Guest Column

Should Thein Sein Get the Nobel Peace Prize?

By Myint Zin 9 October 2013

The 2013 winner – or winners – of the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced in the next few days, an award that relatively few Asians have won. When the nominations for the 2013 Peace Prize closed in February, among the 15 or so names mentioned as possible laureates was the “reformist President of Myanmar,” Thein Sein.

That is an eventuality almost no one could have foreseen three years ago and indicates the relative progress Burma has made from the dark days of a long, naked and very oppressive military rule. But despite Thein Sein’s steadily rising popularity, he has made statements that call into question his suitability for the prize.

Among the 12 Asians who have won the world’s most prestigious peace prize is Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 peace laureate, who spent various stints under house arrest for 15 years following her return to Burma in April 1988 to nurse her ailing mother. From about October 2007 to Suu Kyi’s eventual release in November 2010, Thein Sein was the Prime Minister and head of government in the previous regime that kept her there.

The past is not really dead and perhaps not even past, especially when the past is not directly related to Suu Kyi’s house arrest. In connection with the past atrocities committed by previous military regimes in the brutal crushing of the monk-led Saffron Revolution of 2007 and the student-led nation-wide uprising of 1988, Thein Sein stated that the top and middle-ranking military officials who crushed the protests were “doing their duty.”

That was the response he gave through a translator to a British Broadcasting Corporation’s interviewer’s question less than a year ago when asked whether he intended to investigate the “past excesses” of the Burmese Army.

The phrase “partly previous military regime” is used since in addition to former General Thein Sein, many members of the self-abolished military junta, with or without their military uniforms, continue to occupy cabinet, legislative and even judicial posts.

An apparently reformist president who has been praised to the skies by some Burmese and foreigners alike thus refuses to acknowledge that there were such “excesses.” This amounts to “covering a dead elephant with a goat skin,” a Burmese-language reference to the fact that the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands of students, monks and common citizens were covered up after they were shot down by military troops in the two protests.

Another Nobel laureate (for the year 1993), the former president of South Africa Francis de Clerk, eventually acknowledged the wrongdoings of the apartheid system which in part, led to the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions. In contrast, one dare not and realistically should not have the audacity to hope that even something close to a genuine truth and reconciliation commission in Burma would be formed. Indeed it may be better to tear down any such expectations since its formation is not among the stunning reforms’ that Thein Sein has apparently initiated.

Three more statements from Thein Sein need to be mentioned, two mainly for domestic audiences and one initially made in the context of his meeting with a group of Burmese diaspora.

In a press conference in Burma, a few months ago, the president stated that the British colonial government in their rule of more than 100 years built only one major bridge but the partly previous military regimes which ruled for “only” 23 years built more than 100 bridges! So a combined reading of the President’s recent statements is: “We must forget the alleged’ abuses of the military. They were merely doing their duty.” And since the regime – of which he was a member and head of government for a few years has built more than 100 bridges it is several hundred times better than British colonial rule!

At the time of independence in 1948 Burma had some of the best infrastructure in Southeast Asia. The nascent democracy of the 1950s was, in comparison with the last 50 years, an age of relative progress and prosperity. After about five decades of military and one-party rule Burma lagged behind many other Asian countries including a few of its neighbors not only economically but also in terms of relative political freedoms and judicial independence.

Indeed Thein Sein himself stated, several months ago, in a meeting with Burmese expatriates or Burmese diaspora that Myanmar could reach the status before the 1960s’ if concerted efforts were made towards it. This is an implicit if not explicit acknowledgment that things were much better in the retrospectively renamed Myanmar in the 1950s and early 1960s before the military coup of 1962. Yet for two generations both in schools, universities and the almost totally government-controlled media Burmese were told how “parliamentary democracy” corrupts and how the Army has repeatedly saved the country from disintegration. Yet in a not-so-Freudian slip the president was indirectly acknowledging that the nascent Burmese democracy from the late 1940s to early 1960s expunged by successive Burmese military and military-led one party regime did have merit worthy of his government to emulate. Perhaps that message was intended mainly for the Burmese diaspora.

Yet the mixed messages from the president continue, especially when the target audience is the local Burmese. On February 12, 2013 the 67th anniversary of Union Day, in a message to the nation published in the front page of all the government newspapers the president stated to the effect that the Burmese had suffered because of the colonial education system. In fact the English translation of the president’s Union Day message used the phrase “colonial education system” but the Burmese version used the harsher phrase “slave education system”.

Successive Burmese military juntas were responsible for the rapid and marked deterioration of what had been a creditable education and university system of the 1950s. After the crushing of the student-led 1988 uprising, the campus of Rangoon University was covered with weeds. Students seeking higher education in Burma were robbed of their future, a trend which in recent months the current administration has admittedly but belatedly tried to reverse with assistance from some foreign universities.

Two days before President Thein Sein’s 2013 Union Day message, a headline in the same official government newspaper The New Light of Myanmar stated: “As Myanmar belongs to the Common Law Legal System family, the Myanmar Judicial System is deeply rooted with legal maxims, judicial customs and precedents which are enshrined with International Legal Principles that are utilized by successive judges all over the world.”

This is reportage of a rule-of-law seminar held at the capital Naypyidaw on Feb. 9 summarizing a speech by the Attorney-General. In contrast to this “blame all on the colonialists” rhetoric of the previous regimes and indeed two days before his President’s statement the Attorney-General proudly says that “Myanmar belongs to the common law legal system”. That common law legal system is derived from the same colonial or “slave” legal and educational system, established across the world in former British colonies.

Yet another Nobel peace laureate (of 2001), former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, writes in his memoirs “Interventions: A Life in Peace and War” that some African leaders continue to play the colonial blame game for which Annan chastises some of his fellow African elites.

Hence the apparently tipped Nobel Peace Prize nominee would probably need to unlearn or at least be aware that the colonial blame game does have its detractors even among albeit a relatively few Asian and African elites. This is not to defend colonialism by any means. But at the same time those who consistently or even occasionally play the blame game for their long-past colonial history need to be aware of the legitimate criticisms of this “blame (entirely) the colonial past for all its woes” of some elites and leaders of developing countries.

The Burmese government’s reforms – despite their checkered results are, one readily acknowledges, noteworthy but not that stunning, nor even very significant to the extent that its head of state should receive the additional plaudits of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Myint Zan is a Professor at the Faculty of Law, Multimedia University in Melaka, Malaysia.This article first appeared on Asia Sentinel on October 8, 2013.