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Burma: The Hope and the Truth

05/04/2016 11:38 | Updated 05 April 2016

Last week, Burma's first civilian President in half a century was inaugurated. Htin Kyaw is the first democrat, and perhaps the first good man, to lead Burma's government since General Ne Win ousted prime minister U Nu in a coup in 1962. So last week should have been a time of celebration, marking the achievement of a struggle for democracy that has gone on for decades. Or so many think.

The truth, however, is very different. Of course Burma has come a long way in the past five years, and the outgoing President, Thein Sein, deserves recognition for the positive steps he took - releasing political prisoners, engaging with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, bringing her previously outlawed National League for Democracy (NLD) into the parliamentary arena and, not least, holding elections last November which she overwhelmingly won. While far from perfect, the elections were the most credible in a quarter of a century - and yielded the same result as the elections which Suu Kyi had won in 1990, only this time the Generals respected the result.

And yet Thein Sein has left a legacy of a country filled with racial and religious hatred, a campaign against the Rohingyas that experts say may be genocidal, prisoners of conscience jailed for Facebook posts and demonstrations filling the cells emptied by those he released, a stalled ceasefire process with the ethnic armed groups, renewed military offensives against civilians in some parts of the country, and a drugs pandemic. Burma is the world's second largest producer of raw opium, and a major producer of methamphetamines.

Moreover, the military's 2008 Constitution, the drafting of which Thein Sein oversaw, enshrines constitutional limitations on the new government before they have even started to address the country's wider problems. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the winning party, is unable to be President because of a clause disqualifying anyone with a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. The military will retain control of three key ministries - home affairs, border affairs and defence - all of which mean the new government's ability to address the country's most sensitive challenges - ethnic conflict, religious intolerance, human rights abuses perpetrated by the army and the continued detention of political activists - will be severely constrained. On top of this, a quarter of the parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, and one of the two Vice-Presidents is a military hardliner, former General Myint Swe. No wonder President Htin Kyaw used his first televised address to urge the people to be patient.

That does not mean that the new government should not begin to try to address key challenges. They should. And they should start by releasing all remaining political prisoners. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), there are approximately 100 political prisoners in jail and another 420 awaiting trial. As Suu Kyi has said, "there should be no political prisoners in a democratic country."

The next thing to be done is to review all existing legislation, and repeal or amend those laws that are currently open to misuse. Amnesty International's new report New Expression Meets Old Repression provides a valuable guide to these.

Engaging with civil society is also essential. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, says in her most recent report, "civil society and human rights defenders play a vital role in democratic societies". In contrast to previous regimes, the new government should not see civil society as a threat, but rather as a vital aspect of democratisation, and should therefore take steps to stop the continuing monitoring and harassment of activists by the Special Branch and military intelligence.

The two biggest challenges to be addressed are the ethnic conflict and rising religious intolerance. Burma has been torn apart by civil war for almost seventy years, with horrific humanitarian consequences. The only way decades of conflict can be brought to an end is through a negotiated political settlement, giving the ethnic states autonomy within a federal system. The outgoing regime has had a much-lauded peace process which in reality is a sham: it put the cart before the horse, resulted in no lasting solution, cost vast amounts of money and only paused fighting in some parts of the country. The ceasefires established over the past four years are welcome to the extent that people are no longer being killed, displaced or raped on the same scale as they were previously. But a ceasefire is not the same as a lasting peace, which is still to be achieved. And in other parts of the country, notably Kachin and Shan States, fighting continues and thousands have been displaced.

Religious intolerance falls into two related but distinct forms: the crisis of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State, and the rise of militant Buddhist nationalism in the rest of the country. Both have been stoked by the previous regime and the military, and both will be extremely difficult for the new government to tackle.

"The proliferation of hate", Suu Kyi said in her first major international interview with Fergal Keane on the BBC two days after the November election, is something that should concern everyone. Those who incite hatred or violence should be brought to justice, she added, and her government would protect all people in the country. While "prejudice is not removed easily and hatred is not going to be removed easily," she expressed confidence that "the great majority of the people want peace... they do not want to live on a diet of hate and fear."

Such remarks provide a very important basis for the new government's approach, but they must translate into action. And there are practical steps the government could take.

For a start, those who preach hate speech and incite violence should be prosecuted, while those who have been jailed for criticising the hatemongers should be released. That means freeing Htin Lin Oo and former monk U Gambira, two Buddhists who have spoken out against the extremist Buddhist nationalist movement Ma Ba Tha.

Support for inter-faith dialogue initiatives, both at a leadership and a grassroots level, should be stepped up.

Restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State should be lifted, so that aid can reach over 150,000 people displaced and living in dire conditions.

And urgent steps should be taken to reform or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law. The denial of citizenship to people who have lived in Burma for generations lies at the heart of much of the discrimination and persecution in Burma today.

It might be unrealistic to expect the new government to repeal the four race and religion laws that were introduced last year and only serve to fuel religious intolerance, but that should not stop us calling for this. At the very least, the world must urge the new government not to enforce or implement these new laws.

Burma should be encouraged to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit the country, to meet with different groups and provide assistance and advice to the new government on this crucial theme.

Finally, as Burma's Cardinal Charles Maung Bo argued so eloquently at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, a credible, independent, international investigation should be established - perhaps by the UN - to investigate the causes of the crisis in Rakhine State and propose action. Such an initiative should be welcomed by the new government as a step that would give it the space to reflect and the independently verified evidence and advice it needs. The crisis in Rakhine State is, said Cardinal Bo, "intolerable - and one which cannot be allowed to remain unresolved". And as Yanghee Lee said, "There are more than a million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar deprived of some of their most fundamental rights. This is a million too many."

Amidst the many challenges, there are signs of hope. The nomination and election of a Chin Christian, Henry Van Thio, as one of the two Vice-Presidents is significant in this multi-religious, multi-ethnic country. Yet the militant Buddhist nationalists who immediately called for protests against his nomination were a reminder that they are still very present.

Despite the constraints, Burma and the world will be looking to the new government to "bring about change", as the NLD's Patron U Tin Oo put it. "We asked for the people's vote so that we could form a government that reflects their will," he said. A careful balance of patience and advice will be needed to help Burma's new government deliver.

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