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So Much For Democratic Reform
How Free Is Myanmar?

Concerns over Myanmar’s commitment to its professed “democratic” reforms have increased over the past few months, with human rights activists and journalists slamming the government for its treatment of Rohingya and various international aid agencies. The Burmese government has also stressed a newfound dedication to freedom of speech, but several recent events call that commitment into question.

Six journalists have been jailed so far this year by the Burmese government. One, Zaw Pe, was found guilty on trumped up charges after attempting to report on a corruption case. Among his crimes was “entering an education department office without authorization and interviewing students.” The others, all from the newspaper Unity, were detained after releasing a story about a chemical weapons factory; they face up to 14 years in prison. In the most recent case, an Australian intern for the Democratic Voice of Burma was deported after trying, ironically enough, to cover a rally in support of freedom of the press.

Burma’s government often tries to claim great strides toward a more open, free society, and celebrates its advance in international press freedom rankings. U.S. and other Western officials sometimes join this back-slapping celebration. U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel said last week that “the [Burmese] political space has opened significantly in the last three years, and the government has taken important steps to cultivate an environment conducive to free, fair and independent media, a critical element of a vibrant democracy.” But it still sits at 145 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, a dismal rating, and the police can arrest journalists who make too much of a stir.

Meanwhile, the situation for the Rohingya in the western part of the country is growing dangerously dire. Jane Perlez of the New York Times was recently there, writing a story about a Rohingya baby who died because local clinics had been shut down by the government. Doctors Without Borders was ejected from the country for providing care to refugees. The government denies a concerted campaign of oppression against the Rohingya, and also dismisses concerns of a health crisis. Perlez’s reporting speaks for itself. One man recently died after improper care; if Doctors Without Borders had still be there, he might have lived. His burial site, on a beach by the Bay of Bengal, into which many Rohingya have fled to find countries more accepting of them, is “surrounded by rows and rows of other graves dug in recent months.”

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