By Andrew Rogers

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a country held captive, “As the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma concluded in his 1997 report: ‘[T]here is essentially no freedom of thought, opinion, expression or association in Myanmar.” (1) To describe human rights in Myanmar, one only needs to look at the captivity of Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and has been a political prisoner in her own home for most of the last two decades. (2)

However, as Ms. Suu Kyi has said, “[Burma is] at the beginning of a road.”(2) Not all is bleak and hopeless in the country of Myanmar. The 2012 elections have found 43 seats fall into the hands of the now official opposition party in Burma, the National League for Democracy, headed by Suu Kyi. This is an unprecedented event, especially coming from such a restrictive government. The government in Myanmar “promised the vote would be free and fair and allowed international observers to monitor the polling.” The initial reaction around the world has been one of elation and newfound hope.  Whether this hope will bring a more prosperous future is as of yet to be seen.(3)

Myanmar is a nation of around 55 million people, mostly Buddhist. Its government is a nominal civilian parliamentary that took power in March 2011. Although the majority (68%) of people belong to the Burmese Ethnic group, there are large amounts of other groups that have felt some level of discrimination, and a civil war between the military and ethnic insurgent groups near the eastern borders have caused 503,000 people of ethnic decent to become internally displaced.(4)

According to the CIA Factbook, there is “no guarantee of a fair public trial; the judiciary is not independent of the executive.” The recently established 2011 constitution calls for judicial reforms including “a supreme court, a Courts-Martial, and a Constitutional Tribunal of the Union”, but these promises are yet to materialize. (4)

The modern history of Myanmar starts in 1884, when Britain established colonial rule after sixty years of war. (5) Burma was given a strong level of autonomy from Britain after world war II when the  Panglong Agreement was signed, bringing together the frontier areas, where many ethnic groups lived, to the planes of Burma, where the majority in Burma live, to form the borders of modern Burma as they are today. (6)

This agreement and the independence of Burma were spearheaded by Aung San, father of Suu Kyi. He was a major influence on the politics of Burma, and became a figurehead and cultural leader in Burma. (5) A period of unrest and civil war followed his assassination, ending in the 1962 coup by General Ne Win.

On August 8, 1988, the 8888 uprising took hold, as hundreds of thousands (“about 500,000”) of demonstrators filed into the streets.  After several weeks of rallies, demonstrations and speeches by leaders of the movement, including Ms. Suu Kyi the people of Burma successfully toppled General Ne Win’s government. Another new military run government came to power later that year on the 18th of September as another coup was staged and the military led a crackdown on protestors, leaving thousands dead. (7)

After the September coup, the military junta promised to form a new government and write a constitution, and on May 27, 1990, elections were held.  The opposition party, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won in a landslide victory. The ruling party didn’t expect this, and decided not to honor the election results, keeping power and placing Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest.(8) Whether the junta had planned on giving actual power to the new government and reneged, or just give them power to write a constitution all along and never made promises to give up power has been the center of some debate. (9)

The Assistant Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) has said that it would be unfair to judge the 8888 uprising by a “limited set of demands”. The 8888 uprising was the tipping point, the action that laid the “unseen foundation for a new era of social activism”. Min Ko Naing was relatively unknown before the uprisings, and Aung San Suu played “in politics previous to the uprisings. She, however, like countless others, was so moved by the 8888 uprisings that she decided to dedicate her life to the struggle.” These are just two examples of political activists “paving the way for a younger generation of activists”, striving for democracy in Burma. (10)

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi gives speech to supporters at Hlaing Thar Yar Township in Yangon, Myanmar on 17 November 2011. Photo credit: Htoo Tay Zar (Creative Commons)

In Myanmar, Internet access is closely controlled by the Electronic Act. This act gives the government power to block websites that criticize or threaten the Burmese regime. Such websites include media groups, proxies, blogs, and study-abroad scholarship sites. This law specifically outlaws e-mail services other than those that are government sponsored. Along with IP and URL blocking devices, the law gives the government power to slow down or disconnect the Internet services of the entire country in a time of crisis, as it did during the 2007 protests. (11)

The Printers and Publishers Registration Act was established in 1962 by the revolutionary council, firmly establishing the power of government censorship and prior restraint in the Press Security Board. There were also subsequent ruling bodies placed over film, paintings, songs, and other forms of publishing. (1)

The Emergency Provisions Act has been used veraciously by the Burmese government to staunch free expression and the press. It criminalizes actions that are “causing or intending to disrupt the morality or the behavior of a group of people or the general public.”  This law has been used to criminalize a broad range of activity, ranging from protestors singing songs at a funeral to passing information on to foreign journalists. One particular example of this is the case of both U Sein Hla Oo, a journalist who was imprisoned for, among other things, translating Aung San Suu Kyi’s book into Burmese, and Khin Maung Swe who was sentenced for attempting to smuggle this book out of the country. (1)

The Computer Science Development Law is a particularly restrictive law, which has been called “Orwellian” by the United States Department of State. This law makes it a crime to import, posses, or use computer equipment unless given a license by the ministry of communication. It also makes it illegal to use a computer to carry out acts that undermine “State Security, prevalence of law and order and community peace and tranquility, national unity, State economy or national culture;” or use a computer to “Distribute any information or State secret relevant to State security, prevalence of law and order and community peace and tranquility, national unity, state economy or national culture.” Information about prosecutions under this law have been “hard to come by”, but it is said to have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression. As one western journalist has said, “[N]o one has e-mail or Internet access in Burma except for a select few business owners who are friendly with the military regime.” (1)

The laws stated here aren’t the only means the government in Burma has to suppress speech and the press. They actively and systematically practice prior restraint on publication and performers, with harsh prison sentences for people who go against the governments will. In 2006, Zarganar, whose name translates into English as “tweezers”, was banned from “taking part in any entertainment-related work” after he spoke about government regulations on  the annual water festival. He was also allegedly involved in a T.V. commercial that could have jeopardized Burma’s relationship with china. The commercial insinuated that Taiwan was an independent country. Zarganar has denied making the commercial. (12)

The international reaction to all of these violations of Human Rights has been one of public resentment in the form of declarations, Sanctions and Embargo’s. One such declaration comes in the form of then President Bush’s speech to the U.N. in 2007 that “American’s are outraged by the situation in Burma,” warning Burma about a possible increase in U.S. sanctions. (13)

It seems as if these sanctions are starting to cause a reaction in the Burmese ruling party. Recently made peace offerings by the ruling party have caused administrations across the globe to rethink lessoning sanctions placed on Burma. With Burma’s president calling the March 2012 elections a success and stating “Myanmar would like to regain the confidence of the community here in ASEAN and Myanmar certainly would want to be integrated more effectively, efficiently into the international community.” ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has cited Thein Sein, president of Burma as saying  “the process was more important than the result”, the result being that 43 of 45 contested seats out of the total of 664 have now been democratically chosen to be filled by the National League for Democracy. (14) Questions do arise about the true nature of these elections. Ms. Suu Kyi is quoted as saying that “the irregularities [in the election] went ‘beyond what is acceptable for democratic elections.’” She went on to say that “the names of hundreds of deceased had been listed on the electoral roll,” and hundreds of eligible voters were missing. (15) The Burmese government has reached out to the international community, inviting election observers into Myanmar. Despite this being an unprecedented action, U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland has said that they’re “not going to conform to international standards for conducting an election observation mission.” This is because the government hasn’t allowed enough time for the envoy to observe the whole election process, only giving them “a couple of days before the election” which doesn’t conform to the UN Declaration of Principles on International Election Observance. (16)

Other former restrictions on free press under the printers and publishers act are being lifted. One can now see pictures and posters of Ms. Suu Kyi shown on the streets of Rangoon; National League for Democracy posters and t-shirts are sold “openly on Rangoon street corners”. This isn’t to say that they’ve abandoned all of their powers of censorship. Burmese citizens still have to submit their publications to the government, and it can still be arbitrarily rejected. “The only way to be sure is to submit the pages and see what gets through.” – explained an editorial spokesman from the Myanmar Times. They’ve been permitted to cover stories about different “flawed 2010 elections,” but are unable to report on things such as a strike at a Chinese-owned factory, quotations from student activist Min Ko Naing, or ethnic conflicts and government proscribed forced labor. (17)

With these laws being ignored and the announcement that the Censorship Bureau is being dismantled, the government has made huge steps forward for the freedom of the people of Burma. These steps are among a number of peace offerings by the ruling party to the Burmese people and the international community at large, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners.  (18)  One of the many examples of these new peace offerings and freed political prisoners comes in the case of comedian Zarganar, who was arrested and was convicted to serve 35 years in prison “after criticizing the Burmese government’s handling of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.” He had organized relief for “Many villages which had received no official help” and was convicted of “public order offences”. He was released on October 12 2011. (19)

The United States has lifted some sanctions against the Myanmar government, with European leaders considering doing the same. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said “We fully recognize and embrace the progress that has taken place and we will continue our policy of engagement.” (20)   “Foreign Secretary William Hague (of the United Kingdom) said: ‘This is a historic result for Burma… The UK, as the largest bilateral donor of aid to Burma, stands ready to support this process'”(21)

So how does the United States’ policy match up with the policies in Burma? For one, the united states has a strong history of independent judicial review and the strength of the rule of law. But these powers haven’t protected all citizens’ rights in the united states. The United States currently ranks 47th in the press freedom index, tied with Romania and behind South Africa (42) Botswana (tied at 42) and much of Europe. (22)

One example of a freedom abridged in the United States is in the Patriot Act, which sets up a system of “guilt by association” with any organization that the state would deem to be a terrorist organization, “even if the group has never been designated as a terrorist organization…. [and] regardless of whether they knew of the designation”. (23 25) This is not to mention the thousands of Muslim American citizens that are currently “detained and disappeared in this country” as a result of other aspects of the Patriot act.(24)

The United States also currently practices a form of ad hoc indefinite detention of people in Guantanamo Bay “even if they were acquitted of any crimes by the Military Commissions.”(24)

Although Internet security is much protected in the United States as of now, there are still other areas of censorship active in the United States, mainly that of censorship in schools. This comes in two areas: race, and LGBT rights. It seems as if the notion that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech . . . at the schoolhouse gate.” stated in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District has been disregarded. In Arizona, school districts have started banning any books, classes or curriculum that “promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government.” This has been used practically exclusively against classes on Hispanic culture, showing a disproportionate bias against Hispanic culture. (25) There are examples of other school districts whose firewalls have been blocking access to online LGBT websites. This is shown in the recent lawsuit by the ACLU against Camdenton School District whose computers were “unconstitutionally blocking access to hundreds of LGBT websites, including sites that contain anti-bullying information and other resources for student gay-straight alliances.” The ACLU sent a letter to the school, warning they would be “subject to legal liability and the expense of litigation…” if they “failed to disable the filter”. (26)

Freedom of assembly and freedom of the press have both long been a central ideology of democracy in America, and yet from time to time American citizens see their freedom to protest hampered by police brutality and government intervention. Recently, “The New York Times reported that ‘New York cops have arrested, punched, whacked, shoved to the ground and tossed a barrier at reporters and photographers’ covering protests” such as the occupy wall street movement in Succoth Park. “Other reporters wearing press passes were arrested and roughed up by cops”. These actions don’t seem to be individual incidents either, as the Mayor of Oakland has recently “acknowledged that the Department of Homeland Security had participated in an 18-city mayor conference call advising mayors on “how to suppress” Occupy protests”. (27)

Despite these few examples of similarity, the main difference between the two countries is that Burma has no stable rule of law, no proper representative government, and no freedom of the press. At the least, these freedoms are very new and untested. Even if someone is wrongly convicted in the United States, police action is used unfairly, or the government impedes the freedom of assembly, there are still other means and processes to express oneself, to demand rights be returned to the people and levy legal action against the parties that have infringed upon them. Even if some of these rights are taken away, there are established modes of expression and action to return rights to the American people. Although these powers may be “dismissively” called “parchment barriers” as James Madison did, these protections are a bulwark against tyrannical rule. (28)

1. Dr. Venkat Iyer “Acts of Oppression Censorship and the law in Burma” March 1999, Online Burma/Myanmar Library. 4/5/2012http://burmalibrary.org/docs3/Acts%20of%20Oppression,%20Art19.htm#law

2. “Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi” April 1, 2012, British Broadcasting Corporation, 4/5/2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11685977

4. CNN Wire Staff “Party: Suu Kyi wins Myanmar election” April 01, 2012, CNN, 4/5/2012 http://articles.cnn.com/2012-04-01/asia/world_asia_myanmar-elections_1_myanmar-election-nyan-win-aung-san-suu-kyi?_s=PM:ASIA

5. “The World Factbook” April 3 2012, CIA, 4/5/2012 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html

6. “Brief History of Burma” United States Campaign for Burma 4/5/2012 http://uscampaignforburma.org/learn-about-burma/history/

7. “The Panglong Agreement: Making it simple” February 07 2012 Shan Herald, 4/5/2012 http://www.shanland.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4398:the-panglong-agreement-making-it-simple&catid=85:politics&Itemid=266

9. Philippa Fogarty “Was Burma’s 1988 uprising worth it?” August 6 2008, British Broadcasting Corporation, 4/5/2012 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7543347.stm

10. “1990 Elections overview” 2008 Burma Democratic Concern 4/5/2012 http://www.bdcburma.org/1990.asp

11. Michael Aung-Thwin “Reality in Burma differs from myths” February 04, 2011, Star Advertiser, 4/5/2012 http://www.staradvertiser.com/editorials/20110204_Reality_in_Burma_differs_from_myths.html

12. “The Role of Students in the 8888 People’s Uprising in Burma” 07 August 2011, http://www.moemaka.org MoeMaka, 4/5/2012 http://moemaka.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=507:the-role-of-students-in-the-8888-peoples-uprising-in-burma&catid=84:op-ed&Itemid=311

13. “Internet Enemies 2010 – Burma” 18 March 2010 Reporters without Borders http://www.unhcr.org 4/5/2012 http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country%2c%2cRSF%2cANNUALREPORT%2cMMR%2c%2c4c21f67228%2c0.html

14. “Mizzima News: Junta cancels Zarganar’s program on HIV/AIDS – Ngunte“ 4 Dec 2006, Burmanet news, 4/5/2012 http://www.burmanet.org/news/2006/12/04/mizzima-news-junta-cancels-zarganars-programme-on-hivaids-ngunte/

15. David Jackson and Barbara Stavin, “Bush tightens sanctions on Burma” 9/25/2007, USAtoday, 4/5/2012 http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-09-24-bush_N.htm

16. “Burma’s president calls elections a success” April 3, 2012, CBS news, April 5th, 2012, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57408849/burmas-president-calls-elections-a-success/

17. “Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma election not ‘free and fair’” 30 March 2012, British Broadcast Corporation, 4/5/2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17558542

18. LALIT K JHA “US Says Observer Conditions Don’t Meet Int’l Standards” March 29, 2012, Irrawaddy, 4/5/2012 http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/1329

19. Mark Honigsbaum “Burma awakes to glasnost: a (partly) free press and (some) freedom of expression” February

25. 2012, The Guardian, 4/5/2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/26/burma-glasnost-free-press- expression

20. Simon roughneen, “Cautious Hope for Freedom of Information in Burma” March 29, 2012, PBS, 4/5/2012 http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2012/03/cautious-hope-for-freedom-of-information-in-burma089.html

21. http://www.freezarganar.org, October 12 2011 Free Zrganar, 4/5/2012

22. “US to ease sanctions against Burma” 5, April, 2012 British Broadcasting Corporation, 4/5/2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17619519

23. “Foreign Secretary statement on Burma by-elections” April 3, 2012, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 4/5/2012 http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=News&id=749510082

24. “PRESS FREEDOM INDEX 2011-2012” 2012, Reporters Without Borders, 4/5/2012 http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2011-2012,1043.html

25. “How the Anti-Terrorism Bill Allows for Detention of People Engaging in Innocent Associational Activity” http://www.aclu.org October 23, 2001, ACLU, 4/5/2012 http://www.aclu.org/national-security/how-anti-terrorism-bill-allows-detention-people-engaging-innocent-associational-ac

26. “Illegal Detentions, Security Culture, and the New Wave of Repression Against The Muslim-American and Activist Communities” http://www.democracynow.org 2/27, 2002, Democracy Now, 4/5/2012 http://www.democracynow.org/2002/2/27/illegal_detentions_security_culture_and_the

27. “End Unlawful and Abusive Detention” http://www.amnestyusa.org 2010, Amnesty International, 4/5/2012, http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/security-and-human-rights/illegal-and-indefinite-detention

28. Dalina Castellanos, “Mexican American studies: ‘Daily Show’ segment strikes a nerve” http://www.latimes.com April 4, 2012, L.A. Times, April 4, 2012 http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-tucson-school-board-daily-show-20120404,0,5593283.story

29. Suzanne Ito, “ACLU Sues Missouri School District for Illegally Censoring LGBT Websites” http://www.aclu.org 08/15/2011, ACLU, April 5 2012, http://www.aclu.org/blog/free-speech-lgbt-rights/aclu-sues-missouri-school-district-illegally-censoring-lgbt-websites

30. Naomi Wolf. “Shocking truth about crackdown on occupy” http://www.guardian.co.uk Friday 25 November 2011, The Guardian, April 5, 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/25/shocking-truth-about-crackdown-occupy

31. Diana Schaub. “South Africa’s Orwellian Constitution.” http://www.hoover.org April 4, 2012, hoover institute, April 4 2012, http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/113041


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