Besides the Rohingya crisis, Myanmar is under scrutiny on press freedoms and the Panglong peace process
For Myanmar, 2018 may be crucial. The year 2017 did not proceed favourably for either the civilian government or the military establishment, which continues to hold considerable power over state institutions. Three important issues attracted the attention of the international community — the threat to press freedom; the Rohingya refugee crisis; and the peace process with the country’s ethnic armed groups. The civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), which came to power after winning a majority in the 2015 elections, attracted severe criticism for its failure to act on these issues more effectively.
As regards the first issue, evidence on the ground suggests that media freedom was threatened on several occasions. At least 11 journalists — both Myanmarese and foreign — were arrested. Two journalists working for the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation — Lau Hon Meng from Singapore and Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia — were arrested in late October, along with their local interpreter, Aung Naing Soe, and driver, Hla Tin. They were charged under the country’s Anti-Aircraft Act and sentenced to two months in jail for trying to use a drone to record images of the Parliament building. They were subsequently released on December 29. The issue here is not restrictions placed on the use of drones but the limited media freedom and the civilian government’s reluctance or inability to act in this regard.
Reporting on Rakhine
A more serious development has been the arrest of two Reuters reporters — Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo — on December 12. The Ministry of Information accuses them of “illegally acquiring information with the intention of sharing it with foreign media”. Charges have been pressed against them under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act and they face up to 14 years in prison.
At this point, details on the information they received are not known. However, it is suspected that the documents given pertained to operations of security forces in the Rakhine State. The details reportedly are about the military’s investigation of a mass grave in a village called Inn Din, a mixed ethnic area, in Rakhine. Local newspapers have also reported that days after the arrest of the Reuters reporters, five ethnic Rakhine residents of Inn Din were detained on suspicion of giving them information.
The United Nations has called the crackdown in Rakhine as “ethnic cleansing” while Amnesty International has termed the operations as “crimes against humanity”. Up until now, the gruesome accounts of the actions of the security forces are primarily coming from the Rohingya refugees who have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. But despite the continuing international condemnation, the Myanmar military leadership denies any wrongdoing and continues to maintain that they were only responding to attacks of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which they officially label as terrorist.
The third important issue that made headlines was the country’s peace process with the ethnic armed groups. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi had said on assuming power that one of her government’s top priorities was to make peace with the groups.
In May last year, the government convened the second session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference which brought together some 1,400 representatives from the government, the legislature, the military and ethnic armed organisations. It discussed 41 points and was able to reach agreement on 37 of them. The groups agreed on recognising a ‘Union’ based on democracy and federalism, with the right to self-determination. The government agreed that no ethnic race would be given special privileges. It was also decided that States and regions would be allowed to write their own Constitutions.
However, an agreement is yet to be reached on two of the most critical outstanding issues: formation of a ‘federal army’ and ‘secession’. The military, which has played a dominant role in the entire peace process, insists that there should be a single national army while the ethnic armed groups want to see a federal army, which would allow them to retain their respective armed forces.
Concerning the issue of secession, while the ethnic armed groups are willing to subscribe to the principle of non-disintegration of the Union, they would not like to see the term ‘non-secession’ inserted into the Union Peace Accord. One other major concern is that out of the more than 20 armed groups, only eight have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The government is set to convene the third round of the Panglong Conference in the last week of January but it remains to be seen how much progress it can really make.