Burma's winds of change

While Burma’s civilian government appears willing to at least observe the veneer of democracy, hardliners and some former top generals are uneasy with the extent and pace of change and are threatening to force another military coup, diplomatic sources in Rangoon say.

The government, for the first time since the military seized power more than 20 years ago, is making a concerted effort to tackle the country’s poverty. The newly elected parliament – though many MPs owe their seats to a manipulated vote last November -- is beginning to function.

Last week’s executive decision by president Thein Sein to suspend construction on the controversial Myitsone dam in Kachin state near the border with China is another example of the government’s responsiveness to the wishes of the people, according to a senior Burmese government official. And now the government seems poised to release political prisoners.

The key to change is Thein Sein’s willingness to accommodate the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This rapprochement, after their first meeting some seven weeks ago -- seems to have set a new tone.

Everything now depends on the release of these political prisoners – of which there are more than 2,000 according to the human rights group Amnesty International. Only after a significant number are freed will the country be launched on a genuine path to democracy.

Burma’s foreign minister Wanna Maung Lwin told the UN General Assembly in New York last month that the government intended to free more prisoners in the near future – though he did not mention whether political prisoners would be included or when. But in Rangoon there is mounting speculation that the government is set to free political prisoners – or at least a significant number of them – within the next few weeks.

The prisoners will be released in three batches, said a senior government official on condition of anonymity. More than 200 political activists may walk free within the next week or so, including the internationally renowned comedian, Zaganar.

This would be a clear signal both to the country and to the international community that Thein Sein’s reform agenda is not simply window dressing. There have been growing signs that the government, elected last November, is serious about economic and political reform.

The changes are often without formal announcements. To mark democracy day, the government unblocked many international news sites, including the Bangkok Post, the BBC, the exile-run Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the Burmese language broadcasts of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, all of which have been blocked for more than two decades. That follows earlier relaxation of media censorship, including allowing access to Skye, Yahoo and Youtube.

“There is enough to make us cautiously optimistic, with the stress on optimistic,” Steve Marshall, the head of the International Labour Organization in Rangoon told the Asia Sentinel recently. “There is a new attitude amongst the government ministers according to diplomats and UN officials who have been dealing with them for years. Ministers are far more responsive than before. There’s a real discussion now unlike under the previous regime. Decisions do not have to be passed back up to be approved.”

Even Aung San Suu Kyi seems encouraged. “I believe we have reached a point where there is an opportunity for change,” she recently told a small crowd gathered outside the National League for Democracy’s headquarters . Thein Sein seems to be looking to involve Aung San Suu Kyi in the country’s political future – albeit tentatively.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi has revealed few details of their talks, her attitude towards the government has changed markedly. “She trusts Thein Sein, believes he is sincere and needs support,” she told western diplomats in Rangoon recently, according to someone who attended the meeting.

The liberal-minded ministers who support Thein Sein’s initiatives also believe she is the key to a democratic transition in the country. “It was important to show the Lady that we are willing to work with her," said a government official close to the president. “We see her as a potential partner, not an adversary.”

Of course the issue of political prisoners was high on the agenda for the pro-democracy leader, who told her host that there could be no movement forward without their release first. Thein Sein knows that this is also the key to improved relations with the outside world -- and even with their neighbors and supporters in ASEAN. It would certainly smooth the path to Burma being confirmed as ASEAN chairman for 2014 later this year.

But the release of political prisoners remains a delicate and vexed issue. General Than Shwe, the head of the junta that ran the country prior to the election, has made it clear on at least two occasions -- once just after the elections last year and again earlier this year before Thein Sein took over the reins of government -- that the release of political prisoners and the jailed military intelligence officers was not an option. Both Thura Shwe Man and Maung Aye tried to convince him to make the gesture, but he remained intransigent.

Of course, the recent motion to free political prisoners adopted by parliament by a large majority may have set the seal on the release. It was significant that the speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann – the former third top general in the junta’s army – steered this through parliament.

Thura Shwe Mann is strongly supporting the president, according to sources close to him. He sees the issue of the release of political prisoners as something he can do which would make a difference – both domestically and internationally.

This is crucial, for the government cannot be seen to be bowing to international pressure. The freeing of these political activists is a necessary step in the democratic transition that Thein Sein says he is committed to. They have to be freed before planned by-elections, possibly in November. It is believed that the president promised Aung San Suu Kyi this when they met in August.

It now seems certain that there will be a role, so far unspecified, for Suu Kyi. Diplomats in Rangoon who have met her recently all say she is confident about the future and optimistic about the possibility of genuine change. Her role is going to be crucial. She is obviously willing to support the president’s reform process. But whether the next big step is taken will depend on Thein Sein and the government releasing political prisoners.

But the optimism needs to be tempered, said a senior liberal-minded minister. The hardliners are still waiting to pounce if they are given the opportunity. These same hardliners, led by the vice-president Thin Aung Mying Oo, were not happy to see Thein Sein meet Suu Kyi. Some ministers did not even know the meeting had taken place until they saw the evening television news.

While for the moment the signs are good, the hardliners are still lurking in the background. “If we fail, we’ll end up in jail,” said a senior member of the government recently on condition of anonymity.

Another military coup is possible if the army becomes convinced that these changes are not in their interests. In fact it is written into the 2008 constitution. Before he retired, Than Shwe had the army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing agree that he would lead a coup if necessary, according to senior military sources in Naypyidaw. The parliament would be abolished, the existing political parties dissolved, a new military-based party formed and new elections held.

For the moment Min Aung Hlaing is supporting both the President and the Speaker of the lower house, but the army’s continued support is by no means certain – especially if Than Shwe decides to intervene. Already some old hardliners in the governing United Solidarity and Development Party have been encouraging the old man to return, but so far to no avail.