A Tip for Dealing With Burma’s Government

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 5 April 2014

When dealing with Burmese government officials, one tip is just as true today as it was during former military regime: Never underestimate their political manipulation.

The international community, including Western and Asian countries, has eagerly welcomed Burma’s transition from dictatorship toward democracy. But sooner or later, frustrations are bound to emerge as reforms roll out slowly and Naypyidaw appears at times to backtrack. To avoid disappointment, international actors need to take a realistic look at President Thein Sein’s government and re-evaluate their policies.

The early stages of the general turned president’s reform process were quite impressive: Thein Sein released hundreds of political prisoners, allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other activists to contest by-elections in 2012, eased draconian censorship against the media, initiated economic changes by allowing foreign investment, granted the right of assembly to the people, and invited Burmese exiles from around the world to return home.

In a significant acknowledgment of these positive developments, US President Barack Obama flew to Rangoon in 2012 to meet with Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. That year the United States eased economic sanctions against the Burma government and gave a green light for some American companies to work with Burmese state-owned businesses. Likewise, the European Union suspended and then eventually lifted its economic sanctions last year.

Meanwhile, development funds flowed into the country, as many countries and organizations resume support after a long break. The United States has allocated more than US$180 million in aid, while the European Union provided a package of support worth $200 million for 2012-13. This year the World Bank promised to give Burma $2 billion in loans, aid and investment, while the United States and the European Union have started to engage with the Burmese armed forces.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Burma has attracted so much interest and new investment over the past three years. But international donors need to seriously ask themselves a question: Is the country still moving closer to democracy, even gradually, or have the reforms started to stall?

It is important to be realistic and remember that Burma’s government has a knack for packaging its agenda in various disguises. Since the military coup in 1962, the country’s rulers have never been defeated or forced to fundamentally change their political system for the sake of their citizens. But to maintain their grip on power they have transformed their image from time to time—from a military regime to a socialist dictatorship, to another military regime and finally to the current nominally civilian government.

Many foreign diplomats and observers continue to wonder why the former regime wanted to change out of the blue in 2010. But in fact, this reform process was envisioned by the generals as far back as the early 1990s, when the West was just beginning its sanctions.

Thein Sein’s presidency is the last phase of the junta’s so-called “roadmap to democracy,” which traces its roots back to 1992 when Snr-Gen Than Shwe became head of state and announced the government would hold a national convention. The roadmap, which became official in 2003, included seven steps, beginning with the organization of national conventions starting in 1993 to draft a constitution. The second step was a vague call to implement tasks for founding a democratic system. Third, the constitution was drafted by handpicked delegates, and it was passed in the rigged 2008 referendum, which was the fourth step. The 2010 election was the fifth step. Next came the convening of Parliament and the transfer of power to an “elected” government as the sixth and seventh steps.

Why did the junta draw this roadmap? Simply to ensure that the armed forces would continue to play an important role in politics, and that military leaders would continue to hold onto power even under a new political system.

It seems they succeeded. Today, high-ranking officials from the ex-junta control the government and the legislature, the armed forces fill up one-quarter of Parliament seats with appointed representatives, and Suu Kyi remains ineligible for the presidency due to an undemocratic clause in the Constitution. The economy and wealth of the country are still monopolized by the military and cronies, and human rights abuses are ongoing, with tens of thousands more refugees and internally displaced persons over the past three years.

Real progress will require dialogue between the government and the main opposition groups, something which is not yet happening. The international community seems to believe that Thein Sein has engaged with Suu Kyi, but in reality, although the two leaders have met six times since 2011, substantive dialogue has never occurred. And despite frequent requests, Suu Kyi has not had an opportunity to meet for four-way talks with the president, the speaker of parliament, and the commander-in-chief of the military.

So I ask again, is the current reform process moving forward?

On March 26, Thein Sein said in a speech to lawmakers that the armed forces would keep a role in politics. And regarding constitutional reform, he said, “I would like to urge you to do it softly and gently, depending on the experience, long-sightedness and sincerity of all stakeholders involved.”

The next day, Burma’s Armed Forces Day, the commander-in-chief of the military, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, said the Constitution was not written for only one party, organization or ethnic group, nor was it intended to benefit only the military, but was approved by 92.48 percent of the entire population. He said constitutional reform must proceed according to Article 436 of Chapter 12 in the Constitution, which gives the military an effective veto over amendments. Suu Kyi and other activists have demanded a change to this article and other undemocratic clauses.

These two speeches indicated that the reform process that began in 2011 is no longer moving. They indicated that now is not the time to look back and praise the progress of three years ago. After months of backtracking, it is time for more concrete changes, including constitutional amendments. And if the country has lost its momentum on the path to democracy, it is time for donor countries to review their positions and put pressure on the Burmese government.