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Democracy fades in Myanmar

Naypyidaw (Myanmar), July 4: More than three years after Myanmar’s ruling generals shed their uniforms and propelled the country on an ambitious journey towards democracy, security forces are back on the streets of the former military dictatorship.

A rampage by radical Buddhists in the sprawling city of Mandalay that left two persons dead this past week spurred the authorities to declare a nighttime curfew, post hundreds of riot police officers and erect razor wire around the Muslim neighbourhoods that were attacked.

The euphoria that greeted the end of five dark decades of military rule is now mitigated not only by regular flare-ups of religious violence but an apparent rolling back of some media freedoms. There is also disappointment over tepid commitments by foreign investors who are encountering high levels of corruption, a dysfunctional bureaucracy and infrastructure that remains among the most primitive in Asia.

Both critics and supporters of the government agree that changes over the past three years have made Myanmar profoundly more open and free than the cloistered, brutally repressive country that it was under military rule.

But whereas two years ago the government was tightly focused on writing a foreign investment law, releasing political prisoners and abolishing censorship, critics say religious politicking is poisoning some of the good will that President Thein Sein had when he began the liberalisation effort in 2011.

One of the highest-profile proposals of his administration this year is a series of divisive measures to “protect” Buddhism that have drawn outrage from interfaith groups, who say they have created a major detour from the reform process.

The proposed laws, which were initiated by the country’s radical Buddhist movement, would restrict religious conversions and require women to obtain permission before marrying outside their religion.

“Liberalisation is over,” said Daw Zin Mar Aung, a woman’s rights activist who has received death threats for her opposition to the bills.

Zin Mar Aung, who like many civic leaders in the country is a former political prisoner, accuses the government of building a new national identity on the basis of nationalism and Buddhist chauvinism rather than a multicultural democracy.

In another area that was liberalised early on — media freedoms — there appears to be backsliding. In February, journalists were jailed under a British colonial law, the State Secrets Act, for reporting on an alleged chemical weapons facility. In April, a Myanmaarese journalist was sentenced to one year in prison for trespassing and “disturbing a civil servant on duty”, though he was due to be released after a court reduced his sentence.

Foreign journalists have seen the duration of their visas cut, and a correspondent for Time magazine, Hannah Beech, has been barred from the country after writing an article on the radical Buddhist movement that drew protests.

 
 
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