Burma through the Looking Glass

By Aun Zaw & Neil Lawrence, Reform 17 June 2013

When Burma made the transition to quasi-civilian rule two years ago, most observers were skeptical. Would the new military-backed government really bring reform, they asked, or would it just be the same old regime in a slightly different guise?

Well, the government of President Thein Sein has proven all the doubters wrong. The leopard has not only changed its spots—it has also sprouted feathers and learned how to quack. Indeed, it is getting more difficult with each passing day to know what manner of beast this new government is, and even harder to know what to make of almost everyone in any way related to Burma’s “great transition.”

The most dramatic change, of course, has been in the image of the president himself. Formerly the figurehead prime minister of a reviled military regime, he has gone from being seen as a mere puppet of his higher-ups to becoming, at least in the eyes of some, a great agent of change.

The finishing touch to Thein Sein’s extreme makeover came on April 22, when he was awarded the International Crisis Group’s “In Pursuit of Peace Award.” And so, after decades as one of Burma’s reptilian men in green, it seems he is now a full-fledged dove, fit to receive invitations from Washington and other Western capitals.

But Thein Sein is not alone in the shape-shifting game. Khin Nyunt, another once-feared former general who fell from grace nearly a decade ago, has been back in the news recently with the opening of his own art gallery and coffee shop.

Think about this for a moment: The ex-Military Intelligence chief, who almost single-handedly created Burma’s police state, is now in the business of selling paintings and serving lattes. Where else but in the magical land of the new Burma could a man whose name once sent shivers up people’s spines pass himself off as a genteel barista and patron of the arts?

But the vogue for abrupt career shifts is not confined to Burma’s former military strongmen; even foreigners have been affected by the euphoria over the opening of Southeast Asia’s last frontier.

In February, Kurt Campbell, the former US secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, packed in his academic and diplomatic career to found The Asia Group, LLC, an investment group that offers advice on how to make a bundle in the world’s fastest growing region. Among his first assignments: lobbying for an American consortium keen to win a contract to upgrade Rangoon’s international airport.

Writing about Burma’s potential for the Financial Times blog, Campbell could barely contain himself: “It’s damn exciting,” wrote the man who at one time acted as the chief negotiator between Burma’s military regime and the democratic opposition.

For the most part, however, Burma-mania has had its greatest transformative effect on the country’s citizens, particularly those once held up as paragons of social and political virtue.

The latest wave of anti-Muslim violence that began in Meikhtila in March has claimed many casualties, not the least being the reputation of Burma’s monks. It was not so long ago that the world watched in awe as Buddhist monks resisted the military’s might armed with nothing more than the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on loving-kindness. These days, however, they are more likely to be seen as ringleaders of nasty pogroms that aim to rid cities, towns and villages of their Muslim inhabitants.

The metamorphosis of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been even more shocking for many, especially those who saw her as the sainted savior of her nation. Once faulted for being too rigidly principled, her support for the controversial Letpadaung copper mine, a Chinese-backed project opposed by local villagers, has recast her as an über-pragmatist, prepared to do anything that will help pave the way to power.

The greatest hurdle to the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s quest for the ultimate prize—Burma’s presidency—is the 2008 Constitution, which was designed to keep her out of the country’s highest office by banning anyone with family ties to any other nation from serving as chief executive. Changing this—or any other—provision in the national charter is virtually impossible, because of a requirement that all amendments must have more than 75-percent support in Parliament. The catch, of course, is that the military holds 25 percent of the seats, giving it the ultimate say in what stays and what changes.

But this hasn’t prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from seeking allies in her bid to undo the former junta’s carefully laid plans to prevent her from becoming Burma’s leader after the next election in 2015. But to stand any chance of success, she will need the backing of the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which holds the lion’s share of seats thanks to the rigged 2010 election.

Not so long ago, any cooperation between the USDP and the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader would have been unthinkable. After all, 10 years ago, thugs from the Union Solidarity and Development Association, an earlier incarnation of the USDP, carried out one of the worst political massacres in Burma’s modern history, slaughtering scores of NLD supporters in an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s entourage near Depayin, Sagaing Division, on May 30, 2003.

But none of that seems to matter today. “If they really want to change the Constitution, there’s no reason not to fully co-operate with them. All together we can co-operate. The USDP made a proposal to organize the committee to amend the Constitution. We did support that proposal,” said the opposition leader who would be president.

These are strange days, indeed. While there’s no telling how all of this will turn out, one thing seems sure: Whatever you think you know about Burma today will almost certainly be proven untrue tomorrow.