Below we answer some of the more frequently asked questions we receive on democracy and human rights in Burma.

Where is Burma?

Burma is a Southeast Asian nation bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, Laos to the east and Thailand to the south east and east.

Should I say Burma or Myanmar? Rangoon or Yangon?

In 1989 the then-ruling military junta changed the name of the country, along with the names of many of Burma's states, following its brutal suppression of the 8888 Uprising in 1988. The junta claimed two justifications for doing so: Burma is a colonially imposed name, and that it contained within it an ethnic-supremacism since it referred to the ‘Burman’ majority ethnic group. The latter argument is widely regarded as baseless, with critics stating that any ethnic supremacism implied by the name paled in comparison to that displayed through the junta’s policies. Moreover, though the words Burma and Myanmar look radically different in Roman scripts, in Burmese they are pronounced almost identically. It is for these reasons that ALTSEAN-BURMA rejects the military imposed names as a cynical politically motivated move, and uses Burma's pre-1989 names in all of its communications.

What is the 8888 Uprising and why was the 1990 election important?

The 8888 Nationwide Popular Pro-Democracy Protests were a series of nationwide protests, marches and civil unrest in Burma that peaked in August 1988. Key events occurred on 8 August 1988 and therefore it is known as the 8888 Uprising. The protests began as a student movement and were organised largely by university students at the Rangoon Arts and Sciences University and the Rangoon Institute of Technology.

During the crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon. When the military junta arranged an election in 1990, her party, the National League for Democracy, won 392 of 492 seats in the government. However, the military junta refused to recognize the results and continued to rule the country as the State Law and Order Restoration Council until 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi was also put under house arrest a number of times for extended periods in the years after 1990. She was released for the final time in 2010.

What is the significance of the 2008 constitution?

The military-drafted 2008 Constitution substantially violates international standards on fundamental human rights, legitimizes the subjugation of ethnic minorities, endangers democracy, and grants the Tatmadaw extensive political power over the country as well as de facto veto power over constitutional amendments.

The most problematic articles related to the protection of human rights include the following:
  1. Most of the human rights enshrined in Chapter VIII apply only to citizens of Burma.
  2. The constitution contains provisions infringing upon basic human rights.
  3. The constitution also deprives people of their human rights by stipulating “exception clauses” which preserve authoritarian laws that explicitly prohibit freedom of speech, association, and assembly.
  4. Article 382 of the Constitution provides that additional limitations can be imposed on human rights by the military without any democratic requirement of necessity or proportionality.
  5. Article 319 establishes that the courts-martial have independent jurisdiction over all cases concerning the military, exempting the military from any civilian oversight.
  6. 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for members of the military, essentially guaranteeing veto power over key decisions and placing disproportionate control in their hands.

What happened in the 2015 elections?

General elections were held in Burma on 8 November 2015 in the first openly contested election held in the country since 1990. The poll was preceded by the 2010 General Election, which was marred by a widespread boycott and allegations of systematic fraud by the victorious Union Solidarity and Development Party.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a supermajority of seats in the combined national parliament, taking 86 percent of the seats in the Assembly of the Union (235 in the House of Representatives and 135 in the House of Nationalities), well more than the 67 percent supermajority needed to ensure that its preferred candidates will be elected president and second vice president in the Presidential Electoral College. Voting occurred in all constituencies, excluding seats appointed by the military, to select Members of Assembly to seats in both the upper house (the House of Nationalities) and the lower house (the House of Representatives) of the Assembly of the Union, and State and Region Hluttaws.

What are the eligibility requirements for holding elected office and the Presidency?

The requirements are similar, for members of both the the House of Representatives and the House of Nationalities. The age threshold for the House of Representatives is 25 years of age while the House of Nationalities requires an age of 30. The common requirements are that eligible candidates must be Burmese citizens, from parents who both were born in Burma; and the person must have resided in Burma for 10 consecutive years up to the elections.

The President must be a Burmese citizen, with both parents born in Burma, 45 years of age, resided in Burma for 20 consecutive years, must not have a foreign spouse or children that are not Burmese, and must be well acquainted with Burma’s politics, administration, economy, and military.

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi the State Counsellor of Burma? Who is President?

According the constitution, eligible candidates for the Presidency or Vice Presidency cannot have parents, a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. Therefore, despite winning the election, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency due to her husband and children holding British citizenship. She remains de facto head of government in a newly created office, the State Counsellor of Burma, despite the President's Office being held by Htin Kyaw.

Who are the Tatmadaw and what is their role in Burmese politics?

The Tatmadaw is the official name of the armed forces of Burma. It is administered by the Ministry of Defence and composed of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Auxiliary services include the Myanmar Police Force, the People's Militia Units and until 2013 the Frontier Forces, locally known as Na Sa Kha. The force is headed by the Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Following a coup by General Ne Win in 1962, the Tatmadaw maintained a firm grip on power through a military government in Burma until the 2015 elections. In this time they hollowed out all rival institutions- from the judiciary to the school system- developed during British rule or in the fragile years of multi-party democracy following independence in 1948. Its human rights record is among the worst in the world: the use of rape as a weapon of war and the mass recruitment of child soldiers have been documented at length. Burma's previous military rulers were marked by their international isolation- enjoying warmer relations with Pyongyang than with Washington- and could be parochially minded in the extreme.

In 2011, following international pressure the Tatmadaw began a carefully managed liberalization, which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the longstanding opposition party, the NLD, in the 2015 election. Although the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, was defeated the power of the military still descends into every corner of society as it maintains a powerful veto power in legislative affairs.

Its grip was felt keenly when the government was formed in March 2016. The military put forward Myint Swe as vice president- a choice the NLD was unable to veto. The military maintains its “guiding role” in the nation’s politics, and full sovereignty over its own affairs, as stipulated in the 2008 Constitution. This has proved to be a millstone around Burma's democratic development.