Guest Column

When Listening Is Not Enough

By Ko Aung 6 December 2013

A recent profile of Burma’s President Thein Sein by Gwen Robinson of the Washington-based magazine Foreign Policy offers a rather flattering take on the man who has, admittedly, presided over some of the most dramatic political changes the country has seen in decades.

The tenor of the portrait was not unexpected; the former Southeast Asia correspondent for the Financial Times seems to hold the general-turned-politician in high esteem, often writing articles about Burma’s reforms in a positive light. She has also been allowed to accompany the president on some of his trips—the only foreign journalist to do so.

It is clear that top officials in the administration have chosen Robinson to serve as a New Burma booster, promoting the image of Thein Sein and his government in the international arena. I must say, their efforts in this regard and in message control more broadly have been successful so far. The PR team behind the curtain has done well over the last couple of years, employing strategic communications for Thein Sein’s government in order to normalize its relationship with Western countries, many of which had imposed political and economic sanctions on it.

In her article, Robinson praised Thein Sein for guiding the country’s reform process, dubbing him the “listener-in-chief”—a leader keenly attuned to the opinions and advice of those around him.

For me, he remains Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s hand-picked successor. The junta chief of the previous military regime chose Thein Sein to be Burma’s next president after a 2010 national election that was widely condemned as flawed. Where Robinson sees a reformist, I am more inclined to see a raconteur who—through speeches containing promises and exhortations of progress made—pleases the Western ear, but fails to affect real, meaningful change for the average citizen.

Many buzz words can be found interspersed throughout Thein Sein’s speeches—transparency, accountability, anti-corruption, good governance. The verbiage seems tailored to satisfy an international audience.

But in many respects, his fine words have not been backed by concrete, positive reform. He has been at the helm for more than two years, but the country as a whole still wallows in poverty while a handful of cronies become even richer. The badly neglected education sector has yet to be reformed at all. In terms of health care, people who can afford it still jet off to Bangkok and Singapore for treatment, such is the lack of trust in local doctors’ competence and medical facilities’ adequacy. And activists who take to the streets to voice dissent can, and do, still find themselves imprisoned for doing so.

Under such circumstances, those praising this president as a reformist would do well to take a closer look.

Thein Sein is not worthy of the title “listener-in-chief” just yet. Most accounts of the now-president describe him under Than Shwe’s rule as a quiet, submissive and nonconfrontational member of a regime with one of the world’s most appalling human rights records in the last half-century. So while he may be a listener, his past indicates that he is no chief, at least when it comes to upholding democratic values. This is the man, after all, who chaired the 2008 National Convention, during which the Constitution—hardly considered an enlightened document among the pro-democracy contingent—was drafted.

There’s nothing wrong with a president who is listener-in-chief. Burma needs a leader who will to listen to the voices of his or her own citizens. But given the serious shortcomings of the reform process to date, a little less listening within the huddle of his inner circle of advisers, and a little more acting on behalf of the people, is perhaps in order.

Ko Aung is a Burmese contributor who has been involved with the Burmese democracy movement since 1988. This commentary was translated from its original Burmese-language version.