Photo Credit: lewishamdreamer | Activists mark the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2007.
Aine Rickard takes a look at how the recent news from Burma about the beating and arrest of student protesters reflects the current direction of democratic reform in the country.
From positive beginnings, it has become clear that the much hoped-for reform process has not only stalled, but moved backwards. On 13th November 2010, the news that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest in Burma (also known as Myanmar) seemed to mark a true turning point in Burma’s political history.
It added to the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and the holding of the country’s first democratic elections in over 20 years, as genuine steps towards positive reform in the country.
The new government, whilst still largely run by the military, seemed focused on change. Civil society organisations were given more freedom to express their opinions, and some forms of independent media were allowed to report from the country.
As a result, in 2012, the EU and US governments dropped many economic sanctions in place against the previous Burmese junta.
Development aid flooded into the country, with more than €200 million received from Europe. The Japanese have made even stronger commitments, forgiving a colossal $5.32 billion of debt owed to it by the Burmese military, whilst investing hundreds of millions into development projects.
In the last 24 months, there have been four violent conflicts in Burma involving the Burmese authorities. These have killed thousands of people and caused over 300,000 to flee their homes across Kachin, Shan, Arakane and Kokang regions. There have also been many new laws passed by government which restrict individual freedoms such as the right to bear children and marry freely. There are increased arrests of people peacefully protesting or handing out information fliers about citizen rights.
The peaceful student march from Mandalay to Yangon this February is a clear example of the refusal of Burmese authorities to allow democratic freedom.
Students marched peacefully to protest a proposed education reform bill which would stifle academic freedom. 140km outside of Yangon in the town of Letpetdan, Burmese police set up road blockages to halt the students’ progress. When students refused to stop their march, the police and other pro-military forces proceeded to violently beat protestors along with monks and journalists supporting the students.
Over a hundred people were wrongly arrested, with several students being severely injured. Some of those arrested still have not been released, and satellite protests in Yangon and elsewhere which were started to express solidarity with the students have been similarly repressed.
Such treatment clearly shows that basic democratic rights are not being protected in Burma at present.
EU funding which has been pumped into police training in Myanmar since 2013 has clearly not been effective. Worse still, the UK government has been a key trainer of Burmese police forces, providing riot gear and seconding a PSNI officer to Burma. That same riot gear may well have been used by police in March to beat and refuse Burmese students their right to democratic and peaceful protest.
Very serious questions need to be asked be leaders in the West before more support is given to the broken Burmese promise of democracy. It is time to ask whether the flood of money from the West is helping Burma move towards democracy, or is actually financing and modernising the Burmese authoritarian regime.
If you want to find out more about the situation there look up Burma Action Ireland over at www.BurmaActionIreland.org