HRW report highlights Myanmar’s slowing reforms

The reform process in Myanmar experienced significant slowdowns, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its World Report 2015, which reviewed the country’s situations in 2014.

The report published on January 29 featured Myanmar’s situation on six pages and highlighted the reasons for declining reforms. It points out in some cases reversals of basic freedoms and democratic progress in 2014.

HRW said the government continued to pass laws with significant human rights limitations, failed to address calls for constitutional reform ahead of the 2015 elections, and increased arrests of peaceful critics, including land protesters and journalists.

The government's commitment to staging free and fair elections in 2015 came under question in 2014 as it cancelled planned bi-elections and made no commitment to amend the deeply flawed 2008 constitution, it reviews. 

The report points out article 59(f), article 436 and the military 25 percent of seats in parliament, which grants it an effective veto over constitutional amendments and the government’s refusal to discuss federalism.

Myanmar’s Defense Services, or Tatmadaw, rejected constitutional amendments, and senior military leaders in numerous speeches vowed to safeguard the existing constitution as one of the military’s core duties. Military leaders also maintained that they should retain their quota of reserved seats in parliament, control of key ministries, and emergency powers.

There were at least 27 political prisoners in Myanmar at time of writing, according to former prisoner groups, HRW said, adding that some 200 other people face charges for what appears to be efforts to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. A presidential amnesty in October released 3,000 prisoners, only about a dozen of whom were political prisoners. 

The report also includes protests over land rights, evictions, land ownership problems between the military and farmers and parliament’s maintenance of controversial section 18 of the Peaceful Process and Assembly Law in 2014.  

Media freedoms, viewed as a key indicator of human rights progress, took a sharp downturn in 2014 as the government increased its intimidation of media, HRW commented.

Such a sharp downturn in media freedoms were based on government’s pressure on publications and visa restrictions on exiled Myanmar and foreign journalists, the sentencing of journalists from the weekly journal to many years in prison for breaches of the Official Secrets Act, which alarmed many journalists who saw it as a return to past draconian punishments of media, and the killing of freelance reporter Aung Kyaw Naing (also known as Par Gyi).   

Another thing HRW points out is that the Public Service Media Bill will foster the development of a publicly funded media conglomerate that can be expected to serve as a powerful pro-government voice. 

HRW also blamed Myanmar for continued problems of minorities citing the issue of Rakhine State as an example.  

As to ethnic conflict and forced displacement, the reports points out continued fighting in Kachin and Shan states and the plight of internally displaced people. 

An estimated 350,000 people remain internally displaced in eastern Myanmar, and more than 110,000 refugees live in nine camps across the border in Thailand. Under current conditions—lack of security in the area, extensive landmine infestation, poor rule of law, and an absence of even basic infrastructure and services—any returns would not be sustainable and in line with international standards.

The report says all major aid donors—including those from the European Union, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Japan—increased aid and development support to Myanmar in 2014. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank also increased grants in 2014. It however reviewed the donor countries had done little to pressure Myanmar to keep reforms on track. 

In 2014 the government staged four child soldier release ceremonies, discharging a total of 378 underage soldiers. Non-state armed groups, particularly in Myanmar's northern states where fighting has increased, also recruit and use child soldiers, HRW quoted widespread reports.

The HRW report for 2015 comes after a report released by the Freedom House on January 28. It says that Myanmar, which has only partly abandoned military rule, began to veer from the path to democracy.