The House on Stilts
By KYAW ZWA MOE Monday, October 24, 2011


Six decades ago, Burma’s first premier, U Nu, described all Southeast Asian countries as “houses on stilts,” telling Time magazine that “As the wind blows, they go to and fro like this.”

At that time, many of the countries in the region faced instability and even chaos in their political systems and economies. Today, however, Burma is the last house on stilts remaining in the Southeast Asian bloc, and the people of Burma cannot afford any longer to “wait and see” if that will change.

The country has waited long enough.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

It took one century of struggle for Burma to gain its independence in 1948. Immediately afterwards, the country plunged into civil war with communist insurgents and ethnic armed groups, a conflict that continues to this day after six decades of fighting.

In 1962, Burma was kicked by Ne Win’s military boot into a socialist abyss. It took 26 years before his authoritarian regime was removed in 1988, but then another military junta took over, disallowed the 1990 polls and waited two decades to hold another election, only to elect a Parliament dominated by the military and the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

During that period, it took 15 years between the time a national constitutional convention was called and the current Constitution was ratified in a highly controversial referendum.

Today, some are saying that Burma is changing fast, but that is only relative to how slowly the country has changed in the past. Upon closer inspection, one can see that President Thein Sein’s current government is still taking its own sweet time.

Ex-general Thein Sein took over 6 months to make a decision about a prisoner release, and then he released only 220 of the approximately 2,000 political prisoners who have been waiting years or even decades to be set free. Suu Kyi herself had to wait for over seven years to be released from her latest house arrest.

Thein Sein met with Suu Kyi in August, four months after assuming power, and this was taken as a positive sign. But it should be remembered that former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe—the man responsible for putting Thein Sein in the position of president—met with Suu Kyi in 1994, but it then took seven years for the second meeting to take place and another three years for the third.

So nobody knows how many months or years Thein Sein will take to meet with Suu Kyi again.

Some political scientists say that it takes time to change a country or its system, and in the past I expressed a similar point of view. But in Burma, change has taken an unnecessarily long time and the costs have been immeasurable.

While the people of Burma and the international community have waited for the country to change, the lives of generations of people have been laid to waste, along with the country’s educational system, economy and environment.

In addition, due to the civil war and political persecution, Burma is the biggest producer of refugees in Southeast Asia. Currently, there are around 145,000 Burmese refugees in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border.

Since Burma’s army launched the ongoing offensive in June against the Kachin Independence Army based in the northern part of the country, nearly 30,000 war refugees have fled to the China-Burma border. Human rights abuses, including rape and forced labor, continue to be documented in connection with this conflict.

Burma also has produced millions of economic refugees, as the country’s decades-long bout of poverty and unemployment has forced workers to go to neighboring countries to find jobs. Corruption has been rooted in Burma for decades. Cronyism and nepotism are still hale and hearty.

Some observers, including Western diplomats and scholars, have welcomed the government’s initial steps towards reform, such as the suspension of work on the Myitsone Dam being built by a state-owned Chinese company on the Irrawaddy River, the meeting between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, the relaxation of media restrictions and the release of some political prisoners.

But all of these steps were only half-measures that needlessly delay meaningful, irreversible change. Despite Burma’s history, real reform does not need to take a long time.

As just witnessed, it takes only two days for Thein Sein to issue an order and prisoners to be released.

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Ohn Wrote:
What is this thing about Aung San Suu Kyi saw Thein Sein? It was not invited, planned meeting with agenda, more like stealthy dalliance between the two with no information about what it was about.

What follows next is more clear.

Unconditional capitulation of NLD with abandonment all the principals and disgraceful collusion in diplomatic circle for the advancement of Thein Sein who is busy killing, raping and displacing more people as they were chatting and looting the rice growing land from the farmer by themselves and the cronies and now preparing for the foreigners.

This is like the "Perfect Nightmare" for Burma.

Wallace Hla Wrote:
As long as the military hierarchy initiated by Ne Win still goes on and until all other ethnic groups are recognised and accepted as equals, our country will still be on stilts, no matter what kind of image Than Shwe and Thein Sein are trying to project on the world's stage, they should bear in mind that nobody rules for eternity.

kerry Wrote:
Burma is not the inheritance and fiefdom of a handful of brutal idiots.

This truly rotten part of Burma's history must be nearly over. It is clear they have little or no - overt, covert, or any worth - human integrity.

They are still playing a game with the world. That is clear to everyone watching.

It gives them time and money, but human lives are still clearly of little worth.

One cannot help but think that once free of these human 'aliens', Burma will enjoy a VERY long time of peace!

Let's pray for short sharp change.

Garrett Wrote:
Kyaw Zwa Moe makes some excellent points here as regards what a putative President-elect should have the power to do if he is indeed in power.

Don't be fooled by the smoke & mirrors folks, look for the man behind the curtain pulling the strings. I reckon the man who pulls the strings in Burma has the initials T.S. but that Thein Sein is the puppet, not the puppeteer.

The charade staged by the faux-democratic mutation of the SPDC brings to mind the image of a studious looking individual wearing a tweed sportcoat with elbow patches & a bowtie, who is scribbling a psuedo-applied mathmatical equation across a dozen blackboards in a university lecture hall. 999 out of 1000 individuals who see the quasi-mathematical jumble of numbers & shapes will think the man must truly be a genius who is working on figuring out how to travel at the speed of light. Yet anyone who knows applied math would simply laugh at how easy it is to fool those 999 people who don't know WHAT they are looking at.

Nyi Nyi Wrote:
The sticking point is that Than Shwe is still at large and pulling the strings from behind. That makes people very cautious about whether or not to believe Thein Sein. There are only two ways to prove it which is either arrest Than Shwe and put him on trial, or introduce a wholesale reforms immediately. For the sake of the country as well as to spare the life of Than Shwe, the government should choose the latter right now without any further delay. As Buddhists Myanmar people have full of forgiveness and compassion, and they will embrace the government full-heartedly.

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bullet With Suu Kyi On Board, Is Burma Finally Moving Toward Real Change?

bullet The ‘Rule of Law’ in Burma

bullet New Doors are Opening in Burma

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