Will Myanmar’s Government Deliver on Human Rights Commitments?

This op-ed is written by Shaivalini Parmar, Myanmar Programme Officer at Civil Rights Defenders. It was first published in The Huffington Post on 10 December 2015.

In the days following Myanmar’s historic election it was fast apparent that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), had taken a landslide victory. Throngs of crimson supporters waving flags adorned with the fighting peacock, a symbol associated with decades of struggle against military rule, waited in anticipation outside NLD headquarters as early results were announced. The euphoria was tangible, and it was clear that the people had voted for change and for democracy.

Still, the transition to “democracy” can be read as partial at best. The Lady’s reach has been carefully demarcated by Myanmar’s generals, who have ensured their power will not be compromised. The constitution allows the military 25% of seats in parliament, giving them an effective veto over all constitution amendments. The military will still maintain control over key bureaucracies, including Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defense. The constitution also provides that any person who has children who hold other citizenships (as is the case with Suu Kyi) will be barred from presidency. The Lady, in response, has publicly reiterated that she will be “above” the president. A rose by any other name.

Now that the peacock has taken an overwhelming victory, what will come next? Crucially, will the NLD and their allies be able to effectively remedy a long legacy of human rights abuses?

Aung San Suu Kyi, long held as a figurehead for democracy and human rights, is revered by many to a point of divinity in Myanmar. Since entering politics she has remained notably silent on key human rights concerns. The pre-election manifesto the NLD released outlines the administration’s broader policies, but with little clarity on how or what will be done going forward.

The NLD is due to form a government in March next year. The months leading up to the transition are opportune towards committing to protect human rights and pledging concrete action to improve the country’s rights record. It is worrying that the current administration continues to exhibit flagrant disregard for basic rights standards at such a critical juncture in Myanmar’s transition, and the NLD and their allies need to commit to fundamentally resolving this.

It would bode well for the incoming administration to begin by promptly amending all legislation that falls short of basic human rights standards. Crucially, this should include the so-called “protection of race and religion” laws, a restrictive legislative package addressing religious conversion, polygamy, interfaith marriage, and family planning. The laws are inherently discriminatory and ostensibly aimed at marginalising the Muslims and other minority groups.

What hope is there for the persecuted minority group when they appear to have no representation in the new government? Suu Kyi and her allies have remained largely silent or openly dismissive on the subject. Merely weeks after the election, U Win Htein, an NLD official, publicly announced that assisting the Rohingya was not among a priority for the new administration. There is a very real risk that the longstanding persecution of the Rohingya, and discrimination against Muslims more broadly, will only become more pronounced unless the new administration commits to concrete measures to firmly protect them.

Additionally, the ruling administration appears to have intensified a concerted campaign to silence perceived critics of the government. Various legislative provisions are frequently used to harass, intimidate, and arrest human rights defenders. The digital era appears also to have ushered in new modes of repression, where the Electronics Transactions Law and the Telecommunications law have been liberally applied to target activists, defenders, journalists, and even poets who offended the delicate sensibilities of the military and ruling party. In the new and “transitioning” Myanmar, even satire is possible basis for arrest. The NLD and other political parties should publicly commit to protecting human rights defenders and restoring a space for the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly. Crucially, introducing a legislative provision securing the right to information should be of priority for the new administration.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory was welcomed with great optimism, but it is clear that there is a long way forward. The NLD must work towards loosening the military’s stronghold on political affairs and ensure that their legacy of abuse doesn’t persist with impunity. The international community, including businesses and investors, should fully lend their support to helping Myanmar restore respect for rights. The protection of fundamental rights can act as a foundation for sustainable peace and development in Myanmar. The government of Myanmar expected this election to legitimise its place before the international community, but it should be made clear that elections alone do not make a democracy.