Finding Freedom Podcast: Are we really equal?
Europe has seen many improvements in GENDER EQUALITY in recent years. Topic is not a taboo even in some less developed democracies. However, lack of equality between women and men in politic...
Myanmar has a bicameral legislative system with a 440-seat lower, and a 224-seat upper house. The 2008 constitution, written by the former military junta, reserves one quarter of the 664 parliamentary seats for the army. The president is elected by the legislative chambers. In the past year, Myanmar has continued on its path from decades of military rule towards a more democratic country. Remarkable changes have taken place since the beginning of the reform process in 2011. President Thein Sein entered into a dialogue with prominent opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), who won a landslide victory in relatively free and fair by-elections in 2012. His administration lifted press restrictions, legalised to some extent public
demonstrations, and urged political exiles to return to the country. In the run-up for the 2012 by-elections there were also fewer restrictions on party organisation and mobilisation. The reform process also allows for the founding and existence of political opposition parties, which had been virtually impossible only a few years back. General elections are scheduled for late 2015. Up to 70 political parties are expected to contest in these national elections. In early 2014, a proposal suggested a parliamentary committee be assembled to review the 2008 Constitution for amendment, aiming at reducing military influence on politics and increasing civilian rule. The proposal is widely backed by opposition parties. To gather public support for repealing the military veto provision in parliament, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi´s NLD has joined forces with major civil society organisations, among them many former students of the 1988 uprising. However; the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which is closely tied to the army is unlikely to consent to a further decrease in political power, which has been chipped away continuously since 2011. The 2015 general elections will be the ultimate test to show Myanmar’s commitment to a truly democratic development.
The military still exerts significant influence on political decision-making. 25% of seats in Parliament are reserved for the military. In order to pass a bill through parliament, the vote requires more than 75% majority vote, which indicates the military has full veto power on legislative decision making. Furthermore, the military reserves sole discretion at appointing several key ministerial positions, including the appointment of the Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs ministers. Article 445 of the current 2008 Constitution deems any government official or military officer exempt from any action done ‘in the execution of their respective duties,’ making impunities rampant and power uncontrollable. However; developments towards reducing the power of the military is
progressing, which a major cabinet reshuffle in 2012 that ousted some hardliners clearly highlights. The lifting of press restrictions and granting of public demonstrations show the constant change towards a democratic system. Should the efforts of the opposition to amend Article 436 of the constitution (it effectively makes any change of the Myanmar Constitution dependent on the approval of the army) succeed and military influence be curbed in favour of an increased civilian rule, Myanmar could see significant changes in this score in the future.
With the start of political reforms in 2011, Myanmar has seen drastic improvements with regard to press freedom; however, the media landscape is not yet entirely free from restrictions. On the positive side, most imprisoned journalists have been freed along with other political prisoners. Online-censorship as well as censorship related to printing press, TV and radio stations have been noticeably eased yet broadcast media still remains a government run, operated and controlled industry. Meanwhile, a large number of privately run daily newspapers are available. Many news agencies that were formerly operating from exile have opened offices in the country. Due to economic improvements, more and more people have access to the internet however; especially in rural areas poverty and a lack of
infrastructure still exclude a large share of the population from online news sources. Despite all positive changes, Myanmar’s press freedom has also suffered several setbacks. In March 2013, the government passed a new media legislation which entitles the Ministry of Information (MoI) to revoke or deny publishing licenses. Journalist associations have demanded a stronger civilian voice in press legislation procedures. Several other restrictive state laws from the military junta era are still in place. Journalists who write about sensitive topics regarding the role of the military or the rights of ethnic minorities are at risk of legal consequences. In mid-2013, five journalists were sentenced to ten years imprisonment following critical reports of military involvement in chemical weapon production. Even though Myanmar’s press freedom ranking is at its highest level ever and President Thein Sein repeatedly voiced his support for a free press, many issues remain to be solved.
Myanmar’s judiciary is not fully independent. Decades of authoritarian rule systematically weakened the country’s judiciary and undermined its independence. Currently, the President has the sole authority to appoint high court judges and Human Rights Commissioners, controls the financing of the court system, and has the power to dismiss lower court judges. Parliament has control on financing and the impeachment of judges. A very controversial case occurred in 2011, where the Constitutional Court ruled to limit Parliamentary committees and commissions. Subsequently, the Parliament forced all nine constitutional court judges to resign immediately. Judicial branches in Myanmar lack the authority to properly investigate and arbitrate on matters of judicial concern. The Myanmar
National Human Rights Commission was established in 2011, but lacks independence, with appointments of Commissioners coming from the President and a restricted mandate that prevents judicial reprimand for convicted violators of human rights. Likewise, according to articles 294 and 319 in the Constitution, the military cannot be tried in civil court, but instead, must be tried in military court. This renders the military outside the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, the highest court in Myanmar. Recent developments within the judiciary are encouraging. As a part of a constitutional review process, the Supreme Court submitted a letter to the president of the parliament to examine the state of judicial independence in Myanmar. The International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based human rights organisation, has lauded this step and promised to support the Supreme Court through capacity building.
Myanmar faces major challenges to eradicate its endemic corruption. Since its democratisation process began, sweeping economic and political reforms have aimed at opening the country and cleaning up its economy. But evidence suggests that these reforms so far had only limited effect at curbing corrupt practices. According to a UN-led study in 2014, 20% of 3,000 surveyed companies identified corruption as a “very severe obstacle” to their operations. A whopping 60% of firms said that they had to pay bribes in order to get properly registered and receive licenses and permits. President Thein Sein has made it clear on many occasions during his presidency that he sees corruption as one of the most serious issues in Myanmar’s reform process. An anti-corruption committee was
set up in early 2013 to further support anti-corruption efforts.
Despite improvements during the past few years human rights still have a problematic standing in Myanmar. The country’s progress on human rights has indeed picked up speed, and many political prisoners having been released at the time of writing this report. The freedoms of assembly, association and the media have markedly improved during the past years. But unfortunately, overall advances in human rights protection have been offset by some issues. The government has concluded ceasefire agreements with many of the ethnic armed groups and is negotiations with additional groups. But occasional clashes between the military and some armed groups continues to occur. The military has been repeatedly accused of systematic human rights abuses. Although evidence suggests that the situation
has improved during the past years, occasional reports of alleged abuses do still surface. Inter-religious violence between Buddhists and Muslims (mainly of the Rohingya minority) continues to erupt sporadically escalating heavily since 2012. As a result of the ongoing violence in Rakhine State and surrounding areas, approximately 140,000 people today live in refugee camps in squalid conditions.
Neither real nor intellectual property is properly protected. As a consequence, competition between economic actors is low. Big state-owned enterprises and companies with ties to the military dominate the industry. Private and foreign companies who are in dispute with governmental organisations have little chance of fair arbitration. Those who have been illegally expropriated rarely get compensated.
Government expenditures (including consumption and transfer payments) have grown to about 19% of GDP whereas public debt stands at below 50% of domestic output
The top income tax rate was lowered to 20% (from 30%) whereas the top corporate tax rate is set at 30%. The overall tax revenue amounts to less than 4% of GDP.
Private entrepreneurs until recently had limited access to credit and the government controlled banking through state-owned institutions which tended to direct funds to big government or military projects rather than to private businesses. But a number of reforms are currently being undertaken. A new law regulating small and medium enterprises (which account for 88% of businesses in the country) is scheduled to take effect in late 2014. It aims at dismantling some obstacles such as complex tax requirements, health and safety regulations, and cumbersome credit requirements. Starting a business takes 11 procedures and 72 days, according to the World Bank’s 2014 Doing Business report. A business license can be obtained in 16 procedures and 159 days. The World Bank ranks Myanmar overall
182nd out of 189 surveyed economies in its latest report, hinting at serious need for more thorough reforms of the country’s economy. The labour market is subject to heavy state intervention. The inefficient regulatory environment adds to high rates of unemployment and underemployment. Regulations regarding wage rates and working hours are often not observed. However, a law signed in October 2011 brought to an end the 1962 Trade Unions Act, which banned all trade unions in the country. The bill permits the formation of unions with a minimum size of 30 people and allows Myanmar workers to legally go on strike, provided they do not impede transport infrastructure or threaten security.
Myanmar has been a WTO member since 1995. However, because of extensive intervention on the part of the state, foreign trade is more or less limited to the export of natural gas, agricultural products, gem stones and timber. A number of foreign companies, among them Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Total, were granted concessions in 2014 to explore offshore oil and gas fields. Foreign investment in Myanmar’s oil and gas sector had already stood at more than $14bn in 2013, making it the second biggest sector to benefit from foreign investment after electricity. The freedom of private entrepreneurs to engage in international trade is restricted by import/export bans and regulations, high taxes and fees, complicated permit and licensing requirements, frequent policy changes,
corruption, and import and export quotas for certain goods. But with the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) a single regional market of more than 600 million people will be created by the end of 2015. The AEC will provide for a free flow of goods, services, investment capital and skilled labour.