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6 takeaways from report on (some of) Myanmar’s political parties and where they stand on the issues

Many hope that the election this weekend will bring about a number of changes in Myanmar and create the setting for a freer and more progressive society.

But findings by global rights group FIDH suggest we shouldn’t get our hopes up.

“Half Empty: Burma’s political parties and their human rights commitments” is the title of FIDH’s new report, which was presented today at the Park Royal Hotel in Yangon.

It should be noted that only 19 out of more than 90 registered political parties took part in the anonymous survey, which was conducted between August and September this year. As a result, it’s impossible to tell how representative the findings are (we don’t know if the National League for Democracy took part, for instance).

But that doesn’t make the figures any less alarming or revealing. Here are 6 important takeaways that bear mentioning. This is not at all a comprehensive list of findings, just the highlights, or in many cases, the lowlights. To be fair some stances give reason for hope. But most don’t. Read the full report here.


1) Rohingya Muslims

Discrimination against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims in Arakan (Rakhine) State is well-known. But the amount of apparent support for it has rarely been quantified. This survey sheds some light on that. 74% of those interviewed said they would not change the 1982 Citizenship Law to give the Rohingya – many of whom have been stripped of the right to vote in this election – the same rights as other Myanmar nationals. To show how sensitive the question is, 42% of the parties “refused to respond” to a question about how discrimination against the Rohingya could be addressed.


2) Defense spending

Only 21% of political parties in the survey said they would “significantly reduce the budget allocated to the military.” That doesn’t bode well for those who are looking to increase spending on woefully underfunded sectors, like health.


3) Violence against women and gender rights

Only 47% of respondents would introduce legislation to crack down on violence against women that would include a provision criminalizing marital rape. Meanwhile, only 26% support amending existing laws to make it legal to have abortions as a result of “rape, incest, fetal impairment, and to preserve a woman’s physical and/or mental health.” Also on the low side, a measly 26% said they would toss out the recently passed interfaith marriage law that requires Buddhist women to seek permission from local authorities before marrying non-Buddhists.

These statistics led Debbie Stothard, FIDH’s secretary-general and permanent delegate to Asean, to quip that the report should be called “less than half empty.”


4) Ethnic minorities

Myanmar has more than 120 ethnic minorities, and many are fighting for more cultural and political rights. The answers here were a mix. An overwhelming 84% of respondents said they would support the direct election of chief ministers by state and divisional parliaments, but less than half (42%) threw their weight behind efforts to promote teaching ethnic minority languages in public schools.


5) Death penalty

One of the more interesting findings. More than half of those surveyed said they support abolishing the death penalty. Myanmar hasn’t executed anyone since 1988, according to FIDH, so society may have moved on from capital punishment even if the law has not. Still, this suggests that lawmakers would have the votes to get rid of the death penalty once and for all. The number of death row inmates stands at 17, the report says.


6) Truth and Reconciliation

Myanmar has seen various authoritarian governments since the late 1950s, and since that time plenty of human rights abuses have piled up with little accountability. Although Aung San Suu Kyi has said that the opposition National League for Democracy is not seeking revenge, that doesn’t preclude some sort of reckoning with the past. Nearly 58% of political parties interviewed said they favored establishing a truth and reconciliation commission to “address the issues of accountability for past crimes committed by state-actors during successive military regimes.” That South African-style compromise may or may not work, but it does show the extent to which parties may be willing to forgive if not forget for the sake of national reconciliation.