Burma Completes a Year of "Democracy"

One year ago, Burmese Senior-General Than Shwe’s former military regime orchestrated a general election that all objective observers agreed was neither free nor fair. Ironically, this sham election and Than Shwe’s concurrent efforts to protect himself and maintain the military’s grip on power have created an environment where the small steps toward reform that are taking place today became possible.

The real question is where the country goes from here, because the true test of the sincerity of President Thein Sein and his fellow “reformers” will be whether they institute more meaningful and irreversible reforms that put real political and economic power into the hands of the Burmese people, where it belongs.

But in order to understand the direction that Burma might possibly take in the coming year and beyond—and how that direction might be influenced to ensure that it is a positive one—it is helpful to quickly review where the country currently stands and how it got there.

The November 2010 election was shunned by Burma’s main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and was widely condemned as a farce. The 2008 Constitution handed the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and the election was rigged in almost every conceivable way to make certain that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would dominate the open seats.

In the end, the USDP “won” more than 80 percent of the seats it competed for, and together with the military it placed ex-general and ex-regime Prime Minister Thein Sein, who was Than Shwe’s hand-picked candidate, in the post of president.

When the smoke from the election had settled and the new government was entirely formed, only Than Shwe and his second in command, Gen Maung Aye, had officially stepped aside—all of the other junta leaders remained in direct positions of power, be it wearing civilian or military garb. For example, the current president, first vice-president, and speakers of both the upper and lower house of Parliament were all leading members of the former regime, as were most members of Thein Sein’s cabinet.

So when Thein Sein gave a series of speeches after being sworn in that signaled the adoption of a reform agenda which included an anti-poverty and anti-corruption campaign, along with a “good governance” agenda, most observers were understandably skeptical and wondered whether any real action would follow the president’s words—after all, the Burmese opposition had heard these words many times before, and nothing had ever happened.

But then some small but positive things did begin to happen. Certain press restrictions were eased, Martyr’s Day and International Day of Democracy ceremonies were allowed, Internet website bans were lifted and Suu Kyi met with a government liaison. These steps were followed by even more significant moves, when Suu Kyi met face-to-face with Thein Sein, the president suspended work on the Myitsone Dam project and a small number of political prisoners were released. More intangibly, but still very importantly, people in Rangoon and some other major cities began to feel less fear about speaking more openly about politics.

The international community has praised these reforms while urging the government leaders to take more meaningful and concrete steps. Several Western government representatives have visited Burma recently, including the US special representative for Burma, Derek Mitchell, who said that his talks with government leaders were constructive, candid and frank.

According to his latest press briefing, Mitchell has been able to raise important issues that the regime in the past had been reluctant at best to discuss, including armed conflicts in the ethnic region and the plight of the conflict’s victims. But Burma’s current leaders need to demonstrate the political will to solve the decades old ethnic conflict and to make a long-lasting peace underpinned by political solutions, rather than putting band-aids on the deep-seated tensions with temporary ceasefires.

Outside of Burma, the US has remained a leading player in shaping Burma policy and actively advocating for change, and high-ranking US officials, including Mitchell, have now held several rounds of talks with Burmese government representatives in Washington and Naypyidaw. The US has maintained its sanctions, but has said that it is ready to “respond in kind” if Burma makes genuine democratic reforms and halts human rights abuses.

Inside Burma, Suu Kyi—who in the past has been a strident critic of the regime and who was personally barred from contesting in the 2010 election and who advised the NLD not to contest—has said she believes that Thein Sein is straightforward and sincere and has sent generally positive signals since their face-to-face meeting

Last week, the government amended the Political Parties Registration Law in a manner that opened the door for both the NLD to re-register and Suu Kyi to run for Parliament, if they so choose. But for Suu Kyi and the NLD to make that decision, and for the international community to determine whether to offer the regime certain rewards for its steps toward reform, all must take a look at the reforms that have yet to be instituted, which far outweigh in number and substance those that have taken place.

In ethnic regions, fighting between ethnic and government forces has continued and in some cases escalated, and the US government and independent human rights groups continue to issue credible reports of ongoing human rights abuses in those areas. Over 1,000 political prisoners remain behind bars for no apparent reason other than to provide the government with bargaining chips for future international carrots. The Constitution remains heavily in favor of the military.

The list of needed reforms would take several editorials to name and explain thoroughly, and for many strong critics, this is enough evidence to conclude that the situation in Burma has changed only on the surface and the steps taken thus far—all of which are not full measures and are easily reversible—are only intended to gain legitimacy rather than materially change the lives of the Burmese people. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig,” they say.

To many foreign governments and observers, however, President Thein Sein’s reform agenda counts and the steps he has taken so far are significant. They say that reforms will be gradual, but they are inevitable unless hardliners lurking in the shadows are allowed to reemerge and force a u-turn from the positive direction the country is heading. In order to keep Burma moving forward, they argue, Thein Sein needs support from the international community and should be rewarded for his efforts thus far.

Whatever the case, we are convinced that Burma is presently going through a transition, but are unsure about where it will lead. The dilemma is that if the regime is given most of what they want for what they’ve done so far, then the reform process might stop in its tracks and some of the more reversible reforms might be taken away; while on the other hand, if the regime is given no rewards then the hardliners may step in, reassert control and return the country to the dark days of repression under the previous regime. Given this, the rewards “in kind” approach advocated by both Suu Kyi and the US is the best strategy from both a political and negotiating standpoint.

The man to watch is President Thein Sein. He has been the leader in making the conciliatory gestures and small concessions to the public and opposition thus far, and has reaped praise for his efforts. The question is whether he will have the power and political will to go further and institute the serious reforms demanded by the Burmese people and the international community.

The required reforms are not only in the political field, but also in the social, economic, health and education sectors. Hopefully, Thein Sein and the rest of the government leaders will realize that the country has enormous untapped potential if it is able to make the required changes and re-integrate into the regional and world community. Therefore it is in the government leaders’ own best interests, as well as the Burmese people’s, to make the changes demanded of them.

On the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the rigged election, we recognize and appreciate the steps that have been taken by Thein Sein’s government thus far that go beyond what most thought possible when the polls had closed. But many more concrete and meaningful reforms are still needed if the president wants to demonstrate that his words are serious and he is truly listening to the opinion of the Burmese people.

When that day arrives, we will give Thein Sein our full kudos. Until that time, we will keep them in hopeful reserve.

(This analysis was carried in The Irrawaddy, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.)