Since 2010, Burma has been an epicenter of unexpected, unprecedented, and rapid change. Following a quasi-free election in 2010, the Burmese government released hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed media restrictions, legalized labor unions, implemented crucial economic reforms, and made several attempts at national reconciliation with ethnic armed groups.
Most significantly, the government allowed for the development of a more open political environment in which leading opposition leader and former political prisoner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in parliamentary by-elections. Civil society is in overdrive and determined to make the most of the openings. Protests on Burma’s streets are a common occurrence.
However, despite the positive developments, Burma remains mired in conflict. These photographs present a snapshot of life in Burma today, highlighting both the causes for hope and progress and the immense challenges that remain.
Protestors still feel the threat of arrest and violent crackdowns, and though nominal democracy has replaced military autocracy, its processes are far from democratic. Military attacks against the ethnic Kachin and Shan villages continue, and have resulted in an increase in the number of internally displaced persons in the country. Decades of misrule have crippled Burma’s infrastructure and its economy at large. Additionally, the health care and education systems are in disarray and severely underfunded.
For the past two decades, Burma’s democracy movement has advocated for tripartite dialogue between the government, Aung San Suu Kyi, and representatives of ethnic nationalities. While the government is now in dialogue with opposition forces, its tenuous ceasefire processes with ethnic leaders often lack transparency, divide ethnic representatives, and exclude civil society.
Genuine peace and national reconciliation will not be possible without respect for the fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination. Arakan State witnessed what appeared to be state-sanctioned violence against the minority Rohingya ethnic group, which resulted in mass displacement, arrests, and deaths. Government officials continue to practice systematic discrimination against the mostly Muslim group, denying their most basic rights. In addition, several hundred political prisoners remain behind bars. And Burmese democracy is hamstrung by its undemocratic 2008 Constitution, which mandates that 25 percent of seats in Parliament belong to the military.
Transitions are never easy and Burma’s is more complicated than it may seem. The general desire for a democratic and inclusive state is widely shared, but the country is hardly out of the weeds. Civil society victories, such as the successful protests that suspended the Myitsone Dam in 2011, are undermined by events like the violent crackdown on monks and villagers protesting at the Letpadaung copper mine in November 2012. Free and fair elections in 2015 will be one of the true tests of reform. So, while there is cause for optimism in Burma for the first time in decades, there are still enormous challenges to overcome.