Hunter Marston is a PhD candidate at Australian National University and an independent consultant at GlobalWonks LLC.
On Tuesday, two Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters journalists, Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, finally emerged from prison after 511 days behind bars. The announcement by Myanmar’s president, Win Myint, also covered the release of 6,518 other prisoners and followed two recent mass amnesties for prisoners, which are customary around Thingyan, Myanmar’s new-year festival in April.
Human rights organizations, Western governments, international journalists and Myanmar activists greeted the news with elation. Yet the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo cannot hide the fact that press freedom and democratic rights have declined markedly under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Sadly, even though the country has embraced civilian leadership, Myanmar has come to resemble the “discipline-flourishing democracy” which the former military junta promised leading up to the political transition in 2011.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, there are 25 political prisoners remaining behind bars with an additional 283 awaiting trial. Athan, a group in Yangon that defends freedom of expression, counts 173 defamation cases brought against citizens under a restrictive law since its enactment in 2013. Of those, 140 have taken place since Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD took power in 2016.
At the same time, the NLD government has been hesitant to rein in radical Buddhist nationalists for fear of alienating the majority of Buddhist voters who are ardent supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi. As state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi has presided over the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities and failed to check the military’s brutal counterinsurgency operations across the country’s northern frontier. Aung San Suu Kyi has also spoken favorably of Chinese infrastructure projects such as the Myitsone Dam in Kachin state, which the local population vehemently opposes due to projected environmental destruction and an influx of Chinese labor.
She has also continued a vastly unpopular campaign to build statues of her father General Aung San, who was commander of the armed forces of Burma (as the country was known then) after it achieved independence from British colonial rule. Despite Aung San’s popular esteem as the country’s independence hero, ethnic minority groups regard him as emblematic of the Bamar majority’s disdain for their local interests and rights.
The NLD government has relied on antiquated, colonial-era legislation to clamp down on outspoken critics in the press and civil society in an attempt to impose a strict party line on matters of domestic turmoil, particularly surrounding the crisis in Rakhine state, the home of most of the 730,000 ethnic Rohingya driven out of the country by the military’s scorched-earth tactics since 2017. The two Reuters reporters were arrested that year and convicted in September for violating the Official Secrets Act, a law dating back to 1923. A court sentenced the journalists to seven years in prison after policemen handed them documents alleged to contain classified information in an arranged sting operation outside a beer garden in Yangon.
Some analysts have ventured that Aung San Suu Kyi has little or no control over Myanmar’s all-powerful security forces and was reluctant to use her limited political capital to free the reporters out of deference to the military. Yet there is reason to believe the military did not oppose their release. Rather, as pressure continued to mount on the Myanmar government over the imprisoned Reuters journalists, it became clear that it was Aung San Suu Kyi who obstinately refused to free them.
After American Vice President Mike Pence met with Aung San Suu Kyi at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Singapore last November, reports emerged that she had reacted defiantly, insisting that the journalists had committed a crime by publishing information her government had determined were state secrets. When questioned at the World Economic Forum in Vietnam last year, she argued that there had been no issues with the legal process.
The international community had assumed that Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to political power would result in a democratic opening, yet ironically she now appears to be standing in the way of further reforms. With the NLD poised to win another general election in 2020, it is unlikely Aung San Suu Kyi will have a sudden change of heart and begin implementing more liberal policies or use an electoral mandate to begin speaking up for minority groups. Instead, she appears to have embraced the Myanmar military’s unique understanding of “disciplined” democracy — which, needless to say, isn’t very democratic at all.