Myanmar’s emergency law is repealed, but a greater danger to democracy is lurking

Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/CC BY 2.0

The repeal of Myanmar’s Emergency Provision Act is an important step towards democracy but does not guarantee the right of activists to have their voice heard. Say it quietly, but the country’s dream of the great Aung San Suu Kyi as leader has not translated to a move away from the authoritarian ways of old. 

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By Tan Zhi Xin

Myanmar has formally abolished one of its strictest laws, known as the emergency law, frequently used by the former military junta to silence dissents and crush political opposition.

The 66-year-old Emergency Provision Act conferred a tremendous amount of power upon the former regime; allowing it to detain persons without charge and prescribe jail terms or execution for a wide range of treasonous offences. And Myanmar’s citizens faced jail terms of up to seven years for seemingly minor actions, such as reading foreign newspapers or listening to foreign broadcasters.

Chairman of the panel in the Parliament’s upper house that helped draft the new legislation, U Aung Kyi Nyunt said, “the law does not fit with the current situation of (democratisation) in the country.” And that is certainly the case; estimates are that between 7,000 and 10,000 people had been thrown into jail since the military seized power in 1962. 

This abolition is the latest in Myanmar’s democratic transitional process, but as much as it symbolises a positive move towards democracy, it does not mean that the dissidents can now speak freely. People are still under the watchful eyes of Aung San Suu Kyi and her government.

For many, the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s landslide victory in the previous election heralded an accelerated democratic transition for Myanmar. And true to this spirit, as soon as the current government assumed power 69 student protesters jailed for more than a year without trial were freed. Their only crime had been their involvement in a demonstration against a law restricting academic freedom.

At the same time, charges against more than 100 political activists were also dropped, leading to commendations by various international human rights groups.

A new form of authoritarianism in Myanmar?

However, these hopes of democracy are just an overlay to the Burmese political scene. If one looks closely, he will realise that the country is becoming disturbingly similar to that run under the old ways. The new Myanmar is simply a return to the authoritarian days, except that now it plays out under the democratic mask.

The NLD has proven to the world that it has the power to do whatever it wants, regardless of existing restrictions. For instance, when Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from the presidency, her party created another position just for her. Even the Lady herself declared that by doing this, she would be above the president. As we see today, Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader; Htin Kyaw is her puppet.

It has also continued pursuing charges against some of the country’s most notorious activists and avoided taking a stand on sensitive issues – especially those concerning the Rohingya people. The party is also dragging their feet on delivering the promise of establishing the legal definition of “political prisoner”.

“To speak honestly, (the NLD) hates activists” so “(if) we distribute pamphlets about land grabs, labour abuses, and so on, we will become the target of the NLD,” says Ko Saleiq, a Rangoon-based activist. There seems to be a consensus that Aung San Suu Kyi has become increasingly elitist and authoritarian.

Former party member, Daw Khin Phone Wai remarked that she “cannot relate to ordinary people. People are facing hardship every day, and she can’t feel their needs. She is not in touch with the people at the bottom.” Using “elitist” to describe Aung San Suu Kyi might be a new phenomenon, but “authoritarian” is not. Paradoxical as it may be this figure, who has endured decades of hardship in her fight for democracy, has long been associated with “authoritarianism”. An idea which even her closest allies in NLD do not deny.

Many commenters defend her by saying that she is only associated with authoritarian ideas because of her top-down handling of party affairs. But in reality, it is much more than that.

Before the previous presidential election the party refused to reveal the name of the candidates running for the presidency, resulting in unhappiness and frustration amongst the people. In response, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “(the) responsibility of the people is simply to vote for the party, not the name of the candidate”.

As such, Aung San Suu Kyi’s idea of democracy is limited to giving people the opportunity to vote for those who will then make the decision. Beyond that, people do not have freedom to voice their preferences and opinions.

What about the abolition of Emergency Law then?

Until recently, Myanmar was a pariah state but its historic transition to a civilian government has reduced such sentiment. As such, it is reasonable to suggest that the abolition of Emergency Law is a means to improve Myanmar’s global image. Doing so will bring about many benefits, as can be seen from the recent lifting of decades-long sanctions by the United States.

While people in general can expect slightly more freedom of speech in their everyday life, it would be naïve to think that political activists and dissidents can now speak up freely against the government.