There is no doubt that 2016 has been a pivotal year for Myanmar. Despite strong uncertainty over whether the November 2015 general elections would be free and fair, the National League for Democracy (NLD) went on to achieve a resounding victory. A landslide of popular support for the NLD, and for its influential leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, signaled that the people of Myanmar were no longer willing to abide by the country's long-running military authoritarianism. As a result, on 30 March 2016, the NLD became the first non-military government in 54 years, though the new government would still have to contend with firmly entrenched military power and influence that is enshrined in the 2008 constitution. Upon entry into office, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi promised to ensure "national reconciliation, internal peace, the rule of law, the amendment to the constitution and keeping the democratic system dynamic and well ingrained."
In the first 100 days of taking office, the NLD-led Government demonstrated its commitment to the rule of law by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, while simultaneously vowing to drop politically motivated charges by the end of April 2016. In the area of national reconciliation, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi drew praise from the international community for arranging the "21st Century Panglong" conference in August. The event brought together ethnic groups, the Myanmar Army, and political parties in an attempt to encourage a sustainable solution to decades of civil conflict and to finally begin building a democratic federal union.
Despite the headway made towards achieving a sustainable peace, the 21st Century Panglong Conference failed to provide any convincing political will for true national reconciliation. Though highly symbolic, the conference did not achieve the desired level of inclusivity as promised by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army being barred from participating, despite their willingness to partake in the discussions. Unaddressed tensions and the limited participation of women during the conference presented further obstacles to meaningful dialogue.
The most apparent obstacle to reconciliation, however, was – and remains to be – the Myanmar Army's continued and uninterrupted campaign of conflict and human rights abuse throughout much of Myanmar's ethnic regions. During times before and after the conference, the Myanmar Army has waged a campaign of violence, compromising any hope for dialogue from ethnic armed organizations. In Shan State, the Myanmar Army's intensified conflict with ethnic Ta'ang, Shan, Kachin and Kokang armed organizations, which later emerged as the Northern Alliance - Burma has resulted in a number of civilian casualties, human rights violations, and the increased displacement of thousands both internally and across the border into China. In 2015, 644,000 people remained displaced as a result of conflict throughout Myanmar and the ongoing offensives by the Myanmar Army in Kachin and northern Shan State during 2016 has added to the already large number of over 100,000 internally displaced persons in these areas.
This, along with a further escalation of armed conflict in Kachin State, recently led the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) to condemn the Myanmar Government for not doing more to prevent the Myanmar Army from waging war or preventing highly-needed humanitarian aid from reaching those internally displaced. According to the UNFC, "It is incredible to see and is unbefitting a government seeking peace, as it is not only petty-minded but also responding to the problem with a one-sided view lacking an understanding of the plight of the people." The scale of ongoing conflict and recent fighting along the southeast of Myanmar also further calls into question the sustainability of reparation plans for approximately 100,000 refugees living along the Thailand-Myanmar border, many of who may face conflict in the same regions they left decades before.
An escalating crisis in Rakhine State is further evidence of the complete failure of the Myanmar Government to quell interreligious tensions and protect vulnerable civilian populations. Following an attack on regional Border Guard Police on 9 October 2016, members of the country's security services have engaged in a violent crackdown throughout the northern part of the state. Despite limited information, reports have suggested massive displacement,delays in crucial humanitarian aid and incidents of rape committed by the Myanmar Army against civilians, and the systematic burning of civilian homes. Most of this violence has been directly targeting the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, and of which certainly approaches – if not completely satisfies – the definition of crimes against humanity. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's ambiguous silence over the situation in Rakhine State and on the persecution of the Rohingya has resulted in criticism from Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who further described the government's approach to the crisis as "short-sighted, counter-productive, and even callous."
In addition, the NLD's commitment to the rule of law and a healthy democratic system has also failed in the realm of freedom of expression and protecting human rights defenders. Under the former military leadership, the Myanmar Government enacted oppressive legislation, such as section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law (2013), enabling far-sweeping powers to crack down on any internal voices of dissent. Rather than eliminating or reforming these laws, the government is continuing to use them to silence public criticism. The arrest of two Eleven Media Group journalists in November 2016 along with the sentencing of Hla Phone in the same month for merely publicly criticizing the government illustrates a disturbing trend surrounding freedom of expression. An information blackout and the intimidation and restriction of media during the initial stages of the recent Rakhine State crisis, which included a direct complaint from the Ministry of Information over The Myanmar Times coverage of the issue and the subsequent firing of journalist, Fiona MacGregor, is further evidence of this trend. Notably, the Myanmar Government's pledge to release all remaining political prisoners appears to have been ignored as – the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners notes that as of November 2016, 195 political prisoners still remain behind bars.
Business continues to trump human rights as the international community puts trade and investment before the protection of the people of Myanmar. The announcement from US President Obama to remove remaining sanctions on Myanmar was less a signal that the country had advanced in its democratic transition and more an indication that the international community was willing to overlook ongoing human rights abuses and weak land and environmental protections in the name of lucrative trade and investment opportunities. A notable example of this can be found in Karen and Shan States, where proposals for dam constructions along the Salween River have resulted in increased resource-fuelled conflict, and have seemingly ignored consideration for local ethnic groups affected by increased militarization and conflict that comes with such development projects.
The democratic transition promised by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership has so far struggled to take hold, as a substantial and meaningful change that promotes human rights for all people in Myanmar is still largely non-existent. Whether in regards to pushing forward the peace process and ending armed conflict, reforming the constitution and harmful legislation, cessation of fighting, ending entrenched discrimination and inequality, upholding freedom of association, assembly and expression and freedom of religion and belief, protecting human rights defenders, ceasing excessive natural resource extraction and harmful mega development projects, many deep structural obstacles that safeguard the interest of the military and the political elite from the former regime remain. While the year 2016 saw some positive changes and the NLD-led Government continues to display a willingness to move forward with substantial and meaningful changes, no sign is seen that they are able to reign in the Myanmar Army. Thus the military's unrelenting hold on power during this democratic transition will likely continue to be Myanmar's greatest challenge in 2017.
The NLD-led Government must take immediate action, especially to resolve time-sensitive issues, such as the restoration of humanitarian aid in conflict regions. To achieve its colossal task of reforming politics and governance in Myanmar, the new leadership must look towards its allies among civil society, especially with those that are independent and rights-based. These forces can help shape the country into a peaceful, harmonious, equal and inclusive society. If we hope to observe genuine change on the ground in the coming year in 2017, the reform process must be inclusive and steadfastly devoted to ensuring a full democratic transition with respect and guarantee for the rights of all people in Myanmar.
As Myanmar continues to embark on a new chapter, we look forward to continue 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 9 January 2017. We wish you happy holidays and all the best for 2017.
All the best,
Aung Khaing Min
Chair of the Board of Advisory
 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.