Elaine Pearson: Myanmar’s Slow Trudge To Freedom

By Marissa Dearing:

On Thursday afternoon, Elaine Pearson, Deputy Director of the Asian Division of Human Rights Watch, spoke to a group of faculty and students at the Law School.  In her talk, entitled “Between Rhetoric and Rights: Political Prisoners, Ethnic Conflict and Reform in Burma,” Pearson outlined recent developments regarding the state of human rights in Burma as well as government reforms.

The greatest changes Pearson has witnessed in Burma over the last year and a half have been in media and political freedoms and the mass release of political prisoners.  The government-controlled Myanmar Times, for example, now features stories unimaginable a year ago (e.g., covering Aung San Suu Kyi, Human Rights Watch, and Burma’s ethnic conflict).  The Burmese parliament has also taken steps toward democratization, passing laws aimed at guaranteeing basic human rights, such the right to unionize, strike, and assemble peacefully.

Elaine Pearson's Law School discussion outlined the good, bad and ugly elements of recent events in Myanmar. (Dearing/TYG).

Pearson emphasized that she considers these changes far from durable and permanent reforms.  Dependent on the “good will” of a handful of key political leaders, democratizing laws remain vulnerable to reversal until they are “enshrined in law.”  Criticism of the government remains taboo and censorship persists.  Political prisoners have been released, but many have faced “a revolving door” of release and imprisonment.  Furthermore, the parliament has neglected to repeal old laws responsible for these sentences and failed to verify that new laws meet international standards.  Finally, the Burmese human rights commission lacks the independence and resources to effectively check the government.  Pearson added that the ethnic situation is actually worsening.  What’s needed is “some sort of international independent mechanism” to monitor and report current (and past) abuses.

Pressed about the organization’s continued emphasis on political prisoners in the face of the mounting crisis of the internally displaced and victims of wartime atrocities, Pearson replied that it was important for HWR to focus on advocacy for freedom of expression because those now imprisoned are the ones who can effectively challenge the government, run and organize constructive political resistance, and perhaps guide the process of national democratization.

The real test will come in 2015, according to Pearson, when the ruling junta will be forced to recognize the possibility that Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy could sweep them from power.

Marissa Dearing ’14 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at marissa.dearing@yale.edu.