The Labyrinthine Legacy of President Thein Sein

By San Yamin Aung 29 January 2016

RANGOON — President Thein Sein will leave office in late March with a complicated legacy. He steered the country through a transition that peaked with its first free election in decades, though he will leave behind a host of problems for the next administration. Retired General Thein Sein took office in 2011 following an election the year prior that was boycotted by the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and panned as fraudulent.

At the helm of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), he has ushered in a number of notable reforms. Since taking office, more than 1,000 political prisoners have been freed, censorship has been abolished and preliminary steps toward peace have been made. Most Western sanctions have been lifted, and Burma’s economy is growing. Mobile phone penetration, which floated at less than 5 percent under junta rule, has soared to more than 50 percent of the population.

Public opinion was also bolstered by Thein Sein’s suspension of the China-backed Myitsone hydropower project in Kachin State, northern Burma. A by-election held successfully in 2012 landed dozens of opposition members in Parliament, including Suu Kyi, lending further credibility to the Thein Sein government. The 2015 general election, which was closely watched by domestic and foreign observers, was conducted freely and peacefully, and the outgoing government has committed to a smooth transfer of power. This was not always considered a given; decades of military rule and the annulment of a 1990 election made for more than a few skeptics.

The outgoing government has also come under criticism—some would say not enough—for a number of policies and practices viewed as a continuation of junta-era repression. Hundreds of activists, students, journalists and online satirists have been jailed under unfair and outdated laws. Religious tension was allowed to fester, sometimes boiling over into deadly violence and leaving entire communities segregated. Corruption and a failure to implement fair, transparent business practices have stymied development. Imperative issues such as ensuring land rights remain unresolved.

As Suu Kyi’s party prepares to take power after its landslide win against the USDP in the Nov. 8 general election, The Irrawaddy takes a look back at some of the key issues and events over the outgoing administration’s term, and the missteps that would best be avoided by the incoming government.

The Peace Process and Failed Attempts at Unity

Thein Sein’s administration made unprecedented efforts toward peace, but at the end of the day many stakeholders were excluded from the process and conflict continues. Peace talks began in 2011 between the government, the Burma Army and many of the country’s more than 20 non-state armed groups, in an ambitious effort to end the civil war that has fractured the Union and stunted development for more than six decades.

The volatile negotiations culminated with a peace accord signed by eight ethnic armed groups on Oct. 15 of last year, but the pact—which the government has dubbed a “nationwide peace agreement”—was not universally hailed as a success and marked only one step in what is sure to be a long and difficult peace process. Some ethnic armed groups, such as the Karen National Union (KNU), surprised observers by acceding to the agreement, while others abstained on the grounds that it excluded several of their allies. Many who abstained have also voiced their disapproval of conflict in Shan, Kachin and Arakan states, which has continued even as the government claimed it sought peace.

Despite being touted as progress, the negotiations ultimately left Burma’s main ethnic alliance split into two camps. The divisive process has also led to splinters within certain ethnic groups, leading to disputes among ethnic leadership and further complicating problems felt on the ground by conflict-affected communities. The NLD, which has publicly committed to prioritizing peace, will inherit the daunting task of unifying these diverse, disparate and war-weary factions.

The Arakan Crisis and the Rise of Buddhist Nationalism

The outgoing government had a very poor track record on handling religious unrest, failing to contain anti-Muslim sentiment and prevent tragedy in Arakan State.

In 2012, a rash of riots between Buddhists and Muslims left more than 100 dead and about 140,000 displaced in the coastal state. Most of those affected were Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority that the government and much of the population view as immigrants from Bangladesh.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric soon spread to other parts of the country, and deadly ethno-religious violence later erupted in several major towns. Tensions were exacerbated by a few public figures, most notably the Buddhist monk Wirathu, preaching nationalistic and often outright anti-Muslim views. A Buddhist nationalist movement known as 969 was allowed to fester without interference, calling for boycotts of Muslim businesses and the prohibition of interfaith unions.

The movement receded following international scrutiny, but was later replaced by another nationalist group called Ma Ba Tha, an acronym for the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. With the support of some USDP officials, including Thein Sein, Ma Ba Tha successfully lobbied for passage of a controversial legislative package restricting interfaith marriage, religious conversion, polygamy and birth rates. The group also enjoyed leniency in the lead-up to the November election, when it was permitted to hold massive public rallies that were viewed as politically infused and detrimental to the NLD’s campaign.

The current government’s failure to take quick and decisive action against perpetrators of religious violence and incitement, as well as its failure to quell tensions and provide for the displaced in Arakan State, has prompted accusations of state complicity in the unrest and has left the NLD to deal with the coastal quandary.

Letpadaung, Land Rights and Political Powerlessness

One of the defining moments of Thein Sein’s term occurred on Nov. 29, 2012. More than 100 people were injured, mostly Buddhist monks, when police stormed an encampment of protesters opposing the Letpadaung Copper Mining Project, a China-backed development in Sagaing Division. Witnesses said they saw “fire bombs” raining down on them in the early hours of the morning.

A subsequent investigation determined that the crowd had been showered with smoke bombs containing white phosphorus, an incendiary chemical that can cause severe burns. The investigation commission was appointed directly by Thein Sein, and chaired by Suu Kyi. Her supporters were shocked when she delivered the findings, which, while providing a damning assessment of authorities involved in the crackdown, recommended that mining operations be allowed to continue.

Grievances surrounding the mega-project were many, including damage to sacred Buddhist sites. At the heart of the issue, however, was the loss of land rights. Organized opposition to the project roused the sympathy of almost the entire nation; the site became emblematic of other land disputes, and the resolve of the Letpadaung protesters a source of strength and solidarity. Obliterating the opposition with such force delivered a sobering warning that reverberated throughout the country.

Against all odds, the movement proved resilient though markedly weaker. Smaller demonstrations continued, flaring up each time contractors attempted to edge the project onto more farmlands. Authorities reiterated the limits of their tolerance in December 2014, when police fired into a crowd of demonstrators. A 56-year-old villager was killed in the exchange.

Land rights reform was one issue on which Thein Sein’s government fell significantly short. New land laws enacted in 2012 were deemed arguably worse than the junta-era policies they replaced. Critics claimed the new laws and a draft of a government “land use policy” favored investors over agricultural workers, who make up the majority of Burma’s workforce. A parliamentary land investigation commission was formed to field complaints, though about 41 percent of more than 17,000 claims remain unresolved as per the latest government figures released in November of last year.

The story of the Letpadaung dispute still resonates among farmers, activists and others who have observed the changes in Burma since 2011. It is the story of a major foreign-backed development approved by the military regime and allowed to continue under the new quasi-civilian government despite opposition from communities that felt they could finally express themselves. The dispute drew enormous attention to Burma’s weak land rights laws, feeble attempts to reform them and the government’s readiness—as in the old days—to punish protesters with violence or prison terms.

Repression Redux at Letpadan

That readiness extended to other forms of dissent, as well, perhaps best exemplified by the government’s handling of a student protest movement that was all but extinguished last year.

In November 2014, student unions began organizing in opposition to a new National Education Law that they viewed as undemocratic. Protests swelled in major cities, were calmed with compromise, and then resumed after the government postponed scheduled stakeholder meetings. In early 2015, students and a growing band of supporters set off from several cities by foot, planning to converge in Rangoon. The largest group, which began its trek in Mandalay, found itself sequestered at a monastery compound in Letpadan, Pegu Division, after authorities refused to allow them passage.

On March 10, scores were injured during a chaotic raid on the encampment, as skirmishes between demonstrators and police escalated into a scene of indiscriminate violence. Students, monks, journalists and medical workers were seen being beaten by baton-wielding officers. More than 100 people were arrested that day, and almost a year later scores of them are still in jail awaiting trial.

Charges against the detainees were sourced from a range of laws viewed by rights defenders and legal professionals as outdated, against international norms, or both. Many were charged under the controversial Peaceful Assembly Law, which has been used against hundreds of activists during the tenure of Thein Sein. Other charges of choice were vague parts of the colonial-era Penal Code loosely defining rioting and causing unrest. The panoply of charges provides a picture of the legislative tool-kit that has been used by the current government to suppress activism across the board.

Despite Thein Sein’s pardon of most political detainees, most recently last week’s amnesty of 52, a total of 78 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The group also says that more than 400 others are currently awaiting trial for charges viewed as politically motivated.

Persistence of the Military Mindset

Thein Sein never fully shed his image as a military man; he was a former general, and his presidency punctuated by incidents harking back to the days of dictatorship. His party’s resistance to constitutional reform, lenience toward the armed forces and readiness to resort to force all suggest that old habits die hard.

It didn’t help the party’s image when, one August evening, state security forces surrounded the Naypyidaw home of Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann while his colleagues made midnight maneuvers to remove him as USDP-chairman, along with several of his sympathizers.

The surprise ouster of Shwe Mann, who is considered an ally of Suu Kyi, struck some as a reminder that military bonds run deep within the USDP, its civilianized successor. The move was perceived as a show of force; the military revealed for a fleeting moment that it could pull strings if necessary.

Throughout the current government’s term, the degree to which the armed forces controlled the party has remained a subject of great speculation. Deepening doubts about Thein Sein’s independence was his administration’s chronic failure to pursue claims of human rights abuses committed by the Burma Army. Two cases, in particular, illustrate the outgoing government’s suspicious and selective clemency.

The first concerns the death of a journalist while in military custody in late 2014. The Burma Army announced roughly three weeks after his disappearance and death that Par Gyi had been arrested and fatally shot while trying to escape. Two soldiers initially implicated in his death were acquitted by a military tribunal, and an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission failed to satisfy his widow and other observers who maintain that he was tortured.

Before the outrage over Par Gyi’s death had subsided, another army-related tragedy ensued. On the morning of Jan.20, 2015, the badly beaten bodies of two Kachin schoolteachers were found dead in Shan State, prompting an investigation which determined that the young women had been raped and murdered. Suspicions fell on a deployment of Burma Army soldiers stationed nearby, leading the military at one point to threaten legal action against anyone implicating its personnel in the killings. To date, no suspects have stood trial.

The Very Picture of Success

The blemishes on Thein Sein’s legacy are at times obscured by his narrative of political and economic reform. In his final speech to Parliament on Thursday, the president touted his achievements and vowed that the USDP would help its successor toward the “broader and higher objective” of prosperity and democratization.

Economic growth, the proliferation of mobile technology and promoting inclusive politics are a staple of Thein Sein’s public speeches, though his actual record casts doubt on his effectiveness as a reformer. In terms of economic progress, experts have suggested that Burma’s old economic policies were so bad that that they couldn’t possibly have changed for the worse. A look at Thein Sein’s reforms reveals a somewhat scattered approach of trial and error.

Burma’s car import policy has been changed about a dozen times since 2011. Prospective investors grew impatient over stagnant legislation related to companies and financial institutions. Hasty attempts to address poor infrastructure led to a slew of new problems in the cities, and more remote areas have seen little development.

While the economy has grown, the World Bank predicts that growth is about to slow down, falling from 8.5 percent growth over the last fiscal year to 6.5 percent during the current one. Getting bigger by the day, however, is Burma’s trade deficit—now more than US$3 billion—as the local currency falls further against the dollar.

Further complicating the NLD’s inheritance is the country’s long-held tradition of corruption, which Thein Sein’s administration did little to address. An anti-graft law was enacted, and with it an enforcement commission, though there has thus far been no sign of its effectiveness. A global corruption index just this week ranked Burma among the most corrupt nations in the world.

Thein Sein oversaw the start of what could turn out to be an economic renaissance, and he helped to write the history of the new Burma, one which aspires to be led by its citizens. The country’s collective memory will nonetheless forever weigh his achievements against his shortcomings, and the mare’s nest he is leaving behind.

Additional research contributed by Lawi Weng and Kyaw Hsu Mon.