Opinion


The last three years in Burma have seen remarkable change, as the country starts out on the hard, but essential, journey towards democracy. Working closely with the U.S. and the international community, the U.K. has supported Burma’s progress. We continue to work with the government, political parties, and armed groups to reach a nationwide ceasefire and establish an inclusive nationwide political dialogue. But there is still much to do to ensure Burma continues to move forward on its path to democracy.
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Myanmar’s opening attracted much interest not only from Asian neighbors but also from those in the West that once considered the country a pariah.
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Religious prejudice continues to endanger Burma. Recently, deadly clashes of Muslim and Buddhist mobs in Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, showed once again just how explosive the tensions between both faiths have become.
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“Muslims are pitiable, stupid and ignorant. They are not living in harmony with us.”
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Myanmar took a giant step away from democracy last week when a court sentenced five journalists to 10 years in prison with hard labor for reporting news that the government did not like. Hard labor was a common punishment during the decades of military rule. After the military junta dissolved itself in 2011, the government of President Thein Sein abolished censorship, began reforms of the news media and freed journalists. It is deeply disturbing that Myanmar is now meting out punishment to reporters for doing their jobs.
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In 1974, there were only 35 democracies in the world, among them the United States, Canada, western and northern European countries, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. That was less than 30 percent of the world’s countries. A lot has changed since that time. By 2013, the number of democracies had expanded to about 120 countries, or more than 60 percent of the total.
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In November 2002 I wrote a book called Dialogue. On the cover I dedicated it “to the people of Burma, who do not have the culture of dialogue”.
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Burma’s simmering religious tensions flared in its second biggest city, Mandalay this week, as Buddhists and Muslims  clashed over reports of an alleged rape involving a young Buddhist girl and a Muslim man. Clashes between mobs of men of both communities occurred on the nights of 2 and 3 July before the authorities imposed a curfew. As usual with Burma’s communal violence, the plot thickens as the dust settles, and it appears as if the violence was not just an organic eruption of communal resentment but another incident in a tableau of nationwide religious tensions.
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(1) Military Intelligence (MI) cast a black shadow over Myanmar for 16 years. From 1988 to 2004, everyone lived under the threat of MI – before it and its leader, former General Khin Nyunt, were finally toppled. People in politics, the media, business, social organizations and artists feared MI. Even it they did not want to associate with MI they had to; it was everywhere.
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Myanmar is a story just waiting for a fairytale ending. The beautiful daughter of an assassinated national hero faces down evil generals during years of cruel incarceration. For decades, the generals grind the country into the ground, trashing the economy and fighting ethnic minorities in the wild border regions. Finally, the generals relent. They release “the Lady” and begin a remarkable transition to democracy. Political prisoners are set free. The press is unshackled. Western sanctions are lifted. Ceasefires break out throughout the land. All that remains is for the military to return definitively to barracks and allow Aung San Suu Kyi, the princess of this tale, to take up her rightful position as leader of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous country. It is so close you can almost touch it.
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Late afternoon Pacific Time on Monday, I noticed a news story that kept popping up in my Facebook newsfeed. It was the link to an item from the Burmese news site Thit Htoo Lwin.
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More disturbingly, both Buddhist ultra-nationalism and anti-Islamic hate speech are on the rise, emboldened by prominent monks who urge the government to restrict inter-faith marriage, religious conversions, family planning and polygamy, all of which will adversely affect Burma’s sizeable Muslim minority.
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In some areas of remote Rakhine State in western Burma (officially the Union of Myanmar), mothers struggle to find medicine for their sick children, people avoid visiting clinics for fear of violence, and entire communities face serious illness and even death from preventable diseases. This black hole of medical care – created specifically to punish members of the minority Rohingya ethnic group – threatens millions of people in Rakhine State.
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On May 28, as the latest skirmish unfolded between Bangladesh’s Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Myanmar’s Border Guard Police (BGP), leaving one BGB member dead, the uneasy relationship between the two neighbors again came to the fore. Although Bangladesh is mostly surrounded by India, it does share a short border with Myanmar, the importance of which has increased dramatically over the past decade. Despite the recent spate of unrest, Bangladesh is eager to resolve the simmering crisis, especially given Myanmar’s strategic importance as the gateway to China and ASEAN, and as a potential long-term supplier of natural gas.
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Readers often ask: Why do I travel to places like Sudan or Myanmar when we Americans have so many challenges at home to worry about?
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Myanmar movie theatres crackle while the audience munches on sunflower seeds, a human soundtrack I heard all of last week as a jury member for Yangon’s Human Rights, Human Dignity International Film Festival.
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Hillary Clinton may claim it as a personal diplomatic achievement, but political reform in Burma is proving fitful and slow—if it continues at all. In the latest case, the country’s military-led parliament is poised to uphold the constitutional provision barring opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running for President in 2015.
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Over 80 organizations from civil society worldwide today call on Burma to scrap proposed legislation that would unlawfully restrict the right to freely choose a religion. If adopted, this law would violate fundamental human rights and could lead to further violence against Muslims and other religious minorities in the country.
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Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
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Sometimes the two American agencies which are mandated to watch and promote religious freedom have arguments over how harshly to scold a country that offends. But some recent developments in Myanmar, reflecting the influence of hard-line Buddhist monks, have drawn a near-unanimous cry of disapproval in Washington DC. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), whose members are nominated by Congress as well as the administration, has said a proposed law on religious conversion should have “no place in the 21st century”. After predicting that the law could stoke fresh violence against Muslims and Christians, it said the American government should “factor these negative developments into its evolving relationship” with Myanmar. Meanwhile the State Department said that by proposing to criminalise inter-faith marriage, the Burmese government risked contravening its own stated intention of promoting tolerance and human rights.

The conversion bill, which would require anyone wanting to change religion to seek permission from local authorities, is one of four bills which the government has drawn up under pressure from a group of zealous Buddhist monks called Mabatha. Under the mooted conversion law, anybody applying to convert “with the intention of insulting or destroying a religion” could be jailed for up to two years, and people who “compel” others to convert through “undue influence or pressure” could also go jail for a year. The other proposed laws concern marriage between people of different religions, birth rates and polygamy. All the measures are seen as an attack on non-Buddhist minorities, especially the country’s 2.2m Muslims who came off worst in a series of outbreaks of inter-communal violence since 2012.
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