Dismantling a dictatorship peacefully in Myanmar

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

(As Burma heads for an election on April 1st this analysis written in January is reproduced here due to its current relevance. The writer is a Sri Lankan journalist now working for IPS in Bangkok – DBSJ)

BANGKOK, Jan 23, 2012 (IPS) – As he dismantles a 50-year military dictatorship without a shot being fired, Burmese President Thein Sein is resorting to the political art of compromise.

Burma Democratic Concern ‘s Human rights day Demonstration in london 13 March 2012- pic By- Burma Democratic Concern (BDC)

The raft of reforms the former general has unveiled in less than a year has been reciprocated by Aung San Suu Kyi, the respected icon of the Southeast Asian nation’s pro–democracy movement, who has spent 15 of the past 22 years as a political prisoner.

Most significant was the Nobel Peace laureate’s act on Jan. 18 registering herself as a candidate for parliamentary by-elections on Apr. 1. In doing so, the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s most popular anti-junta party, healed a decades-long, festering political wound.

It meant that the 66-year-old Suu Kyi was prepared to move on from a major reason for her personal and her party’s political struggle – the refusal of the military junta to let the NLD govern after it had won a thumping majority at the 1990 general elections.

Suu Kyi’s decision to support the new political environment in Myanmar, as the country is also called, received a shot in the arm from a highly respected group of former university leaders – the 88 Generation Students Group – days after its members were released from prison.

The 88 Generation “will participate to the fullest extent with the government led by the president, the parliament, military, political parties and ethnic minority groups for the emergence of democracy, peace and development,” declared a statement released by the group during a press conference held over the weekend in Rangoon, the former capital.

“There are those who want to carry out reforms and those who are averse to reforms. We promise that the 88 Generation Students will side with the reformists,” Min Ko Naing, the legendary student leader who was slapped with a 65-year prison sentence for his politics, said at the Jan. 21 event, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.

Even Western leaders who were trenchant critics of the juntas that preceded the current administration are lavishing praise on the quiet, unassuming 66-year-old Thein Sein that would have been improbable a year ago

“I’m convinced that he (Thein Sein) is a genuine reformer, and more importantly, so does Aung San Suu Kyi,” United States Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a hardliner on U.S. policy towards Burma, told the AP following his visit to the country last week.

In some Southeast Asian capitals, comparisons are being made between Thein Sein and two international figures who played pivotal roles in ending oppressive regimes: Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and F.W. de Klerk, who presided over the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Such political stardom for Thein Sein, since becoming president of the quasi-civilian government in March last year, contrasts with a pedestrian record during his 40-year stint in the army.

“His fighting experience was not well-known in the army,” says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert currently living in exile. “He had a reputation for being obedient, a good manager, modest and less ambitious and less corrupt than others.”

“Yet, many of us believed that after he became president he would just follow what (former junta leader) Than Shwe would tell him as was the case when he was the prime minister,” Win Min said in an interview. “We felt he won’t bother taking such initiatives like he has done over the recent months. So it is a big surprise to me.”

After he set the tone for reforms during his maiden speech in the country’s first parliament in 50 years, Thein Sein eased the country’s repressive censorship laws, supported laws to legalise trade unions and engaged with many actors to shape the country’s economic and development policies.

Most significantly, Thein Sein also opened dialogue with Suu Kyi, her pro-democracy movement and leaders of ethnic rebel groups.

But as the ‘Wikileaks’ cables revealed, there were early hints of Thein Sein turning political reformer during military rule.

U.S. embassy officials in Rangoon reported back to Washington in June 2008 that Thein Sein, then prime minister of the junta headed by strongman Than Shwe, was portrayed as “smart” and “pragmatic” by Nay Win Maung, a leading member of Burmese civil society, who died this month.

The confidential diplomatic dispatch that followed the devastating Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 150,000 in May that year reads: “Nay Win Maung said it was Prime Minister Thein Sein who had appealed to Than Shwe to secure the Senior General’s permission to allow international and humanitarian staff to travel to affected areas.”

It is this record of Thein Sein that appears to have won over the Burmese rather than another glaring reality – the president’s tenure is underwritten by the country’s military, which has not completely eased the iron grip with which it has held power since 1962.

“This is our moment of change. A new dawn for our country,” Maung Thura – the country’s most famous dissident comedian, better known by his stage name of Zarganar – told IPS in Bangkok following his release from prison. “We should cooperate. We should look forward.” courtesy: IPS