Civilians living in Myanmar’s conflict-affected areas continue to be victims of the Government’s policies that are denying them the right to freely express their opinions or even communicate to each other. In Rakhine and Chin States, a further five townships have been subject to an internet ban, two pastors in Kachin State were detained and are facing charges for their participation in a dramatic performance about the history of the Kachin, while in a Karen area, the Myanmar military prohibited a public meeting regarding the peace process from being conducted.
Rakhine State has seen some of the worst armed conflict in Myanmar in the last 18 months with over 160,000 people displaced due to the intense fighting. Exacerbating the situation for communities has been the shutdown of internet services for over seven months in the townships of Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Minbya, and Ponnagyu. A statement by 20 civil society organizations in December 2019 pointed out that while “The government has justified the shutdown on the basis of national security…there has been no evidence that the disproportionate decision has had any positive effect on reducing the conflict, which remains pervasive.” Yet despite this blatant attack on freedom of expression, the government has imposed a further internet shutdown in five townships in Rakhine and Chin States.
Meanwhile, in Kachin State, two pastors who staged a dramatic performance on the 60th Kachin Revolutionary Day on 6 February, were detained before charges were filed against them by the Myanmar military. They participated in a performance that included the history of the Kachin resistance movement, yet were charged under article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, which could potentially result in a three year prison sentence. This law has been used countless times to persecute ethnic people for their ‘association’ with ‘unlawful’ ethnic armed organizations. In this case, the military has deemed their performance as an association with the Kachin Independence Army. It is a clear breach of their right to express belonging to their ethnic identity and heritage and is consistent with both the Government and the military’s policies and actions that are aimed at Burmanizing Myanmar at the expense of ethnic equality. A similar incident occurred in the KNLA 3rd Brigade area, when the Myanmar military came and prohibited a public meeting regarding the peace process from being held. A Karen National Union (KNU) statement condemned this act, stating that it was in fact a violation of the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA).
This is not, however, the only incident which demonstrates a worrying trend of increased tensions between the Myanmar military and the KNU. The KNU has pointed out that the local Myanmar military has been using drones to spy on KNLA bases in Brigade 5 area. The drones have been spotted several times and one was followed back to a local Myanmar military base. Despite denials from the Myanmar military that the drones are being used for military purposes, this is a clear violation of the NCA. As KNU Vice-Chairperson, Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win points out, “The peace should be built upon trust. Conducting suspicious activities like these can ruin the peace process.”
Meanwhile, tension continues to mount between the KNU and the Myanmar military. A Myanmar military battalion commander was killed by a landmine in Papun Township on 27 January. While the Myanmar military has protested vociferously to the KNU, it should be remembered that the soldier killed was involved in a road construction project that the KNU has consistently opposed. It is a road that the Myanmar military has been attempting to resume building since 2018, and goes through KNU territory, and has previously caused the displacement of 2,000 people as armed clashes have resulted from the Myanmar military’s attempts to resume constructing it. Despite the military’s claims that the road is for the development of Karen State, its construction by military engineers rather than civilian engineers, and the potential strategic military importance of the road is not lost on the KNU. Not only the KNU, but local villagers have also been vehemently opposed to this road, as it will facilitate the easy access of Myanmar military soldiers to civilian areas, creating fear and anxiety among communities who have suffered years of abuse at their hands.
Ceasefire or non-ceasefire, the effects of armed conflict and the policies of the Myanmar state are punishing ethnic people who live amidst the violence. Freedom of expression and conflict are inextricably linked in Myanmar. If people are not free to voice their opposition to those more powerful, to speak out against abuses, or express their right to their ethnic identity, it will only embolden the Myanmar military to continue to commit gross human rights violations and persecute ethnic minorities with impunity. Furthermore, it is time that peace donors supporting Myanmar’s peace process take a principled stand and ensure the Myanmar government reviews and revives this failing process.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”