Pictures of the glorious Myanmar on the country's military controlled tourism website.

In November 2010, the world’s attention was once again focused on Myanmar. The first elections since 1990 were followed by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement. Despite these developments, the grip of the military regime appears as strong as ever, and Myanmar remains a country notorious for a range of human rights violations. International action against the generals who rule the country has, to date, proved ineffective, with economic interests one reason why some countries are unprepared to sanction tougher action against one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Human Rights in MyanmarEdit

Myanmar has been governed by the military since 1962. Despite the fertility of its soil and considerable oil and gas reserves, the country is one of the poorest in Asia - a victim of government corruption and incompetence. The military have maintained their grip on power through the systematic use of repression and violence. The following abuses are said to be commonplace:

  • Arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents,
  • Use of torture, murder and rape,
  • Forced resettlements,
  • State control of the media,
  • Persecution of religious minorities,
  • Ban on freedom of assembly and association,
  • Use of child soldiers,
  • Use of forced labour.

In 1988, 3000 were killed in anti-government protests. Political concessions followed, and in 1990 the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in elections. However, the result was ignored by the military and Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other leaders of the party, began lengthy periods in detention.

The 2007 DemonstrationsEdit

Burmese Monks

Thousands of monks take to the streets of Myanmar in peaceful protest against the military government.

In September 2007, demonstrations sparked by an increase in fuel prices quickly mushroomed into the most serious challenge faced by the regime since the 1988 anti-government protests. A coordinating group, “The Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks”, was formed, which denounced the government as an “enemy of the people”. As the international community prevaricated the military acted decisively to suppress the growing uprising; restrictions on the media make it difficult to give clear figures, but it appears hundreds were killed or imprisoned in the clampdown.

The 2010 ElectionsEdit

In 2008, a new constitution was introduced, ratified in a referendum which was widely denounced as being unfair. The 2010 elections were the first to be held under the new constitutional arrangements, and resulted in a victory for the pro-military parties, in particular the Union Solidarity and Development Party. This came as no surprise, as the main pro-democracy group, the National League for Democracy, urged a boycott of the poll. Other opposition parties which did take part have alleged widespread fraud and electoral malpractice, and these allegations have been supported by international observers; a UN committee denounced the poll as being “neither free nor fair.

It seems the elections will do little to shake the military’s grip on the country. 25% of the seats are guaranteed to the military, and under the terms of the constitution any change to the system must have the support of more than 75% of the Parliament, giving the military a right of veto over any significant political change. Key positions in government, including the ministers of defence, interior, and border security, are reserved to the generals.

International ActionEdit

In 2010, 96 countries backed a UN resolution which condemned Myanmar’s “ongoing systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” They also expressed "grave concern at the continuing practice of arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." However, 28 countries, including China and Russia, voted against the resolution. China and Russia have often acted to support the military regime. In January 2007, they vetoed a proposed Security Council resolution urging the Myanmar government to end its persecution of minority and opposition groups, and after the 2010 elections China expressed support for the process, and condemned “finger pointing” by the West as unhelpful.

Sanctions have been applied by western nations against the government of Myanmar. Both the EU and the US have put in place measures against the regime, but these have often been criticised as weak and ineffective. Powerful economic interests are at stake; France, for example, has resisted tougher EU sanctions partly due to the fact that Total, its major oil company, invests heavily in the country. Myanmar is rich in natural resources, and many countries, not least China, see economic advantage in maintaining good relations with the generals.

Aung San Suu KyiEdit

Aung San Suu Kyi

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, in November 2010, made headlines around the world. She has spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest, and, much like Nelson Mandela before her, she has become a symbol of resistance against an oppressive regime. An advocate of peaceful resistance, she commands considerable moral authority, although some of her decisions have caused controversy; for example, her NLD split over whether or not to contest the 2010 poll. She has said that she is prepared to talk to the generals, but her release has not signalled a wider relaxation of repression by the regime; 2200 political prisoners remain behind bars.

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