Commentary

How to Spot a Reformist?

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 17 August 2012

In Burma today, the most politically trendy word is “reformist.” Many generals-turned-ministers want to be considered as such. More importantly, they crave being dubbed reformist by the public and media.

It is little wonder that the term has become popular as Burma emerges from the half-century eclipse of oppressive military rule. Burmese people, who have longed for democratic reform for decades, embrace the word while the international community reserves its highest marks for those in the reformist camp.

And so a “reformist gauge” has emerged by which political observers, stakeholders, activists and the public measure all top officials—including the president, his ministers, prominent politicians and military leaders.

When Tin Aung Myint Oo, believed one of the most conservative or “hardliner” in the government, resigned from his vice-president’s position, most people were delighted. He was seen as a huge obstacle to President Thein Sein’s program of reform.

However, Tin Aung Myint Oo himself claimed to be a reformist. The ex-general reportedly denied hardliner tendencies when talking with his close aides. The sour 62-year-old, who could not even adopt an affable demeanor in the media let alone behind closed doors, merely said that he did not want to adopt change as quickly as Thein Sein advocated.

And so when Nyan Tun, the commander-in-chief of the Burmese Navy, was selected to replace Tin Aung Myint Oo this week, commentators immediately tried to evaluate him with the reformist gauge.

Thein Sein admitted in a recent speech that there were “conservatives” in his cabinet and, if they opposed his reforms, they would be left behind.

During a recent trip to Burma, one of the 88 Generation Students leaders told me that Industry Minister Soe Thein and Railways Minister Aung Min were reformists before meeting them in Rangoon.

Of course, they received this accolade by being two of the most resourceful and pro-active cabinet members currently in office.

On the eve of Aug. 8, when former political prisoners of the 88 Generation Students marked the 24th anniversary of the 1988 popular uprising, the two ministers stunned everyone by travelling to Mandalay and donating one million kyat (US $1,200) for the ceremony.

Such an unprecedented move confirmed the impression that they were reformists. While critics decried the move as a clever public relations exercise on the part of the government, most viewed it as a necessary trust-building step towards national reconciliation.

Soe Thein and Aung Min have been busy holding countless meetings with scores of activists and ethnic leaders as well as acting as emissaries on behalf of the president.

So who is behind the current reform? While many believe Thein Sein is the driving force along with his cabinet backers and some prominent parliamentarians who have initiated popular proposals in the legislature, the reality is more complex.

There are power shakers outside of ministerial circles including powerful businessmen who are close to government. This contrasts starkly with those traditionally attributed with a role—activists, ethnic groups and political parties including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

When discussing the government’s peace process with ethnic armed groups, the ex-admiral Soe Thein told me in the Rangoon meeting that there are four key factors.

“Firstly, without the president, the idea of the peace process can’t take off,” he said. “Secondly, without Minister Aung Min [the government’s chief negotiator] and these people [civil society group Myanmar Egress acting as informal advisers] the peace process can’t be implemented. Thirdly, it is totally impossible to do it without the participation by the ethnic armed groups. Fourthly, without money we can do nothing.”

And it appears there were always problems between reformists and hardliners in the government. For the peace committee, the government’s original budget was up to 150 million kyat ($170,000).

One well-informed source recounted a conversation between Thein Sein and Aung Min a few months back. The president said that Aung Thaung, who was then chief of the peace committee and renown as a hardliner, withdrew 120 million kyat ($135,000) from the fund. The president was enquiring why Aung Min had yet to withdraw the rest of the money for the peace process.

The source said that Aung Thaung took money but no one could see him using it for the peace process. Later, he was ousted from the peace committee and Aung Min became the key negotiator in his place.

While pro-democracy groups and the public use the term hardliner, the ministers seemed to use the word “spoiler.” During our conversation, Soe Thein said there were spoilers outside—referring to some political groups and persons in exile who resisted any change to the current political landscape.

Both spoilers in pro-democracy groups and hardliners in the government may exist. Despite the different labels given by the respective sides, they all mean the same thing—blocking future reforms.

Burma needs genuine reformists in the government to be able to speed up the transition towards democracy. Perhaps, if genuine reformists unite the political landscape might become more dynamic and free. So far, however, it remains tough to spot obvious ones out there.

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