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Slippery path to legitimacy

Asia Times - August 31, 2011

Brian McCartan, Chiang Mai Myanmar's new civilian government is making big efforts to show its legitimacy as a democratic regime. With little concrete action to back up government pronouncements, questions remain whether the world is simply seeing a repeat of the smoke and mirrors practiced by the military junta it has supposedly replaced.

The most notable development of recent weeks was the August 19 meeting between opposition leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Myanmar president Thein Sein. The former general was the last prime minister under the military dictatorship that ruled the country since 1962.

The one-hour meeting took place during Aung San Suu Kyi's first visit to the new capital at Naypyidaw where she also attended a government workshop on economic development. Although few details have emerged from the meeting, Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters afterward she was "happy and satisfied" with the discussion and hoped to meet with the president again. On August 24, she told reporters she believed Thein Sein wants "real positive change".

Although Aung San Suu Kyi has been able to meet with government officials in the past, the meeting with Thein Sein was a clear attempt by the government to show it to establish a high-level dialogue with the democracy leader. The country's dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, had refused in the past to meet her. The meeting followed two previous discussions with Labor Minister and former general Aung Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Naypyidaw was her second journey upcountry since being released from house arrest in November 2010. Her detention was a direct result of the large crowds she was able to draw during a tour of upper Myanmar in 2003 that culminated in an attack on her caravan by thugs believed to be controlled by the military regime at Depayin in Sagaing division.

This marks a change from previously stricter government attitudes. In June, Aung San Suu Kyi was warned to refrain from involvement in politics and warnings that trips up country could result in chaos and riots, a warning that large crowds or demonstrations may result in a military crackdown.

She has also been able to release two "open letters" critical of government policy. The first presented her views on controversial dam projects and the second called for a nationwide ceasefire with the country's ethnic groups to be followed by discussions on peace and national reconciliation.

Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from participating in the election and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was ordered disbanded after failing to register. The NLD's opposition to the 2008 constitution and election rules remains a major stumbling block between the government and what would be Myanmar's strongest opposition party.

Overtures and an apparent softening towards Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD were periodically used by Myanmar's military rulers in the past, often to avert international criticism. The generals, however, viewed her widespread popularity as a dangerous influence. Each time, the pro-democracy icon was put back under lengthy periods of house arrest during which she was often cut off from contacts outside the country. The Depayin crackdown on her and her party resulted in the deaths of some 70 of her supporters.

Myanmar's new civilian government, while composed of many of the same members of the regime that repeatedly put Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest and jailed her supporters, has broadened its seeming magnanimity beyond a narrow focus on a struggle between her and the generals. Thein Sein has called for both a return of exiles and peace talks with the various ethnic groups engaged in armed struggle against Naypyidaw.

Thein Sien announced during a speech to local businessmen on August 17 in Naypyidaw that the government would allow exiles to return home and would consider leniency towards that that had committed crimes other than murder. He also indicated the government is willing to work with the exiles to develop the country.

The announcement, however, has received a cautious response in exile communities. Many want to see more formal legal guarantees, especially concerning political offenses, before accepting the offer. Unclear as well is the status of the over 100,000 refugees along the Thai-Myanmar border and those exiles who have taken up arms against the regime and could be prosecuted for murder.

An August 18 peace overture by Thein Sein to armed groups representing several of the countries minority groups's was met with similar skepticism. The groups have objected to the stipulation that negotiations must be conducted through state and division governments first before proceeding to the national level.

Ethnic leaders feel that as representatives of their peoples they deserve to negotiate on a national level, especially since several of the groups, such as the Karen National Union (KNU) and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), operate across two or more states and divisions.

Ethnic groups also object to being asked to negotiate separately with the government. Instead, they wish to negotiate as a bloc, through the recently formed United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). The group is an alliance of the KNU, KIO, Shan State Progressive Party, Chin National Front, New Mon State Party and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP). The UNFC has insisted any negotiations must take place between the government and the UNCF.

A core element of current ethnic demands for negotiations with the government is for any discussions to be conducted within the framework of the 1947 Panglong agreement. The agreement which was made with Myanmar's independence hero, General Aung San, was aimed at establishing a federal system and guaranteeing ethnic minority rights. Its suspension in the wake of the 1962 coup installing military rule was a major reason for ethnic groups such as the Kachin and Shan to take up armed struggle. The current government insists any discussion should be conducted within the framework of the 2008 constitution.

Other reformist activity has taken place in the newly formed parliament which is currently in its second session. During a speech to mark the opening of the second session, Thein Sein said the government is working to ease tensions with opposition parties that "still do not accept the country's constitution", a veiled reference to the NLD. He also said the government is seeking improved relations with ethnic minorities, noting that border development was important for security.

Within parliament, MPs have been able to criticize government policies and put forward motions that may have gotten them arrested in years past. Shan State MP Sai Maung Tin sent a report at the end of July documenting army abuses and urging the formation of a peace commission to Thein Sein and both vice presidents, and cabinet ministers. During the second session, Health Minister Dr Pe Thet Khin gave a speech critical of budget allocations for health.

While problems remain in parliament over procedural matters, MPs are able to raise and debate issues based on real concerns rather than the simple rubber stamping of government decisions. Speaker of the Lower House and former general and key junta leader, Thura Shwe Mann, in a speech to parliament declared it the most responsible institution for promoting democracy and human rights and urged the adoption of legislation to protect the nation and its citizens. He also called on MPs to listen to the voices of the people and take strong steps based on past lessons.

Most recently, on August 27, several members of parliament, including from the bloc of military MPs that makes up 25% of parliament, raised the issue of a sweeping prisoner amnesty in the Lower House. The issue was reportedly forwarded for more discussion to the National Defense and Security Council, a body headed by Thein Sein. The military MPs may be seeking freedom for military officers, many who are former intelligence officials, imprisoned during a 2004 purge that also resulted in the house arrest of former regime Number 3 and military intelligence chief and prime minister, Khin Nyunt.

The issue of some 2,100 political prisoners is key for continued rapprochement between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi as well as improved relations with the West, particularly the United States. During a recently concluded visit by UN Human Rights Rapporteur for Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, government officials told the UN envoy they feared the release of prisoners would result in social unrest. The state-run New Light of Myanmar quoted Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint as telling Quintana, "Political prisoners will be released when they are certain not to disrupt the nation's peace and stability."

At the same time, other government officials continued the regime's traditional obfuscation of the issue. An August 26 article in the New Light of Myanmar quoted Chief Justice Tun Tun Oo as saying, "There are no prisoners serving a sentence for their beliefs; prisoners are all serving their terms for crimes they have committed." And Home Minister, Lieutenant General (retired) Ko Ko, disputed Quintana's numbers for political prisoners, claiming many were convicted of drug trafficking, murder, bombings, insurgency and other crimes.

Quintana's five-day visit was his first in 18 months and coincides with calls by activists for a United Nations commission of inquiry into government complicity in human rights violations, a movement Quintana started after asking for an inquiry by the UN Commission for Human Rights. After meeting with government ministers as well as Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, Quintana summed up his trip saying that despite recent steps toward rapprochement with the opposition, human rights challenges remain.

Indeed, the government may display more openness to Aung San Suu Kyi and allow more open debate of issues in parliament, but simple pronouncements cannot erase the distrust of almost 50 years of military misrule. Many of the generals who made up the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) now hold key positions in the cabinet.

In addition, holding 25% of seats in parliament, other former military officers hold senior positions in ministries and make up a large portion of the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The shadow of former military supremo Senior General Than Shwe still darkens Myanmar's democratic transition and many analyst expect him to take a behind-the-scenes role in the running of the country in a similar manner to China's Deng Xiaoping or Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew.

A power struggle between hardline former military officers headed by Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo and perceived moderates led by Thein Sein is believed to have stymied political and economic reform. Thein Sein and like-minded MPs are keen to show they are doing something good for the country and reinforce the idea that civilians and not the military are in control of the government.

Tin Aung Myint Oo's loyalists are wary of democratic rule and its potential for dissent. Some analysts, however, believe this rivalry was created by design by Than Shwe in order for no one leader to gain enough power to challenge him in his semi-retirement.

Cynical observers note that Myanmar's leaders have opened up before only to tighten up again once international pressure is off. There is some reason to believe that current moves are aimed at reducing opposition to Myanmar's desire to gain the chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014. Myanmar was denied the chairmanship in 2006 over Western pressure on ASEAN over the country's human rights record. The regional grouping is to make a decision on the issue in coming months.

Regardless of the reasons behind reform or hardline efforts to block it, there has certainly been an unprecedented openness in recent weeks. The government, encumbered as it is with former junta members and military men, cannot be expected to make a rapid shift to a liberal and open democracy.

Still, simple pronouncements and debates in parliament, unless translated to policies and action, will not give the government the democratic legitimacy it seems to crave. To be taken seriously by the population and the international community there must be concrete action.

Talks with Aung San Suu Kyi need to be followed up with inclusion of the NLD into national reconciliation efforts and the freedom to influence policy, even if as an outsider until the next elections. Unless the government can reign in the army in the border areas and restore peace on equitable terms with the ethnic groups, it is likely the civil war will continue and may even broaden.

Invitations to exiles to return home is a good step, if legal guarantees are extended, but without the rehabilitation of political prisoners in Myanmar's prisons, it will remain a largely empty gesture. This is a tall order, but without these measure, elements such as anti-corruption drives and economic reforms will not be enough to prove the government's legitimacy.

Concrete moves towards reform may put the government on a path that will be difficult to reverse without reverting to direct military rule and a return to pariah status. But then, Myanmar's military rulers have never shown a need to rely on logical thinking, instead making decisions based more on preservation of their power. This is now compounded by the interest of many generals to maintain their grip on very lucrative business empires.

[Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.]

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