From Europe with Love

By Aung Zaw 7 March 2013

President Thein Sein’s first-ever tour of Europe, which will end tomorrow, has been a rousing success. It did not, however, get off to a smooth start. In Oslo, the first capital he visited on his 12-day, five-nation tour, he was greeted by Burmese demonstrators who shouted, “No 2008 Constitution!” “No Civil War!” and “Stop Corruption Now!”

Mun Awng, a famous Kachin singer who fled after the brutal crackdown in 1988, won applause for saying what many people have been thinking: “The same people who imprisoned people 20 years ago are now traveling around the world saying that they are building democracy.” His remark was widely shared on social media sites, both inside and outside Burma.

It is said that the Burmese and Norwegian officials were surprised to see the protest. Senior Burmese ministers subsequently met some of the protesters to hear their grievances. The next day the president also briefly met Burmese living in Oslo, but left it to other members of his delegation to field questions.

The video footage of the protest has been widely shared on social media websites and has received some interesting comments.

Like many other Burmese, the protesters in Oslo say they are unhappy because the current government is just an offshoot of the previous regime. Moreover, it still does not admit past human rights abuses or the brutal crackdowns committed by the former regime, which involved the imprisonment of many activists and ordinary citizens.

The protesters also think the 2008 Constitution, drafted by the former junta, remains an almost insurmountable obstacle to genuine democratic change. They even went so far as to say that Thein Sein isn’t really Burma’s president, because the 2010 election that put him in power was a complete sham.

“We still can’t accept these ‘reforms’ in Burma—that’s why we are here today,” Mung Awng, who is a friend of Kachin Independence Army leader general Gun Maw, told the The Irrawaddy. “There are still no human or ethnic rights in Burma, and if we stick with the 2008 Constitution, our country will still be under military rule for another 50 years.”

The demonstrators also pointed out that only last week, police clashed with farmers protesting the confiscation of their land in the Irrawaddy Delta. That incident left one policeman dead, and bodes ill for the prospects of finding a peaceful resolution of protests erupting all over the country over the former regime’s rampant land-grabbing.

There has also been an outcry over the government’s decision this week to submit a controversial draft press law to Parliament, a mere five days after it was released in the state-run media. To the astonishment of many, the government declined to consult the Burmese media on the bill, outraging many media professionals, who see the move as a step toward reinstating censorship.

None of these issues disturbed Thein Sein’s foreign hosts, however. In Norway, for instance, he was given a red-carpet welcome, meeting with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide in Oslo. He even had an audience with King Harald V, the Norwegian monarch.

Officially, Norway has acknowledged that much more needs to be done in Burma, but gave no indication that it was rethinking Thein Sein’s democratic credentials in light of recent developments.

“Many positive things have taken place in Myanmar in recent years but there is still more to be done,” Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kjetil Elsebutangen said. “On the Norwegian side, we think it’s important to support these positive developments and to try to help those who are moving things in the right direction.”

For his part, Thein Sein has not been shy about capitalizing on the outpouring of goodwill coming from Europe. According to the Norwegian daily Dagens Næringsliv, he likened Burma to Norway—“Both are small countries with great natural resources, and with large neighbors”—and added: “At the same time, Norway has everything we need; capital, technology and human resources.”

The same report notes that Norwegian companies such as oil and gas company Statoil—two-thirds owned by the Norwegian government—and major telecoms operator Telenor, which already has a strong presence in neighboring Thailand, are “more than willing to step in,” while interest in Burma as a travel destination has grown among Norwegian tourists.

“Norway intends to use state support for Myanmar as a means of opening doors for Norwegian business interests, and will want them to remain open,” the report continues.

Indeed, Norway has already invested heavily in Burma to get its foot in the door. In January, it wrote off US $534 million in debt in coordination with other creditor countries belonging to the Paris Club. In total, Burma has been let off the hook for more than $6 billion borrowed by past authoritarian regimes.

Norway has also taken a leading role in efforts to resolve Burma’s ethnic conflicts. Norway’s ambassador to Burma, Katja Nordgaard, highlighted this in a guest commentary for the The Irrawaddy, in which she wrote that “As a long-time backer of Myanmar’s efforts to restore democracy, Norway was recently asked to coordinate international support for the country’s ceasefires by chairing the Peace Donor Support Group. To provide concrete support, the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative was established.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Oslo is not too keen to talk about any apparent backsliding by the Thein Sein administration, which now enjoys strong backing in Europe. Still, it is troubling that European governments even seem to have embraced Burma’s notorious armed forces, represented in Thein Sein’s delegation by Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services (Army) Gen Soe Win, who thanked the Norwegian people and government for supporting Burma’s democratic transition.

At a press conference in Helsinki with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland—where Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari remarked that the Burmese government could also be eligible for the prize if it stays on the road to reform—Thein Sein was asked about the 2008 Constitution, which enshrines a permanent role for the military in national politics.

In typically vague fashion, the president simply said that because of Burma’s history of armed conflict, “the Tatmadaw [armed forces] should also play its part” in the country’s affairs. He then added that the even commander in chief of the armed forces is appointed by the president—implying that the military is under civilian control, even though, for all intents and purposes, it remains a law unto itself.

As to whether there will be a reduction in the military’s current 25 percent allotment of seats in Parliament, he said it would depend on the country’s situation, Parliament and public opinion—as if anybody in Burma outside of the military and the ruling party supports the army’s privileged position in the country’s politics.

It is ironic that even as foreign governments are treating Burma’s self-appointed leaders with unprecedented respect, Burmese citizens are growing increasingly critical of Thein Sein’s administration. Earlier this week, for instance, three villagers living near the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division moved to file a lawsuit against him for his alleged role in a crackdown on anti-mine protesters last November.

Meanwhile, in Austria, Thein Sein reiterated his call for an end to European Union sanctions against Burma and welcomed investors to his nation.

As Sean Turnell, a long-time Burma-watcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, pointed out, the current visit is largely about “drumming up business and, along the way, presenting a new face of the government of Burma to the Europeans.”

“Europe doesn’t carry much weight politically for Burma, but it remains the home of some vibrant companies. Of course, it’s a lucrative source of tourists, too.”

Increasingly, foreigners are seeing Burma through rose-colored glasses, becoming enamored with its image as land of exotic sights and a final frontier for foreign investment. Brad Adams, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division in New York, is not he only one who believes that many in the West don’t want to look see the big picture when looking at Burma because they have their own self-interests.

To many Burmese who remain skeptical of the government, power is still very much in the hands of former military leaders (Thein Sein himself is an ex-general who served as number five in the former regime), who have only changed their outfits and loosened their grip.

The democratic opposition—including Aung San Suu Kyi, former student leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, and ethnic leaders—have been effectively contained and used to demonstrate to the West that Burma is heading toward reform.

In fact, however, power and wealth in Burma are still controlled and managed by the powerful military leaders—an inconvenient truth that many in Europe now chose to ignore.