Time for Thein Sein to Prove the Skeptics Wrong
Friday, November 18, 2011


This week will be remembered as the week in which Burmese President Thein Sein was given the domestic and international legitimacy that he has sought since assuming office in March. If handled properly, all of the events of the politically-action-packed last few days could be good for the Burmese people, but it is now Thein Sein’s responsibility to ensure that this in fact is the case.

First, the decision by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to award Burma its 2014 chair was welcome news. Burma has been Asean’s troubled child since the country was accepted into the regional bloc in 1997. Hopefully, being given the chair will result in better behavior by the Burmese leaders than in the past. If this happens, then heading up Asean for a year could be one stepping stone in the Burmese government’s path towards regaining the support of its own people and reconnecting with the rest of the world.

Burma had been meant to chair Asean in 2006, but the junta’s poor human rights record and heavy-handed suppression of public dissent and democratic opposition precluded it from receiving the chairmanship that year. The fact that Asean has never pressured any other country to bypass its turn for the chair for political reasons shows to what extreme depths the Burmese regime had fallen.

When Burma was first admitted to Asean, one of the primary arguments in favor of accepting the then ruthless authoritarian military regime into the fold was to keep Burma out of China’s sphere of influence. This did not work out as planned, however, because Burma is notable as being the Southeast Asian country most predominantly under the dragon’s sway.

Even those that have advocated isolating the repressive Burmese regime would admit that the more Burma was shunned by the international community, the more China was able to waltz in, gobble up resources and throw its considerable weight around. As a result, Burma became almost literally dependent on China, a fact that neither the pro-democracy opposition nor the ruling military leaders (except those generals and cronies who made out like bandits with Chinese money) were happy about.

As a result, it became an open secret that Burma’s current leaders wanted to repair their strained relations with Washington and put some breathing space between themselves and China. In recent months, the Burmese foreign minister has visited Washington D.C. and US diplomats have made several trips to Naypyidaw. In addition, Thein Sein sent a clear signal that his administration would not bow down to China when he suspended the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project.

Zaw Htay, the director of Thein Sein’s office, wrote in the Washington Post this week: “What the West must realize is that in today’s geopolitical situation, particularly given the rise of China, it needs Myanmar [Burma]. Washington and others must help facilitate Myanmar’s connection to the outside world at this critical juncture. My president’s cancellation of the Beijing-backed Myitsone Dam signaled to the world what he stands for. If the United States neglects this opportunity, Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indochina region.”

However, contrary to Zaw Htay’s arrogant and propagandist implication that the new Burmese government is somehow the engine of a “new order” in Southeast Asia and the US needs to board the train before it leaves the station, the Burmese leaders are fully aware that the US is in fact the power making a big push in the Asia Pacific region and Burma must sprint to catch up—at least to the level of the lowest common denominator of its Asean peers—or risk falling so far out of sight they will never be able to recover.

Before landing in Bali, US President Barack Obama spoke to the Australian Parliament and declared: “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” This message was a blunt challenge to China’s clout in the region, and while unmistakably directed at Beijing it has significant implications for Burma as well.

Since there was already a general feeling among the Burmese population that it is time to find a counterbalance to China and reintegrate into the world community, Obama’s statement and the award of the Asean chairmanship provide the opportunity to do just that.

However, if Thein Sein and his new government are truly serious about becoming a respected member of the international community, it must first put its own house in order. And while it may have opened a few windows to let in some fresh air and tidied up a bit over the last few months, the nominally civilian government has yet to make the more significant structural repairs that are necessary—of which there is a long list.

Burma still has thousands of political prisoners, ongoing human rights abuses, conflict in ethnic regions and the absence of the rule of law.

1  |  2 | 3 

Please read our policy before you post comments. Click here
E-mail:   (Your e-mail will not be published.)
You have characters left.
Word Verification: captcha Type the characters you see in the picture.

WM Wrote:
“Change” is not a simple thing. It is easier said than done. We need to give President U Thein Sein and others benefit of doubts, even if we have some suspicion.

If you are in Myanmar, we will notice a lot of changes you would not believe that could happen one year ago. People would not imagine Election Law would be revised so that NLD could compete. Hard to foresee one would think NLD would register and compete. I didn’t see local media would cover Daw Su a lot, and her pictures in every local printed media. Halting Myitsone dam is not a joke. These are some examples.

Yes, there are many more things to do- ethnic issues, political prisoners, human right abuses, rule of law etc. The government and all stakeholders need to make more changes.

But let’s not look from “half glass empty perspective” all the time.

kerry Wrote:
Thein Sein, part of a horrendous military legacy reviled by the world, has a real chance to get it right.

So far he hasn't. So far the military are still madly stashing the assets from murder into Singapore banks, while ASEAN rewards them for non-existent 'change', and while the 'new' government does not allow post-torture 'criminals' like the comedian Zarganar to work in their own country.

As for its military run 'Human Rights Commission'... they may just as well create another fake office in Beijing, run by Hu and Wen!

Get real, Burma's 'military in new clothes'. Do you think the world cannot see? Dialogue with The Lady: she sees your potential (and compassionately your potential freedom) more than most.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Skeptics would surely love to be proven wrong. Preferably irreversibly.

Zaw Htay used the term cancellation, not suspension, regarding the Myitsone dam, bigging it up and bigging his govt up. From that great launch pad, it's the green light from the US they've been waiting for, only still playing hard to get. Thant Myint-U's sales spiel for Burma's new role in Asia has probably gone to their head.

Sanctions didn't work then? So how did we get here, one wonders. It's been pressure all along that prodded the generals slowly but surely. Now they themselves reckon the time is ripe to ditch China, or at least kiss and make up with the West.

Snowfly Wrote:
Good well-balanced editorial. Although the USDP have seemingly taken positive steps towards true democracy, it is far too early to consider all being well in Burma and the Western media needs to avoid being naive in its commentary. The real test will come in 2015 after the ASEAN chair has gone. If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi becomes head of state we will know that democracy has finally been achieved as this is the will of the people. If not, we will know that the Generals are up to their old tricks. After '88 the regime went to great lengths to tidy up its image, but we all know what happened in 1990. Foreign businessmen who crave access to Burmese markets and resources need to keep this in mind before the give the Generals billions. I pray history doesn't repeat itself.

Zaw Min Wrote:
Dear President U Thein Sein,

I don't support you or your party in the pass but now I'm supporting you for the play back of the ball, however feeble, to start the game going. Please play back with force and pride now to be in the game strongly. I'll be cheering you. Please don't think that a cheering from a nothing like me is useless. You will hear thunderous cheers and supports from all corners of the country as well as the world. Please be strong and do what is right for the people and country. You'll earn yourself a rightful place of respect in the history of our country.

Ohn Wrote:
Whatever is the reason, whatever is happening, STOP the violence. Stop killing, raping and burning down the people and property.

More Articles in This Section

bullet Courage and Cowardice in the Courtroom

bullet The President's Speech

bullet Burma’s Trust Deficit

bullet Burma’s Much-Awaited News Finally Arrives

bullet A Cruel Clemency

bullet Human Rights in Burma: No Excuse for Delay

bullet Making it Legal

bullet Burma's Forgotten Farmers

bullet One Year Later: Bogus Election Offers Some Hope

bullet Asean Should Bide Its Time on Burma Getting Key Role

Thailand Hotels
Bangkok Hotels
China Hotels
India Hotels


Home |News |Regional |Business |Opinion |Multimedia |Special Feature |Interview |Magazine |Burmese Elections 2010 |Archives |Research
Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group. All Rights Reserved.