Burma Projects Quarterly

Burma Projects Quarterly

24. 9. 2014

(Volume 1, Issue 10) (April 2014 – August 2014)

Ethnic-religious tensions and controversial census


A provisional result of the 2014 Population and Housing Census has been published at the end of August, estimating 51 million populations in Burma[1]. Final data will be announced in May 2015 and detailed figures including counting of ethnic minorities even later, in 2016 after the elections.

In past time, non-existence of statistical data has been used by the regime in Burma for political reasons. Burma has one of the most diverse populations in the continent and maybe therefore it is country with many ethnic conflicts and immanent political discord through every governmental era since independence from Great Britain in 1948. Official domestic and international sources have considered ethnic minorities to constitute about 40 per cent of the whole Burma’s population. Total number of inhabitants has been estimated from 55 to 70 million people, depending on the source. All these statistics were based on projections from surveys, which were not comprehensive and were outdated. Last nationwide census was conducted 30 years ago. Similarly, the number of ethnic groups and tribes in the country, stated as 135, is approximate. Ethnic Bamars/Burmans, who are ruling army and government were actually profiting from the unreliable statistics as their majority was not defeated.

The need for comprehensive and relevant social and demographic data is crucial in a country facing serious socio-economic and political challenges after decades of internal conflict. However, there are doubts that the 2014 Population and Housing Census will provide trusted source for statistical science and clear distrust by many minority groups of official information used by government about the country.

There are several risks which have occurred during the preparation and collecting the forms itself. First, government did not allowed to use common identification of Muslims living in Arakan state – as Rohingyas, and instead included in the forms the term Bengali as the only option, term referring to immigrants from Bangladesh, which is highly controversial for many Muslims[2]. Thus, Muslims in Arakan state had no free option in the form and many probably may not be counted. Second, collecting of the forms did not take place in Kachin state, were is ongoing government offensive taking place. International donors and the United Nations have sponsored the census. The United Nations UNFPA assisted in surveyor training and drafting the census forms and contributed US$5 million. The estimated total cost of the census is US$58.5 million, of which the Burmese government is paying US$15 million, rest was covered by Britain’s Department for International Development DFID, Australia AusAID, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. United States provided support to the census through technical assistance.[3] It is to be worried that the result from the census will provide further tensions among ethnic groups in Burma and may work counter the peace-building affords, which are currently ongoing. In addition, the new “facts” can influence the transformation process into more inclusive and participatory society in Burma.



  • Burma Campaign UK, February 2014, Burma’s Census: Not Worth Dying For


  • Transnational Institute, February 2014, Ethnicity without Meaning, Data without Context


  • Chin Human Rights Organization, January 2014, The state of freedom of religion or belief for Chin in Burma/ Myanmar


  • Burma centre for ethnic studies – Peace and reconciliation, March 2014, Report March 2012 – March 2014,


Statement of anti-Muslim violence in Mandalay





Current legislation continues to suppress activist


As of August 2014, there were 84 political prisoners - including more than 10 women – in jails across Burma. Among those incarcerated were human rights defenders, journalists, members of ethnic-based political organizations, peaceful protestors, activists, and farmers. Many activists continue to be arbitrarily arrested and face criminal charges under oppressive laws. Since first convening in January 2011, Burma’s Parliament has repealed only two laws, Law 5/96 and the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, out of the 11 oppressive laws that the UN identified as not in line with international standards. Law 5/96 was frequently used by the military junta to jail critics of the National Convention, the junta-sponsored constitution-drafting process. However, the law became void even before being repealed by Parliament in January 2013 because of the conclusion of the National Convention in September 2007 and the adoption of the constitution in May 2008.
The government has greatly reduced the frequency of the meetings of the Political Prisoner Review Committee, the body tasked with identifying political prisoners and making recommendations to the President for their release. Since January 2014, the government convened the Political Prisoner Review Committee only twice. 

On 18 June, Burma’s Parliament approved amendments to the Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Law, which perpetuate restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly. Demonstrations still require official permission, which authorities can now refuse only for a “valid reason.” The vague wording of this amendment is likely to result in the rejection of protest permits by the authorities and the subsequent arrest of those who demonstrate without permission. In addition, even though the amended law reduced maximum prison terms for violators from one year to six months, jail terms remain a threat against those who participate in unauthorized demonstrations. 

On 12 July, police in Rangoon’s Kamaryut Township charged at least 20 journalists under the Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Law for holding a peaceful protest against the sentencing of four reporters to 10 years in jail two days earlier. 

Burma is standing at a crossroad. Especially for women, farmers, workers, religious and ethnic minorities hope for transition in Burma in last month slowed down and tenses before next year election are growing. There are reforms, declared peace or peace process but regardless of these discussions, human rights violation continues.






Freedom of speech


Media in Myanmar has experienced strict censorship since General Ne Win gained power in 1962.[4] Following this change of leadership the number of newspapers declined dramatically. Most of the remaining newspapers were used as a means of disseminating government approved news.[5] Every publication, such as newspaper, articles, cartoons and advertisement needed to be approved by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRB) which was under the supervision of the Ministry of Information.[6]

In 2011, after decades of strict military rule Myanmar opened up economically and politically. Since then, the country went through a wide range of reforms in many areas, including the relaxation of media restrictions.[7] These reforms also included the dissolution of the official censorship board and for the first time since 1964, private daily newspapers were allowed to start operating in 2012.[8] In the same year the Ministry of Information also lifted the requirement for newspaper agencies to submit publication prior to distribution.[9]

In 2013, the Government passed a Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill which allowed the government to licence newspapers, news-websites as well as foreign news agencies. In addition, the bill included the abolishment of prison sentences and reduced financial penalties for organizations that print and publish without prior governmental approval.[10]

An Electronic Transaction Law was also amended in 2013 when prison sentences under Section 33 were reduced “for any act detrimental to state security, law and order, community peace and tranquillity, national solidarity, the national economy, or national culture, as well as receiving or sending related information”.[11]

 To date, many of Myanmar’s laws are based on those of the colonial ear which are open to interpretation and do not ensure the protection of freedom and speech and the press.  As a consequence, there were several incidences where people were prosecuted for violation of these laws interpreting their actions as illegal.

Compared to its neighbouring peers, Myanmar ranks relatively low at 145 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index 2014.[12]This ranking suggests that Myanmar’s press has some way to go before it could be considered censorship free.             


In July, five journalists of the Yangon based journal, Unity Weekly News, were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and hard labour[13] for violating the Burma Secrets Act 1923. As a gesture of solidarity, journalists were protesting Thein Sein’s visit to Yangon when he attended an event at the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC) there.  Around 50 of them have been charged for violating regulations that require permission for public gatherings.[14]

The recent jailing of Zaw Pe, a video journalist working with Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an NGO that provides independent news and information about Myanmar, as well as the detainment of three editors of the weekly news journal Bi Mon Te Nay also show that recent reforms are either not well understood or not enforced consistently. These events raise concerns about reporters not being able to freely and independently do their work without being charged by the police. This situation may also have an impact on freedom of the press when monitoring the 2015 election campaign.[15]

Myanmar’s civil society organizations (CSOs) can help to promote change through fostering on-going debate and dialogue, as well as cooperation and trust between government, civil society and the media.





Is Democracy Necessary for Economic Prosperity?


In early September, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein visited Germany to discuss with German Chancellor Angela Merkel the future economic cooperation between these two countries. Merkel highlighted the progress that has been made in Myanmar in previous years, but mentioned that further affords are still necessary, especially in the areas of human rights, and peace and reconciliation. She also emphasised that democratization is important for economic success. Sein, on the other hand, added that further economic development is necessary to support the transition process towards democracy.[16] This once again raises the question whether democratisation is eased by economic prosperity or vice versa.

For long, social scientists have much debated about the direction of this relationship.[17] Some argue that economic growth would facilitate political change and a gradual transition process towards democracy. This is because economic growth produces an educated and entrepreneurial middle class that forms the foundation of a participative democracy and political decision making process.[18] On the other hand, democratization can facilitate and broaden the impact of economic development by ensuring a more equitable distribution of wealth.[19] However, the link between democracy and economic development does not seem to be as strong as many predicted. In contrast, a relative high per capita income is correlated to democracy.[20]

What does this mean for Myanmar? Developing countries, like Myanmar, often go through a period of transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime. With the opening up of the country in 2011, economic development has accelerated due to a rapid expansion of the oil and gas, service and construction sectors, as well as a high influx of foreign direct investment (FDI).[21]  If the economic development is accelerating why does Myanmar then need democracy? Democracy is important for the country’s future development because it can promote peace and conflict reconciliation, improvements in the health and education sector and contribute to the overall well-being of its citizens.[22]

For Myanmar to make a successful transition to democracy civil society will play an important role. For civil society to play this role, it must be seen as inclusive and free of ties to authoritarian institutions and actors of the past.    





Additional sources of information



Anti Muslim Tensions:

  • U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: USCIRF Annual Report 2014: Burma http://www.uscirf.gov/




Ethnic conflict:

  • Fortify Rights: Myanmar: End Wartime Torture in Kachin State and northern Shan State http://www.fortifyrights.org/
  • Karen Human Rights Group: Truce or Transition? Trends in human rights abuse and local response in Southeast Myanmar since the 2012 ceasefire http://www.khrg.org/
  • United to End Genocide: Marching to Genocide in Burma http://endgenocide.org/






[7] Ng, Connie (2013). Burma and the Road Forward: Lessons from Next Door and Possible Avenues Towards Constitutional Democratic Development. Santa Clara Law Review 53(1). Santa Clara University. 276. Available at: http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/lawreview/vol53/iss1/6http://www.ryot.org/burma-myanmar-to-allow-daily-private-newspapers/42306

[8] Ng, Connie (2013). Burma and the Road Forward: Lessons from Next Door and Possible Avenues Towards Constitutional Democratic Development. Santa Clara Law Review 53(1). Santa Clara University. 276. Available at: http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/lawreview/vol53/iss1/6http://www.ryot.org/burma-myanmar-to-allow-daily-private-newspapers/42306

[11] The Union of Myanmar-The State Peace and Development Council (2004) The Electronic Transactions Law, available at: http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un-dpadm/unpan041197.pdfhttp://www.hrw.org/ja/node/115496/section/5 

[16] The Irrawaddy (2014). Germany’s Merkel, Burma’s Thein Sein look at development differently.  http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/germanys-merkel-burmas-thein-sein-look-development-differently.html [09.09.2014].

[17] See for example Lipset, S.M. (1959). Some social prerequisites for democracy: Economic and political legitimacy. American Political Science Review. Volume 53. 69-105.

[18] Bueno de Mesquita, B. And Downs, G.W. (2005). Development and Democracy. Foreign Affiars. Volume 84. Number 5. 77-86. http://www.politics.as.nyu.edu/docs/IO/2591/Development.pdf

[19] Halperin, M.; Siegle, J. And Weinstein, M. (2004). The democracy advantage: How democracies promote prosperity and peace. Council on Foreign Relations. Routledge.

[20] Robinson, J.A. (2006). Economic development and democracy. Annual Review Political Science. Volume 9. 503-527.

[21] World Bank (2013). Myanmar economic monitor- October 2013. http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/EAP/Myanmar/Myanmar_Economic_Monitor_October_2013.pdf [09.09.2014].

[22] National Endowment for Democracy (2014). Why the developing world wants and needs democracy. http://www.ned.org/about/board/meet-our-president/archived-remarks-and-presentations/091203

Author: Barmský program