Major political reform has occurred in Burma since the appointment of the “ambitious” and “refreshingly honest” President Thein Sein in March, according to think tank International Crisis Group in a report that suggests Burma is heading toward genuine democracy.
The report characterises Thein Sein, who was prime minister under the former junta, as eager to reach out to the political opposition and settle seemingly intractable conflicts between the central government and ethnic minority groups.
Jim Della-Giacoma, International Crisis Group’s Southeast Asia Project Director, told DVB that the pace of reform there has picked up since mid-July, three months into Thein Sein’s tenure, “in a way that has surprised observers”.
He pointed to “concrete, albeit small” signals that the new administration was breaking with the nearly half century of military that drew a cloak over Burma and pushed the economy to near ruin.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to Bago [Pegu], for example, allowed her to engage in political activity and exercise her political right”, he said, referring to the visit in August that marked the first time she had left Rangoon on a political trip since 2003. Other positive signs he pointed to were the lifting of a ban on foreign news websites and Thein Sein’s first meeting with Suu Kyi in August, who has spent years on the sidelines of Burma’s political arena.
That view was echoed by long time Burma analyst Larry Jagan, who claimed there was “little doubt” that Thein Sein is “an honest man who wants to push democratic change forward”.
However he cautioned against the conflicts of interest within the government that pit hardliners against “liberal-minded ministers” like Thein Sein. “There is a real possibility of change, and the international community should try and support it. To dismiss it is foolish.”
Asked whether the signs of reform may be duplicitous, as a number of observers have argued, and that they intend to only give a cosmetic lift to the nominally civilian government, Della-Giacomo said that any sort of reform inevitably begins at the rhetorical level.
“This is going to start with words, and words are important. They have to start talking at the highest level, and continue the dialogue they’ve been having in parliament.
“But the way these discussions have been happening, and that they are reported in the local media, shows that there is a new commitment to discussion, and that in itself is a small but significant step.”
While agreeing with the overall sentiment of the report, David Mathieson, Burma researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that areas of the analysis were perhaps too optimistic.
For a start, he said, Thein Sein “is a product of the system”, referring to his high position in the former junta and close relationship with retired dictator Than Shwe, and was a key player in creating many of the crises that have enveloped the country. Therefore his actual commitment to change must be closely scrutinised.
He also questioned the apparent faith the report places in the newly-formed National Human Rights Council, which it says should be strengthened by the international community in light of what it sees as a highly unlikely possibility that the mooted UN probe into human rights abuses would ever take shape.
“Could the Human Rights Council handle war crimes enquiries? I don’t think so. Something created by the government couldn’t really look at the serious culture of abuse in the Burmese military that continues despite pledges of reform,” Mathieson said.
The report further suggests that ASEAN should hand the 2014 chair to Burma, something Della-Giacomo said would spur the government to faster reform.
Mathieson said that while Burma does not deserve the chairmanship, “neither do half of the ASEAN governments”. An offer however would challenge the government to meet core benchmarks. “It would be embarrassing for Thein Sein if other countries boycotted the  summit because Burma still had political prisoners,” he said.