Real change looks good in Burma

Last week’s release of 200 political prisoners in Burma by the government of President Thein Sein was a first step in the promise to free more than 2,000 political prisoners in that country. Since the government took office in March 2011, there has been a positive step towards addressing the move in the direction of greater freedom and rights. This was an electoral promise made in October 2010. Also, Mr Sein has publicly announced that more than 6,000 prisoners will be freed in the coming months as the process for political reforms is furthered.
This step is a positive change for a political system that has not only been brutal, but also opaque. In October 2010, Burma held its first elections in over two decades, and the former military-dominated party, Union Solidarity and Development Party, came to power.
In the initial months following the shift to a democratic government, there was speculation about the extent to which real change would come to Burma. The change initiated by the October 2010 elections has adopted the new 2008 Constitution, leading to the formation of both a Parliament and regional assemblies. Though these changes took place, the view was that the actual shift was not likely to occur.
In August 2011, the first high-level meetings between Mr Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi took place. After the meeting, Ms Suu Kyi had stated that there was an “opportunity for change” in Burma, highlighting that the promise of both political and economic reforms may actually take concrete shape under the Thein Sein regime.
While the release of 200 prisoners may seem a small step, it is a significant gesture. Within Burma, particularly the current government, there is an understanding that for effective change it is imperative to further national reconciliation among various political groups and individuals. This also means that the political prisoners since 1990 need to be released and their rights must be guaranteed.
Another change is that for the first time in over 60 years there is an opening up of the media, which till now, was handled very rigidly. But now various dissident groups have been allowed to express their views within the media.
On the flip side the human rights groups are not looking at this as a strong indicator and have asked the regime to release other prisoners of conscience immediately — a reference to those who have been imprisoned because of their race, religion, language, sexuality etc. It is also a common term used to refer to people who have been imprisoned for expressing their views, in an environment that does not allow for dissidence.
The significance of the changes shaping Burma is that the transformation is coming from within. For a lasting resolution to end political intransigence in Burma, the change must be effected from within. While it may be true that external pressure can help to some degree, it must also be recognised that the outrage felt by the international community cannot be translated into policy. For this, the change must be supported by the international community also.
This release is also being seen as a step that will help to normalise ties with the international community. The lifting of sanctions against Burma has been debated time and again. While the West saw sanctions as a way of forcing regime change in Burma, the view within the region was that sanctions did not actually punish the regime, but impoverished the people. For the West, this release will be a yardstick by which it will measure the sincerity and commitment of the government towards political change.
In fact, one of the clear indicators has been the change in the US stance on Burma — which recently appointed a special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell. In a recent statement from the assistant secretary of state for Asia and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell, there was recognition for the changes in Burma. He stated that for every step from the Burmese side a comparable step would need to be made by the US.

From the Indian perspective, last week’s visit of Mr Sein reaffirmed India’s growing ties with Burma. India’s offer of a credit line of $500 million to Burma comes at a time when the country is trying to initiate economic reforms too. While India has acknowledged the changes shaping Burma as positive, it needs to support Burma’s reconciliation process.
It is feared that the military after more than 60 years of rule in Burma, is not fully out of the scenario. With the Burmese military waiting in the wings, any sense that the current government is unable to handle the political reforms and the demands that it may unleash, will lead to the military taking a pre-emptive course of action. The Constitution has the provision for the military’s return if there is a view that the security of the state is at risk. If the political demands are unsustainable leading to a law and order problem, then the military’s intervention may be imminent.
While Mr Sein has shown a genuine approach towards the process of reform, there is a trust deficit within the government and also between the government and the people. Even within the government there are hardliners such as vice-president Thin Aung Myint Oo. He was associated with the junta. Such hardliners pose a challenge to the current reform phase.
While the release is a step in the right direction the road ahead is long and arduous. The support for this small change is vital from the international community and the regional neighbours of Burma to ensure that the little progress made in this direction does not go waste.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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