? Will the government again rig the vote? ^^

“More worrying, disgruntled top military ranks could launch another coup — like the one in 1962 that brought men in uniform to power for the first time. To ensure he would not be purged upon retirement (as happened to a previous junta chief, who died under house arrest), Than Shwe, now in his 80s, may well have reached a deal with Thein Sein. But who knows how officers still in their prime feel about their diminished authority? "Right now we have to create an environment in which reformers see that their efforts are appreciated," says Min Zaw Oo, an exiled student activist who returned last year. Thein Sein acknowledges how delicate this period is for Burma. "I took up the responsibility of being President because I knew Myanmar was at a critical juncture," he says. "It was not because I wanted power but because I wanted a better life for the people of my country." ^^

“One contentious area is far western Arakan (or Rakhine) state. Though up to half its population is Muslim, in the sleepy capital, Sittwe, I see just one mosque still unscathed. Its delicate spires rise from a grand prayer hall, but I cannot visit because of the soldiers cradling rifles outside. Instead, I spy the historic mosque from the balcony of the local government office across the street. There, an official insists that the reason some 100,000 members of a stateless Muslim ethnic group called the Rohingya now live in refugee camps is that they "burned down their own homes because there wasn't anything valuable in them." What about their places of worship, I ask. "They're fine," says the bureaucrat. Later, I tour the burned hulks or bulldozed remains of several Sittwe mosques. They do not look fine. ^^

“Since last June, clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim residents have claimed at least 100 lives across Arakan and left tens of thousands more homeless. Though some of the victims are Arakanese, most are Rohingya or Kaman, another Muslim ethnic group that, unlike the Rohingya, does hold Burmese citizenship. Sittwe, a town I last visited in April, has been ethnically cleansed. Muslim shopkeepers, traders and fishermen have disappeared from public life. Instead, they are squeezed into a fetid ghetto or live in rows of tents that sprawl across Arakan's salt swamps. The U.N. complains that international aid is being blocked. Deadly disease stalks the refugee camps. ^^

“The generals who wrested control of Burma in 1962 didn't bother much with justifying their rule. But any shred of legitimacy the junta possessed came from its purported ability to halt the centrifugal forces ripping apart this diverse nation. Cobbled together by the colonial British, Burma is a patchwork land of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. (The Rohingya are not included, compounding their burdens.) Since coming to power, Thein Sein's government has made peace with 10 major ethnic militias fighting for autonomy. Only the Kachin Independence Army remains at war. Since June 2011, fighting in Kachin areas, which border China, has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced some 100,000 people, most of whom have received no international aid. In recent days, military aircraft have fired on Kachin rebels and look to be advancing on their stronghold. This is happening even though Thein Sein had earlier called for a halt in combat — sparking concern that the military may not be heeding his command. ^^

“Further reforms, says Thein Sein, are key to defusing Burma's ethnic tinderbox. "It is only with a wholly democratic government that we can make peace sustainable," he says. Aung Min, a former major general who is now a minister dealing with ethnic affairs, talks about power-sharing arrangements to ensure that minorities, many of whom live in areas rich with natural resources, feel they are not being exploited. "The President is willing to try many things," he says. "He knows that the military should be the last resort to fix a conflict." But the shelling of the Kachin undercuts Thein Sein's vow to seek peace with the rebels, while his response to the Arakan violence has been tepid at best. The only time Thein Sein looks peevish during our interview is when I press him on the fate of the Rohingya. "Next question," he says. His reticence has been shared by Suu Kyi, who has disappointed some of her supporters with her refusal to speak more forcefully about the plight of Burma's ethnic groups.” ^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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