When Burma became independent in 1948, it was initially democratic. However, a coup d'état in 1962 led to a military dictatorship.
On May 10, 2008, Burma held a constitutional referendum with the goal of creating a discipline-flourishing democracy, yet the military government refused any international or independent referendum monitors, or UN assistance in the conduction of the voting. Later reports showed that the process was deeply flawed by vote tampering, intimidation of voters, and a general atmosphere of coercion.
In accordance with the new constitution approved by the 2008 referendum, general elections were held for the first time in 20 years in November 2010 with a resounding victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Thein Sein was sworn in as president of a nominally civilian government and the transfer of powers to the new government was completed.
Since the 2010 election, the government has embarked on a series of reforms, like the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission and the granting of general amnesties for more than 200 political prisoners to direct the country towards liberal democracy, a mixed economy, and reconciliation.
General elections were again held on November 8, 2015. These were the first openly contested elections since 1990, giving the National League for Democracy an absolute majority of seats in both chambers of the national parliament. With NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi constitutionally being barred from the presidency, Htin Kyaw was elected as the first non-military president on 15 March 2016.
However, deep-rooted challenges, including constitutional empowerment of the military, repressive legislation, weak rule of law, and a corrupt judiciary remain prevalent. Though the the military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, the military retains autonomy from civilian oversight and extensive power over the government and national security, with control of the Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs Ministries. This means that the NLD is forced to share power under the constitution.
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: BURMESE
GOVERNMENT: PARLIAMENTARY REPUBLIC
PRESIDENT: HTIN KYAW
IN POWER SINCE: MARCH 30, 2016
RULING PARTY: NATIONAL LEAGUE FOR DEMOCRACY (NLD)
In Burma, both freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are critically limited. Under the new government following the election of 2015, media and citizens officials have complete freedom of speech.
However, numerous forms of government control remain inscribed in the legal framework and employed to restrict media freedom. In reality the new NLD-led government continues the use of problematic legislation to restrict free speech. Arrests and prosecutions for participation in peaceful assemblies have continued under the new administration.
In October 2015 six Rohingya publishers were arrested for printing calendars that referred to the Rohingya people as an ethnic minority. In April 2016, numerous activists were arrested under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act for “defaming” Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw, or the military in social media posts.
Vague incitement provisions such as those in Article 505(b) and (c) of the Burmese Penal Code are in violation of international law. HRF declared that for Burma to become a truly democratic country, it must stop imprisoning people for activities that would be completely legal in any democratic society, like printing a politically-charged calendar.
The Rohingya are an Indo-Aryan Muslim minority group that has lived in Burma for generations.
The government, however, refuses to recognize Rohingyas as either citizens or an official minority group. Instead, they are considered illegal Bengali immigrants. Rohingyas are not allowed the right to vote, to travel without official permission, are banned from owning land and are required to sign a commitment to have no more than two children
Discrimination of the Rohingya people goes back decades to 1982 when the group was first removed from Burma’s list of officially-recognized minorities.
Contrary to Rohingas hopes, Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), has said little about the discrimination of the Rohingya people, presumably out of concern that her popularity will suffer, given that the disenfranchised Rohingyas are not popular among the predominantly Bamar voters, Burma’s dominant ethnic group.
HRF and Burma
FREE SPEECH UNLIMITED
Human Rights Foundation, in partnership with John Templeton Foundation and Universidad Francisco Marroquin, provides a resource which outlines access to free speech and details relevant cases.
Zoya Phan is a Burmese human rights activist and author.
After fleeing Than Shwe’s military dictatorship and claiming asylum as a refugee in the U.K., Phan has worked to expose the junta’s repression. She is currently the campaign manager for the Burma Campaign UK (BCUK). She also created and is the director of the Phan Foundation to promote the education, human rights, and the culture of the Karen ethnic minority in Burma. In 2009, Phan published “Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma.” In 2010, she was honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. In 2017, she was denied a visa to return to Burma to attend an unveiling of a statue of her late father, Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, on the ninth anniversary of his death.Through her work at the Phan Foundation, BCUK, social media, and public appearances, she remains an important advocate for human rights and civil society issues in Burma.