Myanmar’s careful reformist: Thein Sein

Reform and submission to the people’s will has Myanmar sprung up for hope, yet hardliners and China complicate matters.

Myanmar protestors
As a result of popular protests Thain Sein cancelled the building of the China backed Myitsone hydropower project [EPA]

It was only a matter of time before Myanmar’s generals realised the best way out of an embarrassingly underdeveloped nation and western sanctions, was best done through ‘reforms’. Spearheaded by several seemingly ‘reformist’ general-cum-politicians, with the backing of ‘moderate’ intellectuals and businessmen, Myanmar has witnessed changes, radical only to a nation considered six months ago to be one of the worst dictatorships in the world.

Following a string of small reforms, it was last week when the most striking took place. For the first time in most the population’s memory, Myanmar’s President, Thein Sein, said he would give in to the desire of the people. That desire, was to prevent the completion of the Myitsone Dam, saving the mighty Irrawaddy river and surrounding areas from catastrophe. Over ten thousand people supposedly would have been displaced by the construction, and an area the size of Singapore flooded

No one is quite sure why Thein Sein made this surprising decision, or who was really behind it. Most puzzling was whether the decision was sanctioned by previous hardline generals, or not. In the weeks leading up to his announcement, the campaign to “save the Irrawaddy” had grown unprecedented and, unrestricted momentum. Artists, academics, politicians and others from all corners of society, joined forces to raise awareness and pressure the government. The issue generated public debate, which had not been seen in Myanmar for decades, if ever.

As the movement grew at an alarming rate – one, which was not talking about democracy, but the environment – the cancellation gave Thein Sein the opportunity to increase much needed support domestically, and fend off hardliners in parliament looking for excuses to undermine him. It has also given him the chance to gain support internationally, which will in turn help him domestically.

And so far Thein Sein’s efforts are working. The US has already said they believe “winds of change are blowing through Burma”. Nations from across the globe have shown support for the recent changes and said they would engage further if progress continues. Japan has already restarted all aid it previously put on hold, and Yangon national airport has seen a flurry of Japanese engineers coming to inspect ‘potential projects’. A variety of businessmen, academics and opportunists will no doubt be checking flights to Yangon, eager to jump on board with ‘cautious optimism’.

The real test, though, will come next month when ministers across South East Asia make a judgement over whether Myanmar should hold the 2014 ASEAN chairmanship. An obvious incentive for the recent reform drive; chairmanship would bring legitimacy to the up till now notorious regime who engineered the apparent power shift to the civilian government, and, no doubt, a complete lifting of sanctions, allowing western companies to openly do business with the regime’s cronies.

It is widely believed that last years ‘elections’ were a show to bring in a more civilian looking government namely the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and many hardliners still hope to keep the status quo and their positions of power. However, as reformists such as Thein Sein gain more domestic support, we could be seeing the beginning stages of a political transition. But so far, much is left to be done.

Despite the USDP recently offering peace talks with ethnic armies, the state military is now engaged in fighting on all its borders. Some have been fighting for over sixty years – the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have been fighting the longest civil war in the world – others have only just resumed fighting. Having enjoyed a ceasefire since 1994, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), based on the Sino-Burma border have been blasted with mortars over the last two months, with countless civilians caught in the middle of the conflict.

Tensions began to brew when the Kachin rejected the regime’s ‘Border Guard Proposal’, which was a nice way of Nay Pyi Daw saying, “lay down your weapons and join the Myanmar Union Army”. The answer was ‘no’, and remains ‘no’. The same goes for the Shan State Army-North who continue to also face bombardment and heavy offensives on a daily basis. If the USDP, and those behind it are serious about reform, one would expect fighting to cease, and dialogue to commence immediately. 

Even the biggest sceptics, though, cannot deny there has been some changes. It is clear that more  power than was previously expected has been placed in the hands of Thein Sein, and others who battle to rule Parliament. Diplomats, businessmen and even Suu Kyi, who recently met Thein Sein have cautiously hinted that there is some sincerity in Thein Sein’s desire to improve the country. Yet, one would be foolish to think he is completely in control, and while he may be sincere, there are many behind, and around him, eager to keep the status quo.

Despite these hardline anti-reformists, the last three years has seen a flurry of soldiers, businessmen and others join the ranks of ‘the moderates’. Networks have been formed between completely different groups, who, before, would never have discussed anything of a political, economical or social nature. Military officials for the first time were talking to former political prisoners about how to improve the country. A discourse unseen before, has been shared between these actors, who want to see Myanmar pulled out from the pit it has fallen into. This movement towards change, has undoubtedly had some input into Thein Sein’s decision to halt the dam, and all the positive developments we have seen up till now. Putting too much emphasis, though, on their input, would be downplaying the intelligence and wickedness of a regime historically so skilful in manipulating the international community.

Despite the warranted scepticism by many, the latest PR campaign to become a ‘real’ government in the eyes of the world, and the movement for change from inside, has brought some positive developments. Aung San Suu Kyi, the long time democracy activist, who has spent the last thirteen out of nineteen years under house arrest in her crumbling mansion, was released following last years elections. Since her release she has faced little harassment, rallied, given speeches and even travelled outside the capital. Last week was the third time she met with government liaison minister, Aung Kyi, since her release and left the meeting noting that there was opportunities for change, but did not go on to say change was afoot.

On international Democracy Day, without announcement, the government lifted bans on several media outlets, and other sites such as ‘youtube’. Some of these, were exiled news agencies, which had fed news into the country for decades, trying to counter state media propaganda or heavily censored journals. For their ‘evilness’, a spot was kept in the daily state mouth piece, the new light of Myanmar, alerting the public of their intent to destroy the prosperous nation. This, too, has been taken away.

Despite these small, yet important reforms, the recent reforms have stopped short of giving any legal or official guarantees that things will not just regress later, like has happened many times before. It is expected that in the coming weeks, batches of political prisoners will be released. The release of over 2,000 prisoners of conscience has long been a demand of the international community, and continues to be a set benchmark for the rulers to prove real progress is taking place.

With some of the most radical and respected political activists behind bars, it can’t be expected that all will be released over night, fearing they will once again rouse the masses. However, without any timetable, or releases, the hardline activists are right to continue blasting the regime for lack of progress. As should ASEAN and the rest of the international community.

The day after UN Human Rights Envoy Tomas Quintana visited Myanmar, former military officer Nay Myo Zin, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly sending a political document on how to achieve democracy, out of the country. He worked as a volunteer for a blood donor group closely related to Suu Kyi’s party NLD. Then just two weeks ago, a Yangon court added an extra ten years onto the sentence of Sithu Zeya a 21-year video journalist, for his alleged connections with exiled TV station the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Both cases, show that the government is not completely dedicated to its reforms directed towards press freedom and democracy, and shows, perhaps, the hardliners are still very much pulling strings behind the scenes.

Despite the possibility that some of these reforms are not being conducted on a moral basis, or a duty felt by the rulers to finally work for their country, they have to be treated as positive steps. The reformists need to be supported. If the reports are right, and they are battling the hardliners, they will need all the help they can get. Both through private confidential channels, such as one-on-one diplomatic meetings, and other incentives to continue risking their livelihoods to push through much needed reform. The dangers are great, if the reformists don’t get the support they need and deserve, progress could once again be stalled, and even worse, a military coup or cancellation of upcoming 2015 elections. Like has happened many times before, when engagement fails, the hardliners are more than happy to get blood back on their hands, and guard their vested interests.

The halting of the dam is undeniably a big step, and the complications it has caused with China may allow some space for ‘western nations’ to improve their lost relationship with Nay Pyi Daw. China has previously exploited the isolation sanctions had created, but with a growing understanding between the reformists in Nay Pyi Daw and Washington this could soon be a thing of the past. Despite there being over six dams in the making – something highlighted by environmental groups, plus no legal assurance of the dam’s cancellation – Beijing has voiced unprecedented outrage over the cancellation, its biggest single project in Myanmar, and it appears Beijing was not consulted before the decision went public.

Showing a willingness to go against China, could be one of Thein Sein’s biggest achievements. If Myanmar proves to be moving away from being Beijing’s pawn, the west may jump at the opportunity to stop sanctions. Something many in the country, including several generals are hoping for is an end to China’s neo-colonization of Burma. Over the last two decades, China has bought up much of city centres, fuelling anti-Chinese sentiment across the nation. 

Despite the potential ‘breakthrough’ and hope of Myanmar separating itself from China, now is not the time for the international community to go all out rewarding the USDP for its tiny steps of progress. Only when solid guarantees through timelines and laws are made, political prisoners released with no risk of more later being arrested, and more economic reforms made, should the international community even contemplate treating the USDP like the country’s government.

If the regime-government is able to escape from all its sins, and avoid the much demanded and, deserved international crime court, reforms need to be made quickly and efficiently. This time they should not be given the space, or more importantly neglect to once again fool around, with the lives of their nation, and the hopes of the international community. Few Burmese are expecting much from the USDP, and it is about time, they proved their people wrong and worked to improve the country, the hardline Generals have for too long destroyed. If the reformists can continue to gain support domestically and internationally, we could witness a real political transition that benefits the Burmese people. Those who do show themselves to be reformists must be treated with caution, but supported accordingly.

William Lloyd George is a freelance journalist based in Mae Sot, on the Thai-Myanmar border, for the last four years. He has reported extensively from inside Myanmar and on the many conflicts along its borders. He is currently working on a book about Myanmar with American photojournalist KC Ortiz.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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