If one cuts through the hype about change in Burma, about how the supposedly civilian administration in Naypyidaw is turning away from its repugnant policies of the past, concrete evidence of new thinking and a new approach by the regime headed by President Thein Sein is relatively slim. Yes, there has been dialogue - an encouraging series of meetings by senior officials - with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as international officials. But with a regime as vicious and untrustworthy as the one that has ruled Burma since the massacres in 1988, it is worth remembering that actions speak a lot louder than words.
Now, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the deeply flawed "election" held on November 7 last year, what achievements can it boast? About 230 political prisoners have been released and a highly controversial Chinese-funded dam has been suspended. Meanwhile, fighting rages in Kachin State in the far north, where thousands of
people have been forced to flee and denied humanitarian aid. Dozens have been killed in recent battles, and rights groups say the army's policy of raping and killing ethnic women and girls continues unabated.
Things are little better in Karen State. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) reported recently that a record number of people - about 112,000 - had been forced to leave their homes in 105 villages and hiding sites during the past year. Some fled into Thailand as part of the ongoing flow of new refugee arrivals but most returned to former villages or resettled elsewhere in Burma, it said, noting that over 450,000 people currently remain internally displaced in the southeastern states.
What concerns Burmese exiles and others monitoring the government is that we're watching a scripted facade; that Naypyidaw is playing a duplicitous game for world sympathy to help entrench its control of the country. Its immediate goal is to chair Asean - to bolster its standing prior to the next election, due in 2015. The feeling among exile groups in Thailand is that the regime hasn't done enough yet and doesn't deserve the chairmanship of Asean (which it is due to get in 2016 if the current rotation arrangement is not changed).
Bo Kyi, head of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, voiced disappointment at the recent release of prisoners at press
conference in Bangkok last week. He noted that the regime hadn't changed its policies - it still denies the existence of political prisoners. Others are more harsh. They say the hundreds of other prisoners of conscience in Burmese jails are really hostages held by the regime, that are released when it wants to limit international condemnation of its appalling practices.
Opponents of the regime were held in 42 prisons and 109 labour camps, Bo Kyi said, but the regime still refused to announce who had been released, and it had never revealed the whereabouts of 91 monks arrested after the "Saffron Revolution" in 2007. Some prisoners, such as Min Ko Naing and the monk U Gambira, one of the leaders of the 2007 protests, are reportedly in a fragile state behind bars. They should be released immediately so they can get proper medical treatment.
Pro-democracy activist Khin Ohmar said little had been done to activate national reconciliation. "In ethnic areas people are still seen as enemies of the state, and subject to persecution, arrest and violence. How is Burma going to move to a democratic transition without tackling these core issues?"
The message from Bo Kyi, Khin Ohmar and Kraisak Choonhawan, the former Thai senator and senior Democrat, who spoke at the same event, was that Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa should defer any decision on Burma becoming head of Asean. "Make them do genuine reform," Ohmar said. "Tell them what you've done is not enough; 230 [political prisoners freed] is not enough".
Kraisak also voiced serious reservations that a Thai company - Ital-Thai - was anxious to build a huge industrial development at Dawei (formerly Tavoy), when the generals' record on such projects was to "go in and shoot all the people if they don't move … then take away their land and don't give any compensation. That is the Tatmadaw [Burmese army' way." Corporations all over the world had a taste for blood and exploitation, he said, "because that's good for profits".