Written for The Diplomat
Myanmar is changing and changing in the right direction.
These were the exact words used by Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin when he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly of world leaders in New York on September 29, 2014.
He declared that “positive changes” and “winds of change” have spread across Myanmar in the past three years, which have become the solid foundations of a democratic state.
The foreign minister mentioned three waves of reforms initiated by the government: The first was the “peaceful transformation from the military government to a multiparty democratic system.” The second involved economic, administrative and private-sector development reforms. And the third is supposed to deliver benefits to the people by fulfilling their socio-economic needs.
It was the first wave of reforms that impressed the international community when Myanmar granted amnesties, released political prisoners, conducted elections, abolished press censorship, and allowed private newspapers to publish again.
But many of these reforms were questioned in recent months when state forces were accused of violating the rights of citizens, especially those who were protesting against government policies. The new UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, reported last July that there is a shrinking of democratic space for civil society and the media. The censorship board has been abolished but media persecution continues as critical journalists are either charged in the courts or detained for doing their job. There is media space but as the independent newspaper The Irrawaddy clarifies, “the limits of that space are still decided by the state.”
Another issue that Myanmar confronted in the past year is the ethnic and religious violence that has displaced Rohingya Muslims. The intermittent clashes between radical Buddhist groups and some Muslims also reflected the deep divide and continuing tension between several ethnic communities.
Perhaps in response to the accusation that the government is conspiring with Buddhists in attacking Muslim villages, the foreign minister urged critics to acknowledge the efforts of the government to bring peace and harmony in the country. “The history, the diversity and the complexity of the issue must be fully understood before jumping to conclusion. The situation should not be looked at in a superficial manner. The international community should contribute pragmatically and objectively to find a durable solution.”
He then enumerated several measures implemented by the government to promote human rights, such as the enactment of a new media law, granting of presidential amnesties, endorsement of a zero tolerance policy on the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war, prevention of recruitment of underage children in the army, and the revamping of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to make it more independent.
Related to this, the foreign minister asserted that it is time to remove Myanmar in the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council. “All major concerns related to human rights have been addressed to a larger extent in the new Myanmar. We have now reached the middle tier of the human rights ladder.”
Reacting to this statement, various activist groups highlighted the continuing “systematic rights abuses” perpetrated by the army and police against the civilian population. They also pointed out that the local human rights body was replaced with individuals affiliated with high officials. They were allegedly not consulted about this reshuffle.
Perhaps anticipating the voices of opposition, the foreign minister appealed for understanding, since Myanmar “democracy is still in its infancy” and that “the government has a long to-do list with limited capacity.” He assured global leaders that the Myanmar government is not complacent and that it’s aware of the challenges in reforming and building a democratic state. He also asked for fairness. “The development in Myanmar should also be viewed in a more balanced and objective manner.”
Indeed, the international community should encourage the wave of reforms to continue in the “new Myanmar.” It should recognize the decision of the Union Parliament to approve Myanmar’s accession to the Biological Weapons Convention (1972), and take note that Myanmar is currently the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; a daunting task since this is a crucial period for the regional grouping as it moves towards full integration next year. The world can also hope that the 14 peace agreements signed by the government will lead to a genuine national reconciliation and end the world’s longest ongoing civil war. And we can all get on board with Myanmar’s plan to graduate from Least Developed Countries status.
But the contrary voices that dispute the glowing report on Myanmar at the UN meeting should not be dismissed. They are valid since they seek to present what ordinary Burmese are experiencing on the ground. Myanmar should sit down with these groups, listen to their perspectives, and work with them in pursuing the reforms which are essential to make democracy a genuine phenomenon in the country.
Singapore Bans Documentary on Political Exiles
Written for The Diplomat
A 70-minute documentary on aging exiles reminiscing about their youth and dreams for Singapore has been banned by the government as a threat to national security.
The documentary, To Singapore, With Love by independent filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, featured interviews with political exiles who have been living outside Singapore for the past 35 to 50 years. But Singaporean residents won’t be able to watch these interviews and hear the stories of some of the prominent members of the country’s pioneer generation.
The Media Development Authority (MDA) explained that it classified the film as “Not Allowed for All Ratings” because it distorted the truth about a period in Singapore history: “The individuals featured in the film gave the impression that they are being unfairly denied their right to return to Singapore. They were not forced to leave Singapore, nor are they being prevented from returning.”
It added that the activists, opposition leaders and communists who challenged the leadership of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in the 1960s and 1970s are free to return to Singapore as long as they are willing to account for the criminal offences they committed in the past.
PAP has been Singapore’s ruling party since the late 1950s. According to the official history propagated by PAP, Singapore’s meteoric rise as a prosperous independent state was made possible after it defeated a communist plot to overthrow the government in the 1960s.
Director Tan Pin Pin expressed disappointment that her film, which received favorable reviews in many countries, will not have a public screening in Singapore. She said the film was made with the intent of helping Singaporeans gain a better understanding of their society.
“I wanted to understand how we became who we are by addressing what was banished and unspoken for. Perhaps what remains could be the essence of us today. I was also hoping that the film would open up a national conversation to allow us to understand ourselves as a nation better too,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
Indeed, the film could spark more interest about what really happened in Singapore in the 1960s. Aside from the PAP version of history, there is another viewpoint that accuses the PAP of brutally eliminating the political opposition in the 1960s. The PAP also allegedly labeled its critics as communists in order to consolidate political power.
Even if this is not true, many artists who signed an online petition believe that there are insufficient grounds to censor Tan Pin Pin’s film. “We would like to suggest that rather than banning the documentary, authorities release their version of the events in question, so that viewers can make up their own minds,” the petition declared.
For Tan Wah Piow, one of the exiles interviewed in the film, the ban has exposed PAP’s intolerance for other narratives of history. After watching the film, historian Pingtjin Thum disagreed with the censors that the film poses a threat to national security since what all the interviewees “have in common is a deep, abiding love for Singapore.”
Singapore will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary as a free nation and perhaps PAP should use this momentous occasion to promote reconciliation with its former enemies, especially those who were forced to go into exile many decades ago. Perhaps it’s time to recognize the role of banished leaders and marginalized groups in the making of modern Singapore.