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CONTRIBUTOR

It’s Time to Stop Talking About the Bold Reformist

We should stop talking about Thein Sein as a reformer. By doing so we are legitimizing a process that is not what it pretends to be.


It has became a deceptive routine to describe Thein Sein as a well-intentioned and bold reformer who has made peace and development his priorities; he released political prisoners, kicked off a reform agenda, initiated dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and lifted a ban on the opposition.

After the removal of Shwe Man from the top post of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Thein Sein again became the most probable presidential candidate of the military and USDP block. Given the circumstances, we should stop talking about Thein Sein as the reformer and stop talking about the political dynamic in Burma as a “transition to democracy.” By doing so we are legitimizing a process that is not what it pretends to be.

I don’t deny that important changes commenced under Thein Sein, and he deserves some praise for that. But the truth is that he has already received it. The question right now is who will become the next president, which is why we need to throw out the political marketing, the image of the “developmental President,” “peace-building President,”  “simple man of modest origin with no personal ambitions,” and undertake more serious scrutiny of Thein Sein’s achievements and failures, listed below for your convenience:

It wasn’t only the Parliament’s 25 percent military bloc that put a stop to constitutional reform. It was Thein Sein, his advisors and key ministers. All of these people were well aware that the opposition had massive public support for charter change, after a petition launched by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the 88 Generation drew more than five million signatures, and they have no means to facilitate meaningful dialogue with the opposition.

Thein Sein’s ostentatiously announced “development first” policy may have trickled down in the form of a few new pavements, some roads and bridges; all of those developments are heavily advertised in a bid to buy votes for the party.

What about the economy? It has remained fully in control of the economic elite that flourished under military rule, and so far they have been the only winners of the economic opening. A recent report by Global Financial Integrity highlighted that almost US$20 billion worth of “dirty money” linked to corruption, crime and tax evasion has come out of Burma over the past five decades.

It was Thein Sein’s government that has allowed and endorsed the re-activation of an extreme nationalist movement and an ugly apartheid in Burma.

Thein Sein isn’t even contesting a parliamentary seat, making it impossible to gauge whether the public even supports him at all. He has opted not to be elected, but to be appointed.”

Thein Sein has condoned the use of military and police force to intervene in party politics, so he could reassert himself as the party’s top dog and front-runner for the presidency, that is, of course, if his party can secure enough parliamentary seats.

While he may be a probable presidential candidate, so far he has not shown the political courage to even announce his ambition. Election campaigning has already begun and the USDP has yet to give voters any indication of who it would select as head of state. Thein Sein isn’t even contesting a parliamentary seat, making it impossible to gauge whether the public even supports him at all. He has opted not to be elected, but to be appointed.

These are the unpleasant attributes behind his mask of “reform”.

Firstly, Thein Sein is not the lead reformer because he is not a leader. He is not a decision-maker; he is part of a network of military and ex-military elites and he knows his place.

Much like Dmitri Medvedev in Putin’s Russia, Thein Sein knows exactly what his role and duty is as president in post-junta Burma. Shwe Mann, on the other hand, was too ambitious, and as a result he was sidelined in a blitzkrieg operation. Thein Sein is a presidential contender precisely because he is not a leader, but rather a disciplined implementer.

Furthermore, what he is implementing is not a transition to democracy, but a transition to a praetorian and hybrid regime. In the praetorian system, the military is not directly governing through repression and fear, but the armed forces remain the ultimate arbiter. A hybrid regime is one under which elections can be held regularly but the results are always the same; the ruling party always wins and the opposition always loses. In such a state, polls are only partly free and extremely unfair.

Yet more remains on the implementation of the transition to “disciplined democracy.” Thein Sein’s government continues to facilitate the shift from a closed state and military-owned economy to a crony-dominated free market economy. This shift is significant, but it is highly questionable that much of the newly generated income will trickle down to the masses.

The next major task of the Thein Sein government is to lessen its reliance on China in favor of a more central role in geopolitics, a goal it has made considerable progress toward.

But five more years of Thein Sein will mean more of the same, and less of the “transition.” The end of the transitional stage, however, will not mean the beginning of democracy; it will mean the fulfillment of creating a crony economy, securing a comfortable place in the geopolitical sphere and consolidation of the praetorian and hybrid regime.

This win-win scenario was created by the former junta. It has also proven acceptable to foreign players, including Western and Asian democracies. It is highly beneficial for domestic cronies, and allows future military men to move smoothly from retirement into governance.

It is a lose-lose scenario, however, for Burma’s opposition movement, and for generations of activists who have sacrificed years and—in some cases—their lives in the struggle for democracy and freedom. I also cannot see how the majority of people in this country, pinned down and impoverished by the military, could possibly advance to the middle class in a crony economy. Nor do I see a way for Burma’s ethnic nationalities to fulfill their legitimate goal of achieving federalism in a system that is still controlled by the military.

Igor Blazevic is researcher in the Center for Democracy and Culture.