Much has been made of the flurry of initiatives by Thein Sein since he became president earlier this year, but his surprising enthusiasm for recycling seems to have gone unnoticed.
If the recent steps he has taken are examined in more detail, it turns out most are not new or as significant as many seem to think. Rather, they are recycled from his predecessors, Than Shwe and Ne Win.
On 31 March Thein Sein made a speech to parliament promising reforms – chiefly economic, not political. The fact that the speech got so much attention was surprising in itself. Thein Sein was on the ruling Council of the dictatorship for 14 years. The track record of the dictatorship in telling the truth during that time is amongst the worst in the world – they have lied in media, lied at international conferences, lied at the UN General Assembly, and lied to successive UN envoys, even when they knew those envoys were reporting back to the UN Security Council. For example, after his visit in November 2007, UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari faithfully reported back to the Security Council promises by the regime to halt arrests and release political prisoners. However, there were no releases, and the arrests continued. Since early 2007 Thein Sein, as prime minister, has been the main person responsible for telling lies on behalf of the dictatorship. There has been speculation that his experience and skill in dealing with the international community was one of the reasons Than Shwe picked him for the job.
Little attention was given to reasons Thein Sein gave for needing economic reform, such as “building military might” and that the “National Economy is associated with political affairs. If the nation enjoys economic growth, the people will become affluent, and they will not be under the influence of internal and external elements.” In his own words, Thein Sein’s stated motivation for economic change is strengthening the military and consolidating power, not tackling poverty.
It has been stated that Thein Sein’s promises of reform are new for a Burmese president, but they aren’t. The previous dictator, Than Shwe, made similar pledges, though without the high profile rhetoric. In fact, in 1992, when he became dictator, Than Shwe did more than just talk, he admitted there were political prisoners, and released more than 400 of them. This is in stark contrast to Thein Sein’s regime, which denies that political prisoners even exist.
Khin Nyunt, head of military intelligence and later prime minister under Than Shwe, also made regular promises of reform, in public and in private. Go back further and there are numerous examples of Ne Win, Burma’s first dictator, doing the same, often in similar grand speeches. Again, no genuine reforms followed.
The meeting held between Aung San Suu Kyi and Aung Kyi, the government minister appointed to liaise with her, was widely reported as the first meeting since the new government came to power, rather than their tenth meeting over a course of several years, which does not sound quite as significant. Another meeting followed, the eleventh.
In November 2002 Than Shwe boasted to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that Aung San Suu Kyi had met with government ministers on 13 occasions, and had met with a liaison officer an incredible 107 times. These meetings didn’t lead to political reforms.
There has also been an offer of ceasefire talks to armed ethnic political parties. This must have been received with incredulity by the Shan State Army–North and Kachin Independence Organisation. In March and June respectively they had been attacked by the Burmese Army for refusing to become Border Guard Forces under control of the Burmese army, breaking decades-long ceasefire agreements. The Burmese army has been targeting civilians in areas where it has broken ceasefire agreements, with soldiers killing, raping, looting and using forced labour.
Ceasefire offers which turn out to be highly conditional, or in effect amounting to demands to surrender, have been made by dictatorships in Burma dozens of times in the past 60 years. There is nothing new in this proposal to suggest it is genuine this time. But the call served its purpose, adding to the positive mood music and impression of change.
A rumour has also emerged that Thein Sein told an audience that political exiles could return home and help the country develop. Again some hailed this as a sign of change, even though no amnesty was offered, no laws that led to many of the exiles being jailed and forced to flee the country have been repealed, and military attacks of the kind which have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes have increased, not decreased.
Even if an offer of amnesty was made, again, it would not be new. Ne Win did the same back in 1980. Again it wasn’t a sign of any genuine change on the way.
With the constitution, elections, and release of Aung San Suu Kyi failing to persuade the US, EU and Canada to relax economic sanctions, and even ASEAN delaying a decision to have Burma as its chair in 2014, it obviously became clear to Thein Sein that he would have to do more to present an image of change. With a decision on the ASEAN chairmanship likely to be made before the end of the year, there is a sense of urgency. To be turned down would be a major blow to Thein Sein and the dictatorship.
This may help explain the flurry of activity. What is highly unlikely, given their track record and continuing actions, is that this has anything to do with genuine reform.
The dictatorship has successfully engaged in lies and delaying tactics for decades. They take superficial actions designed to present the impression that change could be round the corner, but that corner is never turned. All the evidence so far is that we are seeing more of the same. But what is taking place does present an opportunity. Now is not the time to adopt a wait and see approach, or for the usual softly, softly dialogue. A concerted international effort needs to be made, setting the dictatorship clear benchmarks and timelines for change. The international community has what the dictatorship wants, it has leverage. It is time to use it.
Mark Farmaner is director of Burma Campaign UK.