A Tough 2020 for Myanmar, but Hope and Promise Lies in Grassroots Communities and Rights-based Approaches

December 18th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  10 minute read
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Given the tumultuous year, and given the NLD’s track record of prioritizing Burmanization over national reconciliation, it is easy to be pessimistic. But hope emerges from the countless community leaders, grassroots activists, and rights defenders who defiantly work for justice and the betterment of society, for equality and non-discrimination, and a sustainable path towards development.

The year 2020 was another tough year for Myanmar, with the COVID-19 pandemic putting great strain on a chronically underfunded health system, continuing armed conflict, especially in Rakhine State, more troubling developments for freedom of expression, continued lack of political will on attaining justice and accountability for the Rohingya victims of genocide and other ethnic and religious minorities who are victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and no viable, progressive, nationwide opposition to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD)-government in the national elections. However, it is bottom-up initiatives and movements that are providing hope and inspiration for a future Myanmar, reflected by the various international awards bestowed on grassroots ethnic activists and community leaders, thus increasing international recognition of their efforts to improve the lives of communities.

COVID-19 has ripped through Myanmar, and as this is being written, much of the country is facing severe restrictions in terms of movement, commerce, and everyday life. Already keenly felt by the population, the underfunded healthcare system is struggling to serve people in this extremely precarious global health emergency. It must be remembered that a disproportionate amount of Myanmar’s national budget goes towards the Myanmar military, at the expense of health and education for the people. This is the same military that siphons off natural resource revenues to fund its military offensives and genocidal campaigns of violence against ethnic and religious minorities such as the Kachin, Rakhine, and Rohingya. Myanmar has enough resources to fund the wellbeing of its people, including a better and more effective public health response to COVID-19, but those resources are used to kill, displace and inflict violence on people while the military generals enrich themselves.

The 2020 elections saw the people reject the military overwhelmingly, with the NLD winning by a huge margin, even bigger than the 2015 elections. This was a clear signal that the people of Myanmar oppose the military, as military-backed or affiliated parties fared poorly, and the NLD, despite its lack of concrete policies or programmes, symbolizes resistance to this rule. However, as shown throughout the past five years, the NLD has done little to address key issues facing the nation or to bring the military under civilian control. Political prisoners remains an issue, with 36 currently in prison, 193 facing charges while in jail, and a further 355 people awaiting charges outside prison according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. It is important to note that this list doesn’t include farmers who have been charged or imprisoned for defending their land that is being confiscated by the military and business interests. The NLD itself includes many former political prisoners and it is galling for those who had optimism that this state of affairs is continuing. That the Burma Campaign UK has a similar campaign to release political prisoners as it did during the years of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest reflects how little progress has been made on this issue.

The past five years of NLD government has seen little progress on the peace process, and in fact armed conflict has only got worse with the onset of the Arakan Army (AA)-Myanmar military conflict in Rakhine State. 2020 was another deadly year for civilians in Rakhine State with heavy military offensives, an increase in conflict-related human rights violations and displacement now a part of daily life. Elections were cancelled in the state with roughly 73% of Rakhine State’s population unable to place their vote. Added to this is the ongoing internet restrictions in several townships in Rakhine and Chin States which deprive communities of essential information on the COVID-19 situation while providing cover for the violations of the Myanmar military. While it is of course the Myanmar military that is committing the violations, the designation by the NLD-led government of the AA as a “terrorist group” when in reality it is seen as a legitimate political representative by many Rakhine people, does little to aid peace negotiations. Furthermore, in areas where there is a ceasefire, such as Karen and Karenni States, the Myanmar military is increasing militarization, exploiting natural resources, and taking land, as the Karenni Civil Society Network outlined in a new report.

The internet restrictions in Rakhine State is not the only challenge to freedom of expression. Peaceful protestors have faced charges for protesting such internet restrictions while Athan, an activist organization noted in a report that in the first four years of NLD government, there have been 539 lawsuits filed against a total of 1,051 individuals using legislation – such as the Telecommunications Law and the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law – that is detrimental to freedom of expression. Additionally, the government has blocked online access to ethnic news agencies and activist groups such as Justice for Myanmar. This is certainly in the domain of the NLD Government, and it must work to create an enabling freer environment for peaceful protesters and activists to challenge the unjust laws, policies and practices of the government.

Meanwhile, the situation for the Rohingya remains dire. Despite the case at the International Court of Justice filed by The Gambia and supported by OIC, Canada and The Netherlands, and the ongoing investigation for atrocity crimes by the International Criminal Court, most Rohingya remain living in precarious and vulnerable conditions in underfunded refugee camps in Bangladesh. The remaining Rohingya who are still in Rakhine State are living in apartheid-like conditions while all the restrictions on movement, childbirth, marriage, education and health services remain. The refusal to even acknowledge their identity as ‘Rohingya’ and the support that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi receives from the general public for defending the charge of genocide does not bode well for national reconciliation and peace building.

Given the tumultuous year, and given the NLD’s track record of prioritizing Burmanization over national reconciliation, it is easy to be pessimistic. But hope emerges from the countless community leaders, grassroots activists, and rights defenders who defiantly work for justice and the betterment of society, for equality and non-discrimination, and a sustainable path towards development. Examples of such figures have been recognized internationally this year. For example, Saw Paul Sein Twa, Chairperson of the Salween Peace Park, was recently awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his role in developing the Salween Peace Park in Karen State, a community-led conservation space that preserves cultural tradition and the natural environment. In fact, this was the second prize that was awarded to the Salween Peace Park in 2020, with the UNDP’s Equator Prize also being awarded. Another example is Naw Ohn Hla, a human rights defender who has worked tirelessly for victims of land confiscation and for the right to express cultural and ethnic identity, who was awarded the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award 2020 by the Swedish rights organization, Civil Rights Defenders. Another ethnic land rights defender, Saw Eh Say from the Kayah Earthrights Action Network (KEAN) was awarded the 2020 Human Rights Tulip Myanmar Award by the Dutch Embassy.

International recognition of these three individuals does not mean that these are the only people striving for a more peaceful and fairer Myanmar, nor does it bestow a special legitimacy. However, it does increase recognition internationally, and shows to international donors that there are ways of supporting bottom-up, grassroots communities, initiatives, and people. Just as Saw Eh Say requested, the international community should stand with local communities, help raise their voices, to support social justice and prevent violations. 2021 will likely be another challenging year for the people of Myanmar, but with initiatives such as the Salween Peace Park and KEAN, to give just two examples, and rights defenders such as Naw Ohn Hla among many many others, there is a case for cautious optimism for the future.

Thank you for your continued support and we look forward to continuing our work with you in the coming year. Our Weekly Highlights will take a short hiatus over the holidays, but we will return with a full issue on the week of 11 January 2021. We wish you happy holidays and all the best for 2021.

Best wishes,

The Progressive Voice Team


[1] 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.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

The British Government Must Join ICJ Rohingya Genocide Case against Myanmar

By 36 Rohingya Organizations

New Campaign – Aung San Suu Kyi Must Free All Political Prisoners Now

By Burma Campaign UK

UK Should Join Rohingya Genocide Case at International Court of Justice

By Burma Campaign UK

Myanmar: Analysis of Digital IDs and Human Rights

By Centre for Law and Democracy

Statement on International Human Rights Day 2020

By Coalition of Rohingya Organizations in Malaysia

Bangladesh/Myanmar: Rohingya Mental Health Crisis Demands Attention

By Fortify Rights

Arrest for Alleging Voter Intimidation – Woman Sentenced to 9 Months at Hard Labor

By Human Rights Watch

ပေါက်ကြားလာသည့် ကာကွယ်ရေးဝန်ကြီးဌာန ဘတ်ဂျတ် အချက်အလက်များနှင့် ဝယ်ယူရေး စာရွက်စာတမ်းများကို Justice For Myanmar ထုတ်ပြန်

By Justice For Myanmar

Justice For Myanmar publishes leaked Ministry of Defence budget data and procurement documents

By Justice For Myanmar

Human Rights Day (10 December 2020)

By Karen Human Rights Group

အပြည်ပြည်ဆိုင်ရာလူ့အခွင့်အရေးနေ့ (ဒီဇင်ဘာလ (၁၀) ရက်နေ့၊ ၂၀၂၀ ခုနှစ်)

By Karen Human Rights Group

On the 72nd International Human Rights Day, the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma Calls for An Immediate End to Widespread Violations and A Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in Burma

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

(၇၂) နှစ်မြောက် နိုင်ငံတကာလူ့အခွင့်အရေးနေ့အတွက် လူ့အခွင့်အရေးမှတ်တမ်းကွန်ရက်-မြန်မာနိုင်ငံ (ND-Burma) ၏ သဘောထားထုတ်ပြန်ချက်

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

UN Expert Urges Independent Assessment of Bhasan Char and Verification of Voluntary Relocation

By Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Open letter from the recipient of the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia, Saw Paul Sein Twa, to the State Counsellor and Chief Minister of the Karen State on Human Rights Day

By Saw Paul Sein Twa, Salween Peace Park

U.S. Position on Relocation of Rohingya Refugees to Bhasan Char

By U.S. Department of State



Arrow for Change: The Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression

By Arrow for Change

Human Rights Analysis of Biometric Digital ID Systems

By Centre for Law and Democracy

“The Torture in My Mind” – The Right to Mental Health for Rohingya Survivors of Genocide in Myanmar and Bangladesh

By Fortify Rights

Defamation Reform Proposals – အသရေဖျက်မှုဆိုင်ရာ ပြုပြင်ပြောင်းလဲရေး အဆိုပြုချက်များ

By Free Expression Myanmar

ကိုဗစ်ခေါ်သံ – ကိုဗစ်၁၉ ကပ်ရောဂါကာလ အလုပ်သမားများ၏ ရုန်းကန်နေရသော ဘဝများ

By Future Light Center

The Call of Covid: The Life Struggles of Labors During the Covid 19 Epidemic

By Future Light Center

Naypyidaw’s Weaponization of the Ceasefire Process in Karenni State

By Karenni Civil Society Network

နေပြည်တော်မှ ကရင်နီပြည်အတွင်း ငြိမ်းချမ်းရေးဖြစ်စဉ်ကို လက်နက်သဖွယ်အသုံးပြုခြင်း

By Karenni Civil Society Network

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.”