Burma recorded improvements in both its political rights and civil liberties ratings in a global freedom survey published Wednesday, overtaking China which was accused of having “the world’s most complex and sophisticated apparatus for political control.”
But in spite of political reforms introduced since March 2011 under a nominally civilian government, Burma remains “Not Free” together with China and North Korea, the Washington-based Freedom House said in a report.
Nuclear-armed North Korea was however ranked “Worst of the Worst” together with the China-ruled Tibet Autonomous Region, where Tibetans together with others in Tibetan-populated provinces in China have staged deadly self-immolation protests.
“For years ranked among the world’s most repressive regimes, Burma continued to push ahead with a process of democratic reform that was launched in 2010,” Freedom House said in its report, “Freedom in the World 2013: Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance.”
“While it remains a ‘Not Free’ country, it registered improvements in both its political rights and civil liberties ratings,” Freedom House said.
Freedom House’s Not Free ranking is assigned to countries “where basic political rights are absent, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.”
A slight rise
Speaking in an interview, Sarah Cook, Asia researcher for Freedom House, said that Burma’s ranking in political rights moved up from a score of 7, Freedom House’s lowest ranking, to a 6 during 2012, and that its ranking in civil liberties moved up from 6 to 5.
While Burma has 6 on political rights and 5 on civil liberties, China is still 7 on political rights and 6 on civil liberties, the survey showed.
“China remained one of the most repressive countries in the world, and is in fact home to over half of the people in the world who live in a country that is rated Not Free,” Cook said.
Signaling further progress in reforms, Burma on Wednesday repealed a law formerly used to jail critics of the country’s former military rulers, state media reported.
Other gains in freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and a reduction of censorship in the media and on the Internet were also observed during the year, Cook said.
“But these are at the whim of the authorities, without any of the institutional changes that would prevent a backsliding if the political winds change,” she said.
Also ranked Not Free in this year’s report were Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, while Tibet and North Korea languished at the bottom of Freedom House’s list.
Ninety-six Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese rule in Tibetan populated areas since February 2009 amid accusations by rights groups of worsening abuses by Beijing.
“And the government’s response, rather than really looking at the underlying roots of these grievances, was to further intensify their restrictions, both within the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Tibetan regions of the surrounding [Chinese] provinces,” Cook said.
“We saw media blackouts and efforts to stop the news from getting out, [and] the arrest and imprisonment of people who did send information out."
In China itself, “what we saw in 2012 was the continued dedication of [the ruling] Communist Party to really maintain its political control,” she said.
“The security apparatus was really active, particularly in trying to neutralize some of the people who are known as activists and dissidents, as well as religious believers like Falun Gong practitioners.”
Bright spots during the year included the escape from house arrest of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng and “the determination and courage of not just high-profile dissidents but also a large number of ordinary citizens to assert their rights and challenge injustice,” Cook said.
But China’s northwest Xinjiang region continued to see a “severe” security presence and a range of security measures targeting the country’s ethnic minority Uyghur population, she said.
“Also, a lot of the people who had been abducted and disappeared right after the protests and riots [in the regional capital Urumqi] in 2009 remain unaccounted for, and large numbers have been sentenced to prison.”
For Xinjiang, the main development of 2012 was “intensified pressure” on religious practice outside of state controls, Cook said. The mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs complain they are discriminated against by the Chinese authorities in favor of the majority Han Chinese ethnic group.
In Southeast Asia, Cambodia, which had 6 for political rights and 5 for civil liberties, showed “some decline” with regard to freedom of association.
“Violence against civil society activists and journalists seemed to ramp up even more in 2012, with one journalist killed and police opening fire on demonstrators involved in labor protests and in protests connected with logging and forced evictions,” Cook said.
Laos, though with unchanged scores of 7 and 6, also showed a decline in freedom of association.
“We also saw in the media field the Lao authorities taking off the air a popular radio call-in show that had focused, among other things, on land-grabbing. They also publicly rebuked journalists for not heeding state guidance on these stories,” she said.
Vietnam, ranked at 7 and 5, has seen a continuing harsh crackdown on political dissent, “particularly with regard to suppression of online activism and people’s ability to communicate freely and safely on the Internet,” Cook said, adding that “this was particularly related to concerns about corruption.”
North Korea saw slight openings in market activity and in an increase in mobile phone usage but there was no significant change in terms of political opening under the new young leader, Kim Jong Un, she said.
“In terms of any significant reduction in the labor camp populations or changes in some of the laws that send people to labor camps, or even things like punishments for people who are caught making international phone calls, we didn’t see anything like that,” Cook said.
“It was only in the economic area that we saw a bit of opening, and we’ve seen openings and closings like that before.”
Reported by Richard Finney.