President Thein Sein’s speech to Parliament this week, marking the third anniversary of his government, received a lukewarm reception among the Burmese public, adding to indications that doubts are growing over the direction and substance of the country’s reform process.
Why the subdued reaction? I would posit that the reason can be traced to the fact that for ordinary Burmese, life on the ground in Burma is not so different today than it was in the days when senior generals in full-on military garb ruled the country. An increasingly skeptical public sees a “new Burma” in which power remains in the same old hands.
The message from the “reformist” Thein Sein was intended to showcase his government’s achievements these past three years, but in this a tone of caution was unmistakable.
The former general stressed the need for a smooth transition and emphasized the ongoing peace process in ethnic minority regions. Other issues were notably absent from his remarks, and it’s not hard to guess why. The wide-ranging reform platform that he set out to enact three years ago is seeing a shrinking number of planks on which his administration can stand surefootedly. There has been no economic miracle, no end to politically motivated arrests and no change to the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the country’s political system.
It looks like the eggs of Thein Sein’s presidency are increasingly placed in one basket: the peace process with Burma’s ethnic minorities. His recent trip to Kachin State seemed designed to sell the government’s peace push, and indeed, ethnic reconciliation plays well with the international audience and donor countries. Even on this front, however, ethnic groups remain wary, distrustful of the powerful military and its proxy government.
It is important to note that the president also made no mention of clean government, good governance, anticorruption or poverty alleviation—all things he had prioritized in previous speeches, promising some measure of achievement on all of these fronts. He and his team know well that these are issues that they cannot possibly deliver on before national elections next year.
On the matter of amending the 2008 Constitution, Thein Sein could step up to the plate, but on Wednesday he only elusively offered his support for “softly and gently” amending the charter, and in the same speech affirmed that the military would continue to have a role in the country’s politics.
“Past history and current world affairs have shown us that it is of utmost importance for small countries like ours to safeguard our sovereignty and to rely on our own resources,” he said. “In this regard, it is vital that our armed forces are modern and strong, in order to defend and secure our country. Our armed forces will continue to play a role in our democratic transition.”
As much as what has been said in reaction to the president’s speech, the lack of much noise is equally telling—the excitement and expectations that were raised three years ago are gone.
Though Thein Sein in his speech claimed the country would “be able to steadily reduce the role of our armed forces as we mature in democracy,” that institution’s most powerful figure may not be of the same view.
The next day, as the country celebrated the 69th anniversary of Armed Forces Day, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing splashed water all over Thein Sein’s tepid acknowledgement of popular support for constitutional change.
“We have to respect the desire of the voters, 92.48 percent of the whole population,” Min Aung Hlaing said, referring to the percentage of voters who purportedly voted in favor of the charter in a sham referendum.
“The reform [of the charter] must be done following the law prescribed in [the Constitution’s] Chapter 12: Reforming of the Constitution,” he added, this time in reference to the part of the charter that gives the military an effective veto over amendments.
Unlike in the past, you can see the Thein Sein government struggling to sell itself to both domestic and international audiences. Inside the country, many people long ago stopped buying his high-minded rhetoric, but those words seem to have had more mileage with the Western crowd.
But even that sell will be increasingly difficult for the administration.
Over the past two years, the country has faced serious outbreaks of violence between Buddhists and Muslims, an issue that has had regional repercussions and brought international condemnation, with no end to the internal conflict in sight.
To make matters worse, the government seems to think a solution lies in promoting a nationalism that looks very likely to exacerbate the problem.
On Feb. 25, the president sent a message to Parliament requesting that four laws—related to religious conversion, marriage, monogamy and population control—be enacted with the purpose of protecting race and religion, and safeguarding the national interest. In prioritizing the “protection of race and religion,” the president risks stoking a nationalistic impulse in the country that could inflame tensions even more.
The latest episode in Arakan State, which has seen international NGOs flee the strife-prone region, should serve to further dampen the feting of this government as it enters its fourth year. Often overlooked by those eager to heap praise on Burma’s government is the fact that Thein Sein was hand-picked by Snr-Gen Than Shwe to succeed him and implement a laughably termed “road map to democracy.” The former’s true colors are starting to show, and his contrasts with the latter are far less stark than many would like to believe.
All in all, at the three-year anniversary of Thein Sein’s reformist government, Burma finds itself more divided than ever.
There are many more people watching the country than there were when Thein Sein was sworn in three years ago. Let’s hope they can see through the empty rhetoric and start talking critically about the reality on the ground.