At the moment, everyone is rushing to “engage” with President Thein Sein and the top leaders of his new government, and Burma’s ruling clique seems willing to reciprocate. This is a positive development, but if engagement is to be effective, then the political situation must be accurately assessed.
One crucial question for those attempting to understand Burma right now is whether the country’s political progress over the past few months can be reversed. My answer is “Yes, it can be reversed,” but for a reason that may differ from others attempting to analyze the events taking place and predict what may or may not happen in the future.
Some who question the staying power of President Thein Sein’s reform agenda say that he and the other leaders of the new quasi-civilian government don't have the genuine political will to see reforms through to their democratic conclusion. Others say that the ex-generals were just making enough reforms to get sanctions lifted and chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. Yet another group believes that because the election that brought the ruling party to power was rigged, its legitimacy is still in question.
But the fundamental reason that the reforms made thus far are reversible is that the leaders of the government and the leading members of Parliament have not yet changed their basic mentality—these former high-ranking military officials in the previous junta still do not understand that the actions they took in the past and are still taking today are morally wrong and harmful to the nation.
If Thein Sein was truly committed to both reform and reconciliation, then upon taking office he would have acknowledged that the brutal repression the ex-junta subjected the Burmese people to over the past 20 years was wrong and vowed that the new government would correct the damage done by its past human rights violations, misgovernance and cronyism.
If the government leaders can’t understand and acknowledge their past faults and mistakes, then it is still possible for them to repeat these actions anytime they feel it is in their best interests to do so.
Maybe it is too much to ask for the ex-generals to stand up and issue a full blown mea culpa to the people of Burma at this juncture, but they at least need to demonstrate by their actions that they understand the repugnance and damaging consequences of their past activities.
There has been progress, which provides some evidence of a possible—or at least potential—change of heart by some leaders and which in fairness needs to be acknowledged.
Prior to the general election and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in November 2010, the situation in Burma appeared to be hopeless, and this was exacerbated by the landslide victory of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party at the polls.
But after the new government took office, things suddenly and surprisingly appeared to move in a positive direction. Thein Sein met with Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw, released about 200 political prisoners, relaxed media restrictions, allowed Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to register as a party to contest in the upcoming by-election and entered into ceasefire negotiations with ethnic armed groups.
In recent weeks, a delegation led by Railway Minister Aung Min reached an initial truce agreement with the Shan State Army (South) and a peace agreement with a Karen rebel faction led by Brig-Gen Saw Lah Bwe.
Viewed in a vacuum, these actions would seem to demonstrate that the leaders of the new government, who were also leaders of the old regime, have changed their way of thinking. The problem is that despite these reforms, there is still ample evidence that the current government is willing to be just as brutal and repressive as the old regime when it suits its purposes.
It cannot be said often enough that the presence of political prisoners and human rights violations in war zones—including the displacement and traumatizing of an estimated 40,000 people in Kachin State in a totally unnecessary war that continues to date—is unacceptable, does not take time to remedy and runs contrary to every claim that Thein Sein and his colleagues make about the changing nature of the government.
Despite the relative openness of Burmese society today versus the time of the junta’s rule, Thein Sein is still willing to keep 88 Generation Student leader Min Ko Naing and ethnic Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo in prison, and is unwilling to exercise the political and moral courage to put an immediate end to human rights violations by the Burmese military.
This indicates that Thein Sein and his colleagues have made reforms to date because it was in their self-interest to do so, not because they believe what they did in the past was wrong.