Peace Prize for Thein Sein Draws Praise and Scorn

By Paul Vrieze 22 April 2013

RANGOON—The International Crisis Group (ICG) will grant Burmese President Thein Sein its annual ‘In Pursuit of Peace’ award at a prestigious gala dinner in New York on Monday in recognition of the democratic reforms and peace efforts that he has introduced.

But opinions on his government differ among officials, opposition members, experts and ethnic leaders. Some are saying that it is inappropriate to honor Thein Sein as he is linked to Burma’s powerful military, which still continues offensive operations and rights abuses in ethnic areas.

The ICG announced in November that Thein Sein would receive its peace award for his “decisive action towards improving Myanmar’s relations with the political opposition and liberalizing past repressive laws. He has made significant strides in ending the country’s decades-long internal conflicts.”

The high-profile ceremony will be attended by Western government leaders, US politicians and influential figures, such as George Soros. It also serves as a fundraising event for the non-government organization, and companies pay tens of thousands of dollars for a chance to meet the honorees and distinguished guests.

The President Office’s spokesman Ye Htut said Minister Aung Min, the government’s chief peace negotiator, will receive the award on behalf of Thein Sein.

“Giving this award to the president [shows] appreciation for the efforts by the government to achieve peace in ethnic areas,” Ye Htut said. “The majority of the Myanmar people and the international community appreciate the president’s work,” he added.

Thein Sein, a former general, was appointed by Burma’s previous military rulers in March 2011 to head a quasi-civilian government, as part of a military-approved roadmap to free and fair elections in 2015.

He has since pushed through a raft of political and socio-economic reforms, releasing hundreds of political prisoners and repealing a number of repressive laws. His government opened peace talks with a dozen ethnic rebel groups and reached ceasefires with 11 militias, except the Kachin rebels.

The international community has hailed Thein Sein as a historic reformer and quickly reengaged with Burma, suspending international sanctions against the government and slashing much of its foreign debts.

However, Thein Sein’s government has been criticized over its brutal military offensive against the Kachin rebels in northern Burma, where tens of thousands of civilians were displaced and numerous human rights abuses were reported. His government has also been accused of failing to protect Muslim minorities during waves of attacks by Buddhist mobs in western and central Burma that have occurred several times since June 2012.

Currently, Thein Sein is midway through his presidency and opinions on his performance—and on whether or not he deserves the ICG’s peace award—vary.

Aung Naing Oo, who is with the government’s Myanmar Peace Center, said Thein Sein had made great progress since assuming office. “President Thein Sein has been dealing with the legacies of the military regime extremely well,” he said, before adding that “enormous challenges” remained. “Recognition [through the ICG award] could not come at a better time, to keep him going,” Aung Naing Oo said.

General Secretary of the Karen National Union Kwe Htoo Win said he welcomed any international recognition of the progress being made under President Thein Sein in resolving Burma’s ethnic conflicts.

“There has been success [in peace building] to some extent. The [ICG] recognize his efforts, and then we think he should be given the award too,” said Kwe Htoo Win, whose group signed a ceasefire with the government in early 2012. “We have to acknowledge the end to gun battles and civil war in some ethnic regions. But, I think the government should do more to implement peace,” he added.

However, Win Tin, a senior leader of the National League for Democracy, said there is no justification for granting the peace award to Thein Sein, as he cannot control the military, which is able to continue offensive operations in Kachin and Shan states.

“There is no actual peace-pursuing with the Kachin. This month there is a lot of fighting in Shan State, and thousands of people had to flee,” the opposition member said. “Actually, Thein Sein’s government is not pursuing peace in Burma at all, so I don’t think it’s proper to give him this award,” Win Tin said.

Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who has written numerous books on Burma, said awarding a peace award to Thein Sein was a completely misplaced gesture and he offered harsh words on the ICG’s decision.

“One has to wonder how the International Crisis Group can sleep at night when they’re giving an award to a gaggle of generals who
actively, cynically deny that their troops commit war crimes,” he wrote in an email. “It is disgraceful that the ICG calls for an investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka and not Burma.”

Lintner said that international observers seemed to also ignore the fact that Thein Sein had been “hand-picked” by former military supremo Than Shwe to be the acceptable international face of the quasi-civilian government, while Commander-in-Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing had been positioned to freely pursue the military’s security goals.

Further strong criticism of President Thein Sein’s government’s shortcomings appeared on the same day that he was due to be honored in New York, when the US group Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched a scathing report on last year’s inter-communal violence in Arakan State, which displaced more than 125,000 people.

The group accused authorities of committing “crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims.” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a news release that “The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement.”

Additional reporting by Nyein Nyein