Change is in the air in Burma, according to many in Rangoon. Though how long until the winds shift remains an open question. ‘There’s definitely a Burmese Spring here,’ said a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), on condition of anonymity. ‘But whether it’s only an illusion, a false dawn as we have had many times before, only time will tell.’ Nonetheless, many in the pro-democracy movement within Burma are optimistic, believing that the new president, Thein Sein, is serious about economic and political change. Critically, this is a process that seems to include Suu Kyi herself, though for the moment it is very unclear what role she may play.
Recent months have seen the continual unveiling of signs that the country’s new quasi-civilian government is trying to pursue a genuine transition to democracy of some sort. The release of more than 200 political prisoners, including the renowned comedian Zarganar, was one of the most recent, and most significant, signals that the new government is serious about political reform. According to a senior government minister on condition of anonymity, preparations are underway for the release of at least 200 more political detainees as well.
Taken together, the movements made in the year since the new government was formed strike many as significant – though with caveats. ‘There is enough to make us cautiously optimistic, with the stress on optimistic,’ Steve Marshall, the head of the International Labour Organisation in Rangoon, told this writer recently. Almost the exact same tone has been struck by Kurt Campbell, the US State Department official in charge of the region. ‘I think it would be fair to say that winds of change are clearly blowing through Burma,’ he said in Bangkok in October. ‘The extent of it is still unclear, but everyone who’s gone there recognises that there are changes.’
The key to this process is the new president’s willingness to accommodate Suu Kyi. After their first meeting, in August, went surprisingly well, the rapprochement between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi has done much to set a new tone for Burma’s political future. ‘I believe we have reached a point where there is an opportunity for change,’ Suu Kyi told a small crowd of supporters gathered outside the NLD headquarters in Rangoon shortly after that meeting.
Despite a complete lack of formal announcements from the government, recent months have seen a regular procession of surprising policy changes. To mark International Democracy Day on 15 September, for instance, the government unblocked many international news sites, including those for the Bangkok Post, the BBC, and even the exile-run Democratic Voice of Burma, as well as the Burmese-language broadcasts of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Each of these had been systematically blocked for more than two decades. This move followed on an earlier relaxation of media censorship, including allowing access to Skype, Yahoo and YouTube. Local editors and journalists in Burma have told this writer that censorship has now been virtually lifted, except in a few politically sensitive areas. Tint Swe, the head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, which polices local publications, recently went on record calling for an end to all press censorship.
Still, articles on Suu Kyi or prodemocracy activists abroad remain problematic, though censorship decisions continue to change from week to week. A local newspaper recently published an interview with Aung Zaw, the editor of The Irrawaddy, but a few weeks later the Myanmar Times tried to run an interview with him and ran into problems with the censors. Further, although the press is being allowed to run stories about corruption, no names of the accused are allowed to be used.
Perhaps inevitably, there is also a new attitude among government ministers, according to diplomats and UN officials who have been dealing with many of these individuals for years. ‘Ministers are far more responsive than before,’ the ILO’s Steve Marshall said in an interview with the Daily Star.
‘There’s a real discussion now [about policy and related matters], unlike under the previous regime. Decisions do not have to be passed back up to be approved.’
On 11 October, the government even enacted a new labour law legalising trade unions and limited strikes – something that the former regime would never have allowed. For the first time since the SLORC seized power in 1988, the government is also making concerted efforts to tackle the country’s poverty. A series of UN-sponsored seminars have been held to discuss policies and approaches. New programmes are being designed, with the help of the UN and the EU. Poverty alleviation has become a term frequently used by government ministers when explaining government policy – a stark turnaround from the old regime, when Than Shwe and his generals used to refuse to admit there was a problem of poverty and food security in the country. The former UN chief in Rangoon, Charles Petrie, was even thrown out of the country on account of his public discussions about Burmese poverty.
Though many MPs owe their seats to the manipulated vote of November 2010, the Parliament seems to be beginning to function. Indeed, its role is becoming increasingly crucial, as the speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann, a former general, has been attempting to boost its influence – and, of course, strengthen his role in government at the same time, for an expected bid to become president himself in the next polls, currently slated for 2015. Meanwhile, debate within the Parliament is far freer than when it first met, in January 2011. Significant motions have been passed, including on the recent limited release of political detainees. Oversight committees have also been formed – along the lines of the US Congressional system – to make government more transparent and accountable.
The new relationship
The most critical change – and the one that is almost certainly doing the most to give rise to the growing confidence that change of some sort is really coming – is how the country’s new quasi-civilian leader is looking to involve Suu Kyi in the country’s political future. The landmark August talks and growing relationship between the pro-democracy leader and President Thein Sein seem to set the pace for significant reforms, and there is no doubt that the meeting signalled a shift, especially on the part of the government.
While Suu Kyi was obviously happy with the outcome of the talks, she has revealed few details of what actually transpired. There seems to have been a tacit agreement between Suu Kyi and the president not to reveal the content of their discussions. The two met privately – ‘four-eyes’, as Asian diplomats like to call it – for a little over an hour, and both came out of the meeting relaxed and smiling. More importantly, a photo of General Aung San – the opposition leader’s father and an icon of the opposition – was purposely hanging in the presidential palace in which they met, according to Burmese government officials. In the past decade, the former ruling general Than Shwe had tried to obliterate Aung San’s name and image, but President Thein Sein has pointedly shown his respect for the independence hero. ‘It was important to show the Lady [Suu Kyi’s common nickname within the country] that we are willing to work with her,’ said a government official close to the president on condition of anonymity. ‘We see her as a potential partner, not an adversary.’
In fact, a few details about the meeting have leaked out. According to sources in the capital Naypyidaw, the president is said to have discussed a role that Suu Kyi could play in the future. The meeting focused not on negotiations but rather on trust-building, with both leaders laying out some scenarios that could help the process of genuine reform and democracy take root. Even before NLD’s decision to take part in the by-election to be held in late December, President Thein Sein assured Suu Kyi that although her party is currently illegal (as it has been since new regulations were put in place in the run-up to the last election), it would be left alone and she would be free to travel wherever she wants.
According to a Burmese academic present at a preliminary meeting between Suu Kyi and a group of government ministers and advisors, the democracy leader was treated ‘like a VVIP’. She was greeted warmly by many – although not by all, and the hardliners opposed to President Thein Sein’s new era were said to be aghast. The president’s wife, Khin Khin Win, later invited Suu Kyi to an informal working dinner with other ministers’ wives; according to family friends, the president’s spouse is a keen admirer of the Lady.
Still, much will depend on the government releasing all of the political prisoners. During the August talks, Suu Kyi told President Thein Sein that there could be no movement forward without their release first. Since then, around 300 out of an estimated 2000 political detainees have been freed. The president knows that prisoner release is also the key to improved relations with the outside world, including even with Burma’s somewhat more lenient neighbours and supporters in ASEAN. Clearly the partial release has also smoothed the path for Burma being confirmed as ASEAN chairman for 2014 at the leaders’ summit in Bali in mid-November.
According to NLD sources, the president has kept Suu Kyi updated on the forthcoming releases of political prisoners. But the release remains a delicate and vexed issue. General Than Shwe has clarified on at least two occasions – post the November 2010 elections and just before Thein Sein took over the reins of government – that the release of political prisoners was not an option. Both Thura Shwe Mann (the speaker of the lower house) and Maung Aye (the vice-chair of the SPDC) tried to convince Than Shwe to release them, but according to sources he has remained intransigent.
Of course, the parliamentary motion to free political prisoners, adopted by a large majority, may have strengthened the government’s hand, and set the seal on the release of most of the rest by this December. It was highly significant that it was Thura Shwe Mann, the former third-highest general in the junta’s army, who steered this through Parliament. Thura Shwe Mann is strongly supporting the president, according to sources close to the former, seeing the issue of the release of political prisoners as something he can do that would make a difference, both domestically and internationally.
The freeing of these political activists is a necessary step in the democratic transition that Thein Sein says he is committed to, and as such an obvious litmus test. They have to be freed before the planned December by-elections. As important, it is widely believed that the president promised Suu Kyi as much during their August talks.
Less concrete but perhaps of even more importance to the current situation is the personal warmth that seems to have developed between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein. This could well set the stage for future cooperation. According to government sources, the two exchanged views on several personal matters. The president has intervened to save the house in which Aung San and his family lived in Pymina while he was leading the battle against the British for independence. It was run down and was about to be demolished. Suu Kyi is also said to have sent the president an old photo of the house, with her standing outside it as a very young child, in appreciation for his actions.
Also broached during the August meeting was Suu Kyi’s desire to have her youngest son, Kim Aris – who has visited her in Rangoon several times since her release last November – to come to live in Burma. Government sources have said that Aris will be given a Burmese passport in the near future. Diplomats in Rangoon who have met Suu Kyi recently all say she is confident about the future and optimistic about the possibility of genuine change. Thein Sein can be trusted, she is said to have told them recently, adding that he is trying to reform the country and needs support.
Dangers of failure
The current optimism needs to be tempered, warns a senior liberal-minded minister in the Burmese government. The hardliners are waiting in the wings to pounce, and if they are given an opportunity they will flex their muscles. These same hardliners – led by the vice-president, Thin Aung Mying Oo – were not happy to see Thein Sein meet Suu Kyi. Some ministers did not even know the meeting had taken place until they saw reports on the evening television news.
Again, whether the next big step is taken will depend on Thein Sein and the government releasing most of the political prisoners, including the high-profile activists. The NLD will contest the more than 40 parliamentary by-election seats, with even Suu Kyi running. The stakes remain high, however. ‘If we fail, we’ll end up in jail,’ said a senior member of the government recently, on condition of anonymity. Indeed, another military coup is always possible, particularly if the army can be convinced that the recent changes are not in the interests of peace and stability – as perceived by the army. For the moment, the army chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, is supporting both the president and the speaker of the lower house, but the army’s continued support is by no means certain – especially if Than Shwe decides to intervene.
Than Shwe has formerly retired and has no role to play currently in Burmese politics. Unlike Ne Win, who continued to be briefed by top government leaders for several years after his resignation in 1988, Than Shwe does not meet with senior military or government leaders. In fact, he recently rebuffed his main crony, the businessman Tay Za, who had been slapped with an enormous 50 billion kyat tax bill and sought the general’s help to avoid paying. But fears still remain, especially amongst ministers, that Than Shwe could lead a military coup against the government. Days before the 2010 election, the junta enacted a law that allowed senior military officers to return to their post and rank within five years of retiring.
There are also critical decisions awaiting the NLD. The party strongly opposes the pro-military Constitution – which was adopted in a sham referendum in 2008 – and the electoral laws that outlawed the party in the first place. But changes to these have already been proposed by Parliament, which could remove some of the most objectionable clauses, including softening the role of the Constitution. These new laws have also made it possible for the NLD to re-register as political party and contest the forthcoming elections.
The next logical step, then, would be constitutional change, before the general elections scheduled for end- 2015. And this is indeed possible, President Thein Sein is said to have hinted during his meeting with the Lady. ‘The future is bright,’ a senior member of the NLD and confidante of Suu Kyi told this writer. ‘If everything goes according to the game plan, Aung San Suu Kyi will be opposition leader [in Parliament] in the near future and president after the next elections.’ Few would have dared give voice to such optimism just a few months ago.