For decades, Burma was considered one of the most closed-off, isolated countries in the world—nearly on par with North Korea—complete with a deplorable human rights record and an iron-fisted junta that quashed nearly all dissent in the country.
But the situation has continued to markedly improve over the past year, despite a lack of progress in some areas, according to the U.S. group Freedom House, which now ranks it ahead of China in terms of political rights, civil liberties, and other freedoms. It still remains a “Not Free country,” however, the group said.
Freedom House said Burma has made headway because it has allowed elections to include some members of the opposition National League for Democracy headed by leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest during the previous military junta. It noted media, Internet, and economic liberalizations as well as “the sporadic release of political prisoners” under the current government, which took power after the junta ceded power to civilians.
“The [NLD] party was allowed to campaign with considerable freedom, and won nearly all of the seats at stake,” the Freedom House’s report states. “Nevertheless, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party retains an overwhelming majority in the legislature, and the military’s outsized power is still entrenched in the constitution and in practice.”
Burma, which was renamed Myanmar in the late 1980s, continues to deal with conflicts between armed ethnic minority groups, including the Kachin, Karen, Shan, and others. The government also struggled to contain violence that erupted between Rohingya and ethnic Buddhists in Rakhine state.
China remained one of the most repressive countries in the world, and is in fact home to over half of the people in the world who live in a country that is rated Not Free.
—Sarah Cook, Freedom House
“Authorities continue to employ repressive crowd-control measures at demonstrations, violate workers’ rights, restrict the operations of NGOs, tolerate land grabbing, and hinder judicial independence,” it stated.
But in “all its lingering problems, Burma has now surpassed China on both political rights and civil liberties,” the report said, citing the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s commitment to censorship, surveillance, persecution, and other human rights violations.
Sarah Cook, a Freedom House researcher, told Radio Free Asia that Burma moved up from a score of 7, the lowest ranking, to a 6 in 2012. Its civil liberties moved from a 6 to a 5, she said. China remains a 7 on political rights and a 6 on civil liberties, according to the report.
As Burma gained more freedom of assembly and expression over the past year, Cook warned that the country still needs to make some basic changes to its government.
The freedoms gained “are at the whim of the authorities, without any of the institutional changes that would prevent a backsliding if the political winds change,” she told the broadcaster.
Freedom House lists 195 countries as “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free.” Burma, China, and 45 other countries are considered not free, including Russia, Cuba, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
“China remained one of the most repressive countries in the world, and is in fact home to over half of the people in the world who live in a country that is rated Not Free,” said Cook.