Ineptitude, poverty and tragedy: How Myanmar is falling apart

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Poverty and human rights abuses wreak havoc across Myanmar while the government is inactive; ineptly running the country and failing to provide basic protection for their downtrodden population.

By Oliver Ward, edited by John Pennington

A baby girl died in Myanmar after her parents forced her and her two brothers to drink pesticide and attacked them with knives. This one example – and there are tragically many more – shows the horrific reality the country’s impoverished citizens are faced with on a daily basis.

In this case, the family had contracted drug-resistant tuberculosis and the parents attempted a mass suicide. They had had the disease for some time and were struggling to make a living as nobody wanted to employ them for fear of catching the disease themselves.

The country is undergoing a human rights crisis, poverty is endemic and to make matters worse there is a leadership vacuum. The chilling incidents playing out in the media reveal a desperate population living in a country in turmoil and precious little being done to help them.

Poverty has a vice-like grip on the population

In Myanmar, currently 25.6% of the population is living below the national poverty line, the worst record in Southeast Asia. Only two people in every hundred have access to the internet and 40 out of 1,000 babies born will die before their first birthday. The daily reality in Myanmar is children rummaging through trash, scores of parents begging in the streets to feed their families and young girls forced into prostitution to provide an income for their desperate families. Survival is still a very real struggle for the impoverished population.

Since the return of civilian government and the lifting of US sanctions in 2015, there has been a small increase in foreign investment, but the poor remain downtrodden and forgotten. Land laws were changed in 2012 and 2013 to make it easier for the government to facilitate land grabs and many segments of the rural population have seen their homes demolished and their paddy fields ruined to make way for foreign development projects. Farmers like Umya Hlaing have been left without land with, “no conversation, no replacement land, no adequate compensation.”

Countrywide, human rights have taken a back seat

The arbitrary land seizures are just the tip of the iceberg; human rights abuses are rife. A recent visit to Myanmar by UN special rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, outlined a bleak situation across the country, despite being barred from visiting many regions by the army. The military have abducted religious leaders, like the two Kachin church leaders who have been missing since December 24. The army have admitted to detaining the pair on allegations of being, “recruiters, informers and rumour-mongers.”

The pair, Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng, were reportedly helping journalists report on the military’s destruction of a local church. The tyrannical scare tactics of the military of readily arresting local figures on charges of aiding rebel groups is nothing new in Myanmar. Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights have condemned the arrests, saying the, “disappearances raise grave concerns for the safety of the two men.” If these are the incidents the army is admitting to and granting UN reporters access to, the extent of the horrors being suppressed can only be imagined.

The Rohingya continue to suffer at the hands of the military

The human rights abuses against church members in Kachin state pale in comparison with the plight suffered by the Muslim Rohingya population. The population has seen their homes torched, the army have been accused of widespread murder and rape and video footage of police routinely beating Rohingya villagers in the village Koe Tan Kauk surfaced last November. The human rights abuses are deplorable enough, but the continued denial of offences from both the military and the government is unforgivable.

Despite overwhelming evidence the government refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing. The claims that the Rohingya torched their own houses in order to get newer, better ones from aid agencies were dismissed as “incredible” and “far-fetched” by Yanghee Lee after her visit. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s inactivity and refusal to acknowledge the extent of the issue robs the Rohingya of hope. Her refusal to challenge the military on their conduct creates conditions where institutionalized discrimination is accepted and becomes commonplace. Until government acceptance of the extent of the problem occurs, Myanmar will remain an unsafe place for the Rohingya Muslims.

Aung San Suu Kyi is an ineffective leader

When Suu Kyi won a landslide election in 2015 and came to power with a string of honours including a Nobel Peace prize under her belt, hopes were high for Myanmar’s future. Now, less than two years on, that hope has been all but extinguished. Her inability to deliver on her campaign promises exhibits the lack of control she has over the country and her ineffectiveness as a political leader.

In 2015 she promised to change the constitution to reduce the power of the army. It was a cornerstone of her election campaign yet has since been quietly forgotten. It is as if she has since realised that any change to the constitution could threaten the very existence of her government and has instead opted to maintain the status quo.

Similarly, she promised to release all Myanmar’s political prisoners when she came to power. While she secured the release for many at the start of her leadership, the authorities continue to arrest and detain ethnic minorities on minor charges and the country’s broken justice system has no formal complaints procedure. There are currently at least 40 people being charged for “defaming, disturbing” and “causing undue influence” by using a telecommunication network. Suu Kyi has completely failed to change political attitudes or repressive legislature that puts people behind bars in the first place.

The government is not even able to deliver on basic economic growth or transportation

Mirroring Suu Kyi’s inactivity over human rights abuses has been her virtual silence on the economy. She has proposed almost no economic policies which has led to reluctance on the part of foreign businesses to invest in the country on a significant scale. Without solid economic policies to create stability, investment in the region is too unpredictable for foreign investors. The currency is falling and real-term economic growth for 2016 is estimated at 7%, a slump in comparison to recent years which have seen growth around 8.2% per year, putting it behind the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia. GDP per capita growth dropped by 0.7%  from 2014 to 2015, the inflation rate still lingers above 10% and Myanmar is ranked as the 136th least corrupt country in the world. Suu Kyi’s government is proving to be inept at running a national economy.

The failings of Myanmar’s government can be seen across the country in all aspects of daily life. Recent attempts to streamline the aging Yangon Bus Service were riddled with problems and bureaucratic failings. The new service was unreliable, stopped hours before advertised service times and prices were unpredictable as many drivers and conductors overcharged. On the first day of the new service only 2,900 out of 3,700 buses were running, causing widespread delays.

With Suu Kyi at the helm Myanmar’s future looks the same as today – at best. Her complete inability to improve living standards, halt the widespread human rights abuses taking place or provide a stable economy make her unsuitable to lead the country and steer Myanmar towards a brighter future.

The country’s population continues to suffer under her weak leadership. The hope which filled their hearts in 2015 is already a distant memory. As Suu Kyi watches the country fall apart around her, she could easily be portrayed as a latter-day Nero, the emperor famous for fiddling as Rome burned in the first century AD.