The Fragility of Reforms
By KYAW ZWA MOE Friday, December 16, 2011


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.

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Fred Wrote:
Fragile they are, but they keep happening. Now Cuba's going to release prisoners, as a good will gesture to the Pope. Maybe North Korea will think of these things too?

Moe Aung Wrote:
The risk is indeed mutual.

The regime may get locked into the reform process which started off as a charm offensive targeted at specific goals i.e. ASEAN chair and lifting of the sanctions (prestige plus profits) but find themselves on a slippery slope off their roadmap.

ASSK/NLD can get corrupted by political office and their radical aims watered down, taken over by the process and gradually out of touch with the people, an equally slippery slope for them too.

The opposition's present task is to spare no effort in trapping the regime in its own reform process racheting it up bit by bit until they find it impossible to make a U turn. Go for it!

Naung Naung Wrote:
As Daw Suu said, she is taking risk when it comes to dealing with President U Thein Sein. Yes that's true. And I don't think that Daw Suu is believing what she said for 100 percent about her honesty on U Thein Sein. She is saying it to "contain" him in order to sustain any progress he is doing. That is the game she has to do. That's why she is praising him. Actually she knows what kind of people they are... they are a bunch of thugs and followers who had destroyed our culture, society, economy, integrity, education and so on.... They are the group which degraded our country.

Ohn Wrote:
These wise sounding, loftily written things by all "exile media" crowd are disservice to the country "Burma" which the same crowd would now be desperate to call "Myanmar" or whatever the military calls it. It engenders false hope in people.

The military, the whole crowd is one. There are no reformers or non- reformers. The sentence "Military is not monolithic." means some people met some in the military who are not making as much money as others

Ohn Wrote:
This is simply a well planned phase where they play the drama in "fooling the fools" segment. They drop every single bit of morsels to bait every single kind of animal. The constitution which the same crowd was screaming against less than a year ago. It is still there. The pretentious "parliament" built on land robbed from rightful owners some are killed, all are destitute. Totally useless drug smugglers and power mongers in clown suits pretentiously deciding against the pretentious " Speaker of the Upper House". even the pattern of drip feeding the " reform" is carefully choreographed.

Most liberal labour law that cannot be used. Indiscriminate land grab law that can be used. Land taken forceably not just by Sit -tut but by any company aligned .

Ohn Wrote:

Hundreds of Kachin killed, raped, tortured by tens of thousands of soldiers! Worst human rights violations of recent time any where in the world!

And it is called reform? Only in Aung San Suu Kyi's and unthinking doting followers' mind. Again Aung San Suu Kyi is free not because the military has changed but SHE has CHANGED. She now works as a publicist for the military.

Reform! Only for people too scared to face the truth.

Maung Myoe Wrote:
Yes the ex-military leaders need to change not only their mindset but also their attitude. Of course, they have made some changes and we all have seen them, but they are not concrete steps. If they really changed their mindset, I don't think there should have been political activists like Ko Min Ko Naing and U Khun Htun Oo in jails. Even that sing fact shows that Thein Sein and his followers haven't changed their mindset yet. Some might think that the current leaders are not responsible for their arrest. Well... even if so, why don't they release them yet, at least to wash their hands? Power struggle within?? Perhaps.. Anyway, don't forget the fact that they were part of the regime which oppressed people for 20 years while you see they are reforming the country. They are what they did. They still need to change their views and mindset. Otherwise, as the writer said in this article, things might turn back. Because everything depends on how people see the world.

Brain Wrote:
Burma's generals have not made a real reform? Irrawaddy's news reporting too has not yet ready to include ethnic civil and political rights issues or ethnic political equality & self-determination issues as a part of reform on this commentary story. It is interesting to observe the mind set of those Burmese mainstream democracy activists and journalists still possessing this similar mind set to those generals after many years of democracy struggle. It is not so surprising to read this commentary story anyway. For those ethnic nationalities in Burma, there is not much different between the black and white snakes, they are all poisonous.

Good luck with your own ethnic people there..!

Nyi Nyi Wrote:
I don't agree with this article. The moment Thein Sein and the other government leaders clearly demonstrate an understanding that the human rights violations of the past and present are wrong and destructive to the interests of Burma, Than Shwe will come back and reverse all the reforms.

Mee Thway Wrote:
Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe

I'm responding to your article "The Fragility of Reforms" written on 16/12/11. I found the article insightful and helpful like others you've written, but sometimes it strikes me as somewhat naive of the situation facing Thein Sein.

Mee Thway Wrote:
1) You suggest that a mass mea culpa would be helpful, but this would be counter productive to our country's development. It would amount to pinning the blame on past mismanagement to Than Shwe. As true as that may be, Thein Sein's days may be numbered if he were bold enough to make such an indirect accusation. A prudent way to move forward may be to tread eggshells and reform gradually without awakening the sleeping dragon and its progeny - as he is doing.

2) You seem to attribute the imprisonment of 88 Gen Students to Thein Sein. Bear in mind they were not imprisoned by his government (him holding a PM position under Than Shwe has no bearing, given the Than Shwe dictatorship). A wider political prisoner release was planned but were scrapped at the last minute a few weeks ago, suggesting a tussle within the government. As per the point above, reform has to take place gradually to avoid upsetting the established order in the process of change.

Mee Thway Wrote:
3) There is every possibility that they may reverse on reforms. There is also every possibility that Egypt and Libya may slip back into dictatorship, that there may be another global recession next year. The list of possibilities is endless. Our aspirations have to be built on hope and trust. Based on the reforms we have seen, we have to assume the government is innocent until proven guilty. After all, isn't this a democratic principle?

Overall, gradual but constant reforms, respecting the less productive but nonetheless prominent Burmese values of patriarchy and pride amongst our population (made worse by the military) is the way forward.

In the same way as it takes patience, care and attention to make a vintage bottle of wine, it takes the same to make a democracy that endures the test of time.

Bill Gov Wrote:
For the new government to truely reform, it will be wise of them to return all the nationalized land and properties that belonged to the people and that were taken from the people instead of leasing these 76 or so factories with supposedly setups intact for their close associates to take over hopin to reap in huge amount of profits if foreigners come in to buy and invest in their acres of land. This is unjust to the people if the new government truely repent abd want to reform.

Norman Hla Wrote:
Most soldiers are poor and low education. Need connection to military ones(close relatives) for priority admission to higher service. Fathers(mostly military)are arrogant, corrupted and opportunistic. (Social learning from father)Rape for rewards and casual killing are their jobs , encouraged by "than shwe" who also acts as king once holding power. One said than shwe is quiet( no talent, no sharp)so chosen for Nay win’s safety. Than shwe's cruelty&brutality are the only means and life success after raping and causal killing ethnics in his career. Most military follow his foot-steps and the obvious ones are arrogant tin aung myint oo, ogre yee myint aung and ant phobia kyaw Hsan. Thein sein due to "Yes man" with Coward, Shwe man(womanizing,yes-man). Ming aung laing( less talent, less influences). Implemented Nargis constitution&Nargis victim&monks’s killer(like Stalin, Mao, Hilter). Above all are not for reform.

Ba Thann Win Wrote:
Congratulations KZM. One of the best and down to earth articles. More of this analysis is needed for Burma

Kanbawza Win

Khun Wrote:
Now we heard a good new for political side but not for ethnic group. What is peace guarantee for our future?

Setkyar Min Wrote:
It is a well written article.
It is not inconceivable that due to the prevailing circumstances both inside and outside the country, the Myanamar government has adopted, with a cognizance of the military, the tactic of 2 steps forward and 1 step backward. So we have to be wary and ever vigilant in order not to end up with 1 step forward and 2 steps backwards. There should be no illusions about the duplicity of the military oligarchy of Burma. They are master of the game!
Is Thein Sein just an expendable entity on a long lease to be cut off at an appropriate time by the military?
That's a million dollar question.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Perhaps people do realize what a big ask it is since those who remain in a state of denial cannot even begin on the journey with any resolve. The state denies the existence of political prisoners for goodness sake.

Wrongs? What wrongs?

Myo Myo Wrote:
Thein Sein and behind-the-curtain ex-generals are playing fake democracy. The govt doesn’t want laws to really work. These changes are designed systematically and purposely. Therefore, reform doesn’t happen from the very begining.

US and Oppositon Camps knew well and applied testing dose for the reform. Responds are negative: No further release of PPs, continue fighting in Kachin. Abbot was told to leave monastery. Whether DASSK can run for by-election yet to be decided by Home ministry, headed by un-friendly ex-gen toward NLD. Also, USDA member alleged recently (NLD) was influenced by foreign country. These are examples similar acts and tones of previous military govt. More will be surfaced soon.

To further complecate the game China also involved now. China and Regime are die-hard dictators. By nature and past records China will be covert player even as a team mate of NLD. Unless you have special tools ready in-hand to tame them when needed, they could be dangerous ogres.

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bullet The ‘Rule of Law’ in Burma

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