During this year’s monsoon, my colleague and I were sitting in a dilapidated taxi in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma. Our driver was controlling the steering wheel with one hand while clearing moisture from the windshield with the other. It was raining cats and dogs but his wipers were not working, just like the vehicle’s air-conditioning.
A thick fog on the glass obscured traffic on all sides of the taxi. When we reached a roundabout, the driver handed my colleague a piece of grimy cloth to clean the glass on his side so approaching cars could be spotted. We were naturally terrified!
Crammed in the back, we squeezed ourselves in the middle as the windows could not be fully closed and the roof was also leaking. I came to realize that this rundown taxi driving in torrential rain with fraught passengers was the perfect metaphor for the country’s current predicament.
The driver couldn’t clearly see the road ahead while his fares were not sure if they would reach their destination without some unforeseen blunder causing them harm. The same scenario exists in Burma towards the end of 2012.
The past year has seen both positive and negative events in Burma, causing a mix of emotions—ranging from excitement and encouragement to anger and despair—for all those who live in the country or are involved in its issues.
Fortunately, 2012 commenced with an encouraging move. Many prominent political activists, journalists and monks who were serving lengthy prison sentences were released in January. Former student leaders, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi who led the nationwide popular uprising in 1988, have since become actively engaged in social and political affairs.
To date, however, the government still holds some members of opposition and ethnic armed groups captive, according to human rights organizations. The existence of political prisoners still serves as a barometer of the reformist policies of President Thein Sein’s administration, with the same issue existing ever since the 1988 uprising.
Indeed, the nominally civilian government drew fierce criticism for continuing to use political detainees as pawns to gain international favor, with around 50 prisoners of conscience released on Nov. 19 when US President Barack Obama was due to arrive in Burma.
Since her release in November 2010, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly called for national reconciliation with the government, and even to meet with ex-junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe. This has not happened although the 67-year-old did meet Thein Sein in Naypyidaw for the first time in August 2011. The Nobel laureate followed this encounter by saying that she believed in the former general’s sincerity regarding promises of reform.
Despite some positive moves by the government in 2011, many people were skeptical whether 2012 would build on these qualified achievements. Suu Kyi herself emphasized this when she made her first overseas trip in over 20 years to attend the World Economic Forum in Bangkok at the end of May. “Our success will depend on how irreversible the reform process is—on national commitment,” she said.
Suu Kyi was not the only one voicing caution regarding the reform process with “reform is reversible” seeming like a constant refrain. But as 2013 approaches, such doubts are heard less and less.
In Bangkok, Suu Kyi also warned foreign investors against “reckless optimism.” It later emerged that her words had irritated Thein Sein and his government. The president canceled his planned trip to Bangkok and the relationship between the two leaders briefly soured.
Suu Kyi and other opposition figures quickly saw that the government remained touchy about such frank criticism. But that was hardly unexpected.
Then, out of the blue, dark clouds unexpectedly drifted over the country’s fragile program of reform. Communal strife in Arakan State made Burma ugly in the international conscious once more. In June, sectarian clashes killed at least 90 people and destroyed around 3,000 houses.
In October, clashes erupted again with nearly 100 people killed and hundreds more houses burned down. The cycle of violence escalated and around 70,000 Rohingya remain in displacement camps.
Without doubt, 2012 has seen many highs and lows. Unusually, Thein Sein received praise from many Burmese people—the very same who spent decades loathing all generals—in particular when he came out on the side of ethnic Arakanese people in western Burma. By contrast, international rights groups condemned his government’s stance of refusing to recognize Rohingya Muslims as an official minority.
As for Suu Kyi, she has received unprecedented criticism this year for not speaking out regarding the Arakan conflict as well as the ongoing violence between government troops and Kachin rebels in the country’s far north. Human rights groups have condemned her silence, while others lament that she has now become a pragmatic politician.
Of course, her current role is undoubtedly different compared with when she was previously detained under house arrest. She is an elected MP despite both former and current military officials maintaining their dominance in the legislature.
Burma’s reform process is just taking off and she might want to be sure that this current trend does not reverse. Perhaps that is the “bigger picture” of her present political strategy, but is seems to have cost her international credibility to some degree.
In Parliament, several bills, including the long-awaited Foreign Direct Investment law, were passed this year. And even sensitive issues seem to have been actively debated, which is more than was originally expected from the military-dominated legislature.
But the main goal of opposition and ethnic parties—to amend the undemocratic 2008 Constitution—has been conspicuously absent from the discussion. All parliamentarians seem to understand that to raise this topic would be premature as the nominally civilian government is still, in effect, run by the powerful ex-generals. Even 2013 looks too soon for such a divisive issue to be openly tackled by MPs, as pushing too hard could very well prove counterproductive.
Without doubt, Burma was an focal point for international media attention this year. In addition, throngs of tourists visited the country while hordes of foreign investors courted the land that was once so opposed to the free market system.
While Suu Kyi and other prominent dissents have made several trips abroad, many exiled activists and journalists who were previously on the government’s blacklist have been allowed to return to their homeland and work.
Meanwhile, a raft of international leaders and diplomats have also touched down in Rangoon. Chief amongst these was Obama’s visit last month—the first ever by a sitting US president—which demonstrated that his administration’s engagement policy will continue and, in fact, likely accelerate.
However, Naypyidaw has been under fire for its heavy-handed treatment of peaceful protestors despite being largely praised by Burma’s Buddhist majority for its stance handling the Arakan conflict. Near Monywa, Sagaing Division, where China-backed copper mine projects are located, riot police raided a monk-led demonstration leaving around 100 people badly burned, and severely damaging the government’s new-found credibility.
At the time of writing on Friday afternoon, Burmese military jet fighters and attack helicopters are launching a fierce assualt on the Kachin Independence Army base of Lajayang, around 10 miles (14 km) from their rebel headquarters in Laiza, Kachin State.
On Thursday, one Kachin civilian was killed and three others wounded when government troops shelled locations close to Lajayang.
What do such offensives mean for the ceasefire attempts initiated by the Thein Sein’s peace committee since taking office? Critics wonder if the government can really control its military, or if it is continuing to use a “divide and rule” policy between different ethnic groups.
What is certain is that these attacks demonstrate that the country is still far away from what it really needs—genuine national reconciliation to serve as the foundation for nationwide peace and prosperity. There is undoubtedly a long way to go.
Burma has experienced a lot of political and social turbulence throughout the past year. Like a dilapidated taxi driving in torrential rain, the country is still moving forward but things look risky. We can only hope that 2013 sees better weather ahead.