Myanmar - Politics
Myanmar [the state formerly known as Burma] has a quasi-parliamentary system of government in which the national parliament selects the president and constitutional provisions grant one-quarter of parliamentary seats to active-duty military appointees. The military also has the authority to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs and one of two vice presidents, as well as to assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. In 2015 the country held nationwide parliamentary elections that the public widely accepted as a credible reflection of the will of the people. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi was the civilian government’s de facto leader and, due to constitutional provisions preventing her from becoming president, remained in the position of state counsellor.
The Myanmar Police Force (MPF), under the Ministry of Home Affairs (led by an active-duty general), is responsible for internal security. The Border Guard Police is administratively part of the MPF but operationally distinct. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security but are also engaged extensively in internal security, including combat against ethnic armed groups. Under the constitution civilian authorities have no authority over the security forces; the armed forces commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, maintained effective control over the security forces.
Extreme repression of and discrimination against the minority Rohingya population, who are predominantly Muslim, continued in Rakhine State. Intense fighting between the military and the ethnic-Rakhine Arakan Army (AA) that escalated in January displaced thousands more civilians, further disrupted humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, and resulted in serious abuses of civilian populations. Fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State, as well as fighting there among ethnic armed groups, temporarily displaced thousands of persons and resulted in abuses, including reports of civilian deaths and forced recruitment by the ethnic armed groups.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of extrajudicial and arbitrary killings by security forces; enforced disappearance by security forces; torture and rape and other forms of sexual violence by security forces; arbitrary detention by the government; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; severe restrictions on free expression including arbitrary arrest and prosecution of journalists, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including arrests of peaceful protesters and restrictions on civil society activity; severe restrictions on religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement, in particular for Rohingya; significant acts of corruption by some officials; some unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats targeting members of national, ethnic, and religious minorities; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although those laws were rarely enforced; and the use of forced and child labor.
There were long-running armed internal conflicts across the country. Reports of killings, disappearances, beatings, torture, forced labor, forced relocations, the use of child soldiers, excessive use of force, disregard for civilian life, sexual violence, and other abuses committed by government forces and armed opposition and rebel groups were common. There continued to be almost complete impunity for past and continuing abuses by the military. In a few cases the government took limited actions to prosecute or punish officials responsible for abuses, although in ways that were not commensurate with the seriousness of the crime. Some armed ethnic groups committed human rights abuses, including killings, unlawful use of child soldiers, forced labor of adults and children, and failure to protect civilians in conflict zones. These abuses rarely resulted in investigations or prosecutions.
The government continued to detain and arrest journalists, activists, and critics of the government and the military. According to civil society groups that use a definition of political prisoners that includes those who may have engaged in acts of violence and excludes some charges related to freedom of expression and religion, there were 50 convicted political prisoners as of October. Another 580 individuals were facing trial for their political views, of whom 179 were detained and the rest were out on bail, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Freedom of expression was more restricted in 2019 than in 2018. Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, intimidated, and imprisoned citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government and the military, generally under charges of defamation, incitement, protesting without a permit, or violating national security laws. This included the detentions and trials of activists and ordinary citizens. The government applied laws carrying more severe punishments than in the past, including laws enabling years-long prison sentences. A variety of laws were used to censor or prosecute public dissent. Military officers brought or sought to bring charges against several prominent religious figures based on their criticism of the military.
Independent media were active and able to operate, despite many official and unofficial restrictions. The government continued to permit the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of July authorities approved 46 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2018, and the security forces detained journalists under laws carrying more severe sentences than those it used in previous years. Local media could cover human rights and political issues, including, for example, democratic reform and international investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, although they observed some self-censorship on these subjects. Official action or threats of such action increased against journalists reporting on conflict in Rakhine State involving the AA. The government generally permitted media outlets to cover protests and civil conflict, topics not reported widely in state-run media.
The military continued to practice zero tolerance of perceived critical media commentary through prosecution by civil authorities. Members of the ruling party increasingly prosecuted journalists perceived as critical. Military and civilian government officials used broad defamation statutes to bring criminal charges against journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens.
Self-censorship was common, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, the situation in Rakhine State, and the peace process. Journalists reported that such self-censorship became more pronounced after the 2018 trial and conviction of two Reuters journalists. In May 2019 the president granted amnesty to two Reuters reporters detained in late 2017 and sentenced in 2018 to seven years in prison under the Official Secrets Act for their investigation of security forces’ activities in northern Rakhine State. Although the constitution provides the right to peaceful assembly, it was not always respected in practice. Authorities used laws against criminal trespass as well as provisions which criminalize actions the government deemed likely to cause “an offense against the State or against the public tranquility” to restrict peaceful assembly.
Corruption remained a problem, particularly in the judiciary. Police reportedly often required victims to pay substantial bribes for criminal investigations and routinely extorted money from the civilian population. The government took some steps to investigate and address corruption of government officials.
The constitution provides citizens limited ability to choose their government through elections held by secret ballot; the electoral system is not fully representational and does not assure the free expression of the will of the people. Under the constitution, active-duty military are appointed to one-quarter of all national and regional parliamentary seats, and the military has the right to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs -- which has responsibility for police, prisons, and other domestic security matters -- and border affairs. The military can alsoindefinitely assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. The constitution prohibits persons with immediate relatives holding foreign citizenship from becoming president. Amending the constitution requires approval by more than 75 percent of members of parliament, giving the military effective veto power over constitutional amendments.
Observers considered the 2015 national election to be generally reflective of the will of the people, notwithstanding some structural shortcomings, and considered subsequent by-elections in 2017 and 2018 basically free and fair. Observers raised concerns that 25 percent of seats in parliament were reserved for unelected military officers; potential Muslim candidates were disqualified by their political parties on an apparently discriminatory basis; almost all members of the Rohingya community, many of whom voted in elections prior to 2015, were disenfranchised; and the government canceled voting in some conflict-affected ethnic minority areas. The NLD, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, won more than 77 percent of the contested 1,150 seats at the state, regional, and union levels in the 2015 election.
Opposition parties and civil society organizations continued to exercise their rights to assemble and protest. New political parties were generally allowed to register and compete in elections, which featured fewer restrictions on party organization and voter mobilization. Only sporadic interference from government officials was reported. Competition was skewed in part by the military-backed United Solidarity and Development Party’s systematic support from the military, whose personnel and their families are eligible to vote, casting ballots in military barracks in some cases. Moreover, some legal provisions can be invoked to restrict parties’ operations. The constitution contains a requirement that political parties be loyal to the state, which carries the potential for abuse. Laws allow for penalties, including deregistration, against political parties that accept support from foreign governments or religious bodies, or that are deemed to have abused religion for political purposes or disrespected the constitution.
Myanmar's military pledged 30 January 2021 to protect the constitution and act according to law, after comments this week from its commander-in-chief sparked fears of an impending coup. The country's powerful army had repeatedly made allegations of widespread vote fraud in the November elections, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) win by a landslide. But political tensions escalated when a military spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of a coup, and warned the armed forces could "take action" if concerns about election irregularities weren't addressed. The country's election commission has rejected the army's allegations of widespread vote fraud, although it has conceded there were minor flaws in the process. Newly elected MPs were expected to take their seats in Myanmar's parliament on 01 February 2021.
On 31 Janaury 2021 Myanmar's powerful military detained the country's leader in a late-night raid, the ruling National League for Democracy said on Monday. "I want to tell our people not to respond rashly and I want them to act according to the law," said spokesman Myo Nyunt, revealing that Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders had been detained. He added that he also expected to be taken. "With the situation we see happening now, we have to assume that the military is staging a coup," he added.
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