THE country the world used to know as Burma and is now called Myanmar began to regain a reputation of being “normal” after its military dictatorship of almost 50 years was formally dissolved in 2011.
Today, President Thein Sein is treated by most of his counterparts — in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other states — as a legitimately elected leader. This despite the fact that the 2010 elections, which the dictatorship of the military junta claimed to be democratic, was not at all free. It was undemocratic and fraudulent, with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Its candidate was the former military junta chief General Thein Sein himself. He was proclaimed the winner (having supposedly garnered 80 percent of the votes.)
Nevertheless, the now civilian autocracy under President Thein Sein has been more benign than Burma’s military dictators.
The most important opposition figure is the Nobel Prize Laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi. She is a pro-democracy and human rights icon whom the military junta had imprisoned and later kept under house arrest for 15 years. The big pressure on the Myanmar government is to allow her to run for president, which can only be done by amending the constitution which has a provision–placed there by the former military dictators precisely to disqualify her—against allowing persons with alien spouses and children to run for office.
Unelected military men make up one-fourth of the Burmese parliament by constitutional mandate. The government party, which the military controls, is formally against amending the constitution, although some government-related politicians are talking, probably to look good to the outside world, as if they were really friends of Suu Kyi. The pro-government forces will never allow her to run.
Her party members keep winning seats in parliament. And in the dictatorship’s attempt to deodorize itself allowed supervised elections in 1990. Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her people actually won and of course the military junta rejected the results.
Nevertheless, Myanmar’s leadership and governance — having introduced some economic and human rights liberalization — are now accepted as “okay,” meaning no worse than those of other countries in Asean that are under communist party dictatorships.
Aside from the political oppression of the now-free Aung San Suu Kyi, the much-publicized gripe against Burma these days are government-backed proposed race and religion laws that are discriminatory against the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In Bangkok last Monday, parliamentarians, who still refer to Myanmar as a “military government,” called on Burma’s leaders “to scrap a package of discriminatory laws to be submitted for review by the parliament, saying they violate international human rights laws and threaten to destabilize the country in its transition to democracy.”
“These laws are discriminatory in their very conception and should be scrapped,” said Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) Chairperson and Malaysian Member of Parliament Charles Santiago. “Over the past three years under Myanmar’s military government we have seen a continuation and proliferation of ethnic and religious-based discrimination that threatens to undermine the entire reform process and destabilize the country as it goes through its democratic transition.”
Myanmar’s military-dominated parliament is set to debate the controversial laws in its session in January 2015.
If passed, the Marriage Bill would compel non-Buddhist men to convert before marrying a Buddhist woman. The Religious Conversion Bill unnecessarily imposes state and bureaucratic controls that violate freedoms of religion and belief and are clearly aimed at undermining the country’s minority faiths.
Our own Congressman Walden Belo said, “The use of the title ‘protection of race and religion’ bills is a total misnomer. They should be called the ‘attack on minority race and religion’ bills. They are discriminatory against women and religious minorities and have no place in the laws of a modern democratic nation.” Rep. Belo is the vice chairman of APHR.
“The legislation as it stands is another step in the institutionalization of discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities and would serve to legitimize the dangerous views of those groups which have been inciting violence and hate-speech against Muslims and other minorities,” Mr. Belo also said.