On the back of initial reforms, Burma has emerged from consistently being among the world’s worst-ranked countries in a global freedom survey, leaving North Korea as Asia’s lowest-ranked country.
But Freedom House still designated Burma—along with China, North Korea, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—as a country deemed “Not Free” in its “Freedom in the World 2012” report released on Thursday.
Burmese President Thein Sein's elected, nominally civilian government has made limited democratic reforms, including holding talks with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and releasing other key political prisoners, since it took office last March after decades of harsh military rule.
Of the 48 countries designated as "Not Free" by the U.S.-based Freedom House, nine have been given the survey’s lowest possible rating of seven for both political rights and civil liberties: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Beijing-ruled Tibet, designated a “Disputed Territory” by Freedom House, was also ranked among the worst of the worst.
Slightly above those of the worst-ranked countries for political rights and civil liberties were Belarus, Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, Libya, and South Ossetia.
'Major opening' hoped for
Map showing levels of freedom as seen by Freedom House. RFA
“Burma, which has ranked alongside North Korea as one of the world’s most closed societies, experienced what many hope will become a major political opening,” Freedom House said in the report.
“The government of President Thein Sein has permitted more public discussion, tolerated a measure of press commentary, freed longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and cleared the path for her party’s participation in elections,” it said.
“It was an opening that many hadn’t anticipated,” senior research analyst for Freedom House Sarah Cook said. “We were really pleasantly surprised.”
While the lifting of some restrictions on Burma’s press and the freeing of political prisoners sends “an important signal,” Freedom House will continue to watch Burma for signs of “backsliding,” she said in an interview.
“There haven’t been the kind of structural or legal changes, or other institutional changes, that would prevent the regime a year from now from taking all of that back,” she said.
For China, Freedom House said the world’s most populous nation “showed significant signs of deteriorating governance, with particularly notable declines in the areas of civil society, media freedom and the rule of law.”
From February to June, “a systematic set of abductions and disappearances of prominent activists, social media bloggers, artists like Ai Weiwei, and human rights lawyers sent a chilling effect through the community of those pushing for change in China,” Cook said.
Independent candidates running for the “most minimal” levels of office in local People’s Congresses also faced obstacles and obstructions, often in violation of guarantees made by China’s own laws, she said.
North Korea continues to be “one of the most repressive and closed societies in the world,” Cook said.
The nuclear-armed and reclusive nation continues to be at the bottom in the rights group’s rankings because of “its people’s lack of ability to exercise their basic rights, and the harshness of the punishments for those who do.”
Some policies reversed
“North Korea’s economic dimension improved slightly last year because there was a reversal of some of the policies from 2009 related to currency valuation, and there was a resumption of some market activity,” Cook said.
But for the most part, life in North Korea remained “very, very harsh,” Cook said.
Scores for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—all of which were named “Not Free”—remained unchanged from the year before, Cook said, though she noted “pretty serious reports of crackdowns in [Vietnam’s] Highlands among the Hmong and other minority Christian groups.”
And, as in China, social-media bloggers in Vietnam faced harsh restrictions, Cook said.
“Certainly, Vietnam is one of those countries where in recent years we’ve had cases of people being sentenced to prison terms, including some to long prison terms, because of their blogging activities.”
Freedom House said that the Asia-Pacific region has been the only one to record steady overall gains in the majority of indicators over the past five years. In 2011, aside from Burma, progress was also noted in Indian Kashmir, Singapore, and Thailand, it said.Reported by Richard Finney.