Reforms or Facade?
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
The five-month-old Burmese government announces a series of political and economic reforms.
It may be difficult to fathom but the new military-controlled Burmese government has embarked on a spurt of reform actions that have raised eyebrows.
No one is certain how long the reform drive will last while some have questioned the motive behind the actions that have been taken in recent weeks that also show a softening of the government stance towards the opposition.
Could it be a public relations stunt by Burmese leaders to prod Western nations into dropping longstanding sanctions?
Or a bid to woo neighboring governments to allow Burma to host a high profile Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit?
Still, the reform moves are substantial and have even raised expectations of a rapprochement between the government and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, on her ninth month of release from house arrest.
"We've seen things taking place under the new government that have not taken place for 50 years," Burma expert David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University, told RFA.
But Steinberg, who met with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon in May, hastened to add that the new changes by the nominally civilian government do not mean that reform will be easy as "there are plenty of elements, we think, in the society that do not want to see reform."
He also said that the Burmese military, accused of blatant human rights abuses in the past, remains a formidable force even as expectations grow that Aung San Suu Kyi may be given a more prominent role if the government continues on its reform path.
"There is no question in my mind that the military would continue to control power. Whatever role she might play—I have no idea what that might be if indeed there is such a role—that would be under a kind of military auspices or with military approval," Steinberg said.
But the spurt of reforms by a government decked with ex-generals has still attracted much attention.
Among the recent reform developments:
The government has held two rounds of talks with Aung San Suu Kyi followed by joint statements highlighting cooperation. The talks have been described as more substantial that those held previously when she was under house arrest.
The government has allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to make her first political trip to the provinces, with the authorities coordinating security measures. During her last trip outside Rangoon in 2003, some 70 of her supporters were killed in an attack on her motorcade in what many believe was an assassination attempt on her by groups linked to the military junta.
The government has offered to allow a re-registration of Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was banned before elections last year. Although outlawed, the party continues to function, apparently without harassment by the authorities.
UN rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana has been allowed to return to Burma with a scheduled visit next week. During his last visit 18 months ago, he was not allowed to see Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time. His subsequent requests to return have been rejected until now.
In what could be the first major revamp of the country's economic system since the new government took power in March, the authorities have announced plans to modernize its currency exchange system. The International Monetary Fund confirmed it has received a request to help in that effort.
The government has met with non-governmental organizations to seek ways of bettering the country's environmental conservation work, hinting of a public consultation process on policies to be implemented.
The government has formed a special spokesperson and information team tasked with releasing news and holding press briefing on various issues, possibly reflecting moves towards transparency.
For the first time in four years, state-controlled newspapers have dropped long-running slogans lambasting foreign media. The fiery backpage banners had been a regular feature of official newspapers.
Some private media, which routinely exercise self-censorship, have run stories recently quoting lawmakers critical of government policies. State newspapers have also been less critical of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Latest reform move
The latest reform move was announced Wednesday by Burma’s President Thein Sein, saying his government will allow exiles to return home and will consider leniency with respect to offenses other than murder.
The announcement, delivered in a major speech to local businessmen, however did not provide clear security guarantees for the thousands of exiles who have fled Burma’s decades-long political oppression, although many acknowledged it as a positive development.
Aung Zaw, founder and editor of the Irrawaddy online magazine who fled Burma as a political exile, cautiously welcomed the announcement but said that many like him would remain doubtful of the government’s overtures until the political prisoners inside Burma are released and progress towards a peaceful resolution of the conflicts with ethnic armed groups is made.
“Exiles outside the country want to return home and contribute to their society, but it doesn't make sense that you keep thousands of people in jail while asking exiled Burmese to come home,” he said.
There are more than 2,000 political prisoners languishing under harsh conditions in Burma.
While Aung San Suu Kyi and the government have kept details of their two rounds of talks a secret, many believe that the release of political prisoners is among key topics that also include armed conflicts in ethnic areas and the status of her NLD party.
"I do not speak of this in detail yet because there are certain things we have to do first," the 66-year-old Nobel laureate told people who came to greet her during her first trip to the provinces on Sunday.
"I don't want to give people false expectations. I don't want to give promises without any certainty," she said, promising to divulge the details "when the time comes."
A contentious point of negotiations is believed to be the manner in which her banned party will be legalized, a move that could imply the party's acceptance of the government's legitimacy and allow it to take part legally in politics.
The government wants the NLD to re-register through formal procedures, which will require the party to virtually accept the country's 2008 constitution drafted by the previous military junta and which the NLD has dismissed as undemocratic.
"Aung San Suu Kyi is a very strong person and she believes in the future of the NLD, wants to promote the NLD, and is working towards that end," said Steinberg, when asked about his meeting with her.
Steinberg, who has met Aung San Suu Kyi about half a dozen times since 1985, said that when he spoke to her in May, Aung San Suu Kyi "was clear that she would not recommend that the NLD register as a party again to take part in by-elections to take place this fall."
There are plans to hold by-elections for more than 40 constituencies and the Election Commission called 37 political parties to a meeting recently.
The question of Aung San Suu Kyi participating in the polls could depend in part on whether the government changes the rules for registering political parties.
Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said the government was “delicately and carefully” handling the NLD issue.
"The government is doing its best to invite NLD to its national reconsolidation process,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be further meetings producing promising results in the public interest and towards more cooperation in implementing democracy according to the constitution.”
Many hope the government will continue with reforms even while the NLD re-registration issue is being negotiated.
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