Myanmar backsliding on political freedom, says rights group

India, Thailand, China and Singapore also earn black marks in Freedom House report
Myanmar backsliding on political freedom, says rights group

Military-appointed members of Myanmar's parliament wearing face masks amid fears about the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus leave after a session in Naypyidaw on March 4. (Photo: Thet Aung/AFP)

Only eight months from its five-yearly presidential and parliamentary elections, Myanmar has been found to be backsliding on political freedom by a London-based rights group in its annual report on democracy, mainly due to the escalating civil war in the country’s west.

Over the past year fighting has sharply escalated between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) — now firmly backed by its civilian government led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — and the country's newest militia, the Arakan Army.

“Myanmar was downgraded to Not Free as armed conflicts between the military and ethnic rebel groups intensified. Members of the Rohingya minority who remained in the country after years of persecution and mass expulsions continued to face the risk of genocide, according to UN investigators,” the Freedom House report said

Overall, the general tone of the report was somber, warning that the world was becoming a less democratic place, exacerbated by the lack of traditional leadership in places like the US, the UK and India.

“Countries with net declines in their aggregate Freedom in the World score have outnumbered those with gains for the past 14 years,” it said.

Rakhine and Chin states have created a second major front for the Tatmadaw along with the civil war in Kachin and Shan states on Myanmar’s northern border with China against an alliance of four ethnic-based militias. The latest round of that conflict is now almost nine years old.

The conflict claimed a further 11 lives this week, bringing the total over the past three years to about 100, with 130,000 people displaced, according to local media reports, adding further woes to Rakhine, already wracked by the mass exodus of Rohingya following a so-called “clearance operation" by the military variously described by rights groups as ethnic cleansing or genocide. The government has also restricted internet access in parts of the region.

Singapore was also marked down by Freedom House for passing a fake news law “that was quickly invoked to silence the opposition and other government critics, resulting in a score decline for freedom of expression.”

Thailand was the Asia-Pacific country where Freedom House found democracy had deteriorated most over the past 10 years, during which the country has seen a military coup and four years of rule by the ensuing junta. Thailand held elections last year but only for the lower of its two houses, with the upper house still appointed by a military that controls parliament and provided Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the original coup leader.

The biggest target of this year’s report was India, the world’s largest democracy by population, where it said democracy was being tested and religious persecution was now reaching the low standards of its neighbors.

“Almost since the turn of the century, the United States and its allies have courted India as a potential strategic partner and democratic counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the Indian government’s alarming departures from democratic norms under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could blur the values-based distinction between Beijing and New Delhi,” the Freedom House report said.

“While India continues to earn a Free rating and held successful elections last spring, the BJP has distanced itself from the country’s founding commitment to pluralism and individual rights, without which democracy cannot long survive. Several of India’s neighbors have persecuted religious minorities for many years. But instead of stressing the contrast with its own traditions and seeking to propagate them abroad, India is moving toward the lower standards of its region.”

The report also highlighted the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, albeit muted in recent months since the coronavirus threat emerged, against increasingly repressive rule by Beijing.

“The dramatic protests in Hong Kong erupted in response to a proposed extradition bill that underscored the erosion of civil liberties in the territory under Chinese rule. Even when the bill was eventually withdrawn, the public continued to press for other key demands, including universal suffrage," the report said.

“But Beijing has refused to yield any more ground and despite a sweeping opposition victory in neighborhood-level elections in November, Hong Kong has suffered more repression to date than it has gained in freedom.”

The report also took aim at China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities as well as general religious persecution.

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