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Myanmar's democracy let-down

Ate Hoekstra Yangon
May 30, 2019

Young people in Myanmar were enamored by the promise of democracy when Suu Kyi took power. Now they wonder if there is any hope for the future, as dissenters are thrown in jail and the military calls the shots.

Young Myanmar activists demonstrate for press freedom
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Zaw

In 2015, Maung Saung Kha campaigned for Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party led by Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Saung Kha had been an active party member, but he has since lost his faith in Myanmar's most famous politician.

"After the elections we expected a lot of good things, but this elected government doesn't seem to understand what freedom of expression is about," Saung Kha said.

Speaking out publicly against Suu Kyi was almost unheard of four years ago. But the government of "The Lady," who won the 2015 election by an historic landslide, has been a great disappointment for a many young people in Myanmar.

They believe that the government isn't doing enough to protect the people, and that the military, which has run the country for five decades, still has too much political power.

Read more: Myanmar's democracy movement 30 years on – military still calls the shots

Saung Kha, who is now the director of the Yangon-based human rights group Athan, realized this right after Suu Kyi's NLD won the election. 

From late 2015 to 2016, he spent six months in prison for defaming Myanmar's former president, Thein Sein.

"I expected the civilian government to protect the people from being prosecuted, but they don't protect anyone," Saung Kha said. "Maybe it's because they have a different definition of freedom of expression. For me, it means that people have the right to criticize their government."

Maung Saung Kha is a democracy activist in Myanmar
Activist Saung Kha said that Myanmar's government 'doesn't understand freedom of expression'Image: DW/A. Hoekstra

Satirists thrown in jail 

In April, activists with the Peacock Generation, a political satire group, gathered in Yangon to perform a "thangyat," which is a satire play that is traditionally performed around the Burmese New Year.

The young satirists joked about Myanmar's ongoing civil wars, the country's controversial constitution, and the military's influence on politics. While the public enjoyed the performance, the military didn't. Seven of their members were sued for defamation and sent to Yangon's notorious Insein Prison.

Read more: Opinion: Press freedom eludes Myanmar despite journalists' release

"While we were performing we had a lot of support from the public," Shar Yamone, one of the group's performers, told DW. "We were spreading the word for the people. We told them what's really happening in Myanmar. Now the military has lawsuits against a lot of activists. The NLD government has failed to perform according to their manifesto."

These young activists are upset for a number of reasons, foremost of which is the military's vast political power.

Myanmar's military holds 25% of parliamentary seats and also has full control over the police. Activists are upset about Myanmar's ongoing armed conflicts. They say that Suu Kyi has failed to look after her voters.

"I remember that before winning the election, Suu Kyi asked people to talk more, but now the government is deaf and is not listening," Shar Yamone said.

Read more: Myanmar military top brass involved in Rohingya atrocities: Amnesty International

Young Burmese fear for democracy

Over the past two years, a number of protests have popped up in Yangon criticizing the military and government. Several times they have led to violence and arrests. According to rights group Athan, dozens of activists are currently in prison for speaking out. Since 2013, 185 cases have been filed under a controversial telecommunications law, many of them for ostensibly defaming the military.

However in 2015, hope was high for democracy in Myanmar. After decades of quasi-military rule, a civilian government had emerged led by a Nobel Peace prize laureate who was going to improve society and protect its citizens.

Read more: Digital rights under growing pressure in Myanmar

"I know that my parents expected a lot of changes from Suu Kyi, but things are very far away from what we expected," a young student said, asking to remain anonymous out of fear for prosecution. "She gave us a lot of hope, but many people, especially from ethnic groups, didn't get anything. She got the Nobel Prize, but I sometimes wonder if she is really worth that prize."

Next year Myanmar will have a chance to vote again. Even though Suu Kyi is under fire, many people believe that she is still their best option for change. "Things haven't really improved since the elections, but you can't clean up 50 years of military mess easily," a student said.

Activist Saung Kha also believes that Suu Kyi can still count on a large number of voters. But he points out that unconditional support for her has dropped.

"In public people are still very supportive," he said. "But those who are more aware of human rights are disappointed."