Burma's Leadership Tries Plan B
Image Credit: Peerapat Wimolrungkarat

Burma's Leadership Tries Plan B


In May, I wrote in The Diplomat how Burma’s new dictator had experienced a tough start to his presidency. Rigged elections held last November, and then the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, were part of a plan by the dictatorship to gain acceptance by the international community. When Burma’s new parliament opened and Thein Sein made a grand speech promising change, he was undoubtedly hoping that his government would finally gain the legitimacy it craves. 

But things didn’t go according to planned. First, the United States, the European Union, and Canada refused to relax economic sanctions. Then came the blow that must have hurt most of all: the Association for Southeast Asian Nations delayed a decision on whether Burma could assume chairmanship of the organisation when its turn comes in 2014.

Now Thein Sein is back with Plan B, a new charm offensive designed to create the impression of change, while so far not making any actual changes at all. A flurry of new initiatives took place over the summer. Talks were held with Aung San Suu Kyi, first with Aung Kyi, a specially assigned liaison minister, and then with President Thein Sein himself. Slogans attacking exiled media organisations were dropped from state-owned newspapers, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to travel outside Rangoon, political exiles were told they could return home, and there was an offer of a ceasefire to armed ethnic political groups.

Then, last week, the UN Special Rapporteur was allowed back into Burma, after effectively being banned after calling for the United Nations to establish a commission of inquiry into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. In a masterstroke, he was taken to the new parliament, a move seen by many as conferring legitimacy on that powerless rubber stamp affront to democracy.

These series of initiatives have generated great excitement in diplomatic circles and in the media. But if one goes through them one by one, two extraordinary things stand out. First, not one of these initiatives is substantive, and, second, not one of them is even new.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s democracy movement have identified three top priorities for change: the release of political prisoners, a nationwide ceasefire and genuine dialogue. Despite all the recent initiatives, and all the positive attention they’ve received, not one political prisoner has been released, and indeed two more were sentenced last week. Thein Sein’s government has been breaking ceasefire agreements, not making new ones, and there have been talks but still no dialogue process.

For those of us who have followed Burma for many years, there’s also an eerie sense of déjà vu. Thein Sein hasn’t taken any steps that his predecessors Than Shwe or Ne Win hadn’t already taken. They didn’t lead to change then, and they should be treated with scepticism now. The only thing that is new is that these initiatives have come so close together.

This haste could be explained by Thein Sein’s desperate desire to win the ASEAN chairmanship. Plan B appears to be presenting the impression of change, without doing anything at all different.

In May, I argued that ASEAN could use the chairmanship as an opportunity to force Thein Sein to make small steps toward real reform. That opportunity is still there today. ASEAN didn’t accept the elections and release of Aung San Suu Kyi as substantive change and it shouldn’t accept this charm offensive as substantive change either.

ASEAN must hold its ground and force Thein Sein to resort to Plan C, namely actual substantive steps, such as the release of political prisoners. ASEAN can offer Thein Sein what he wants, and that’s far too much leverage to be given away cheaply.

Baroness Glenys Kinnock is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma, in the British Parliament. She is a former minister in the British Foreign Office and a former MEP.

plan B
January 17, 2012 at 04:23

The simple fact that this present government of Thein Sein is but an extension of continued SPDC control must surely remind the west of:

1) Myanmar does not need any west input let alone legitimacy, an absolutely empty, yet self aggrandizement for the west to survive.

2) Crusoe mentality of approaching,or rather ignoring a culture and thus precipitated decades of useless careless policy.

3) Still ignoring the most important factor, the plight of the Citizenry of Myanmar.

Myanmar is the total sums of 3. The citizenry of Myanmar is the most important part.

Focusing on the other parts, such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and now this government dubious intent, has let us to this present quagmire.

There’s a long overdue need to focus on the Citizenry of Myanmar well being.

September 2, 2011 at 21:46

The problem is that the Thein Sein regime won’t bother to lose the ASEAN chairmanship. And it is also neither a bargaining position nor a leverage of the ASEAN at this juncture. It has been nearly 50 years that the military in Burma ruled the country quite comfortably and the so-called international community simply shouted for nothing. The current crisis in Burma happens because true leaders of the country such as General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi was assassinated with the British help just before Burma got its independence. How can the Burmese trust the British such as Kinnock? But, those who have been traditionally loyal to the British such as Karens will trust the British. What Kinnock needs to know is that the All Party Group she has been chaired and the so-called Burma Campaign UK, who simply taking advantages out of Burma’s crisis, simply making money out of the sacrifices of genuine activists in Burma need to behave.

THE EU or PU ( Stink )
September 2, 2011 at 21:36

People like this Baroness are dinosaurs.

They want the anti- Burma lobby to continue and collect donations.

In the same token the new government is looking for the free ride
they have no proper representation in the west. Their story is silent

The EU and the West have a different set of ways to make things happen.
Up until now Burma, and their foreign ministry have waited too long to act.

The Baroness, would love to see a Libyian situation inside Burma.
That is not going to happen

Thaw Reh
September 2, 2011 at 17:44

The more military try for its safety by oppressing mean, the more in-secure for themselves.

The most secured for all is to bring Burma’s politics to the main road which is inclusive and shape the future together. Military officials can do this. After this all will be safe – the military officials, opposition and citizens, ALL.

In case military persist on applying oppressing in seeking its security, Burma may turn into second Libya one day!

September 2, 2011 at 09:16

Just hope the Junta let reforms take place. The People need to be taken care of and assured adequate Education, healthcare, and basic human rights.

September 2, 2011 at 02:14

The changes that we are going to see in Myanmar have just started. Thein Sein has been in power for only 150 days! I do not know Mrs. Kinnocks record as a politician, but based on her comments it appears that she belong to the British lobby that does not want to admit any changes in Myanmar, whatsoever. At a recent event to launch his new book “Where China meets India”, Thant Myint-U, well known critical Burma watcher, described the situation now unfolding in the country as unprecedented in the history of Myanmar. I have been dealing with issues related to Myanmar for over 20 years of which several as resident of the country and I can say for sure that Ms. kinnock is wrong and Thant Myint-U is right.

September 1, 2011 at 18:24

We are very much concern that this could become a charm offensive.We really like to see our country all united like in Malaysia and Singapore where citizens of all races live peacefully.

Awng La
September 1, 2011 at 16:36

Difficult to agree when the western countries + UN Envoys are the ones who are groveling to come and meet Thein Sein and not the latter trying to please the international audience.

Mon Ethnic
September 1, 2011 at 14:24

I greatly appreciate your concern on our country,Burma. Your opnion is lack of bias and it reflects current reforms in the country. Let’s pray to become truly changes for our generation. Cheers!!!

Formal internally displaced person
August 31, 2011 at 23:43

For sure we all are looking forward to change, and it is great that Thein Sein is trying to make that happen.

While the economy is growing, and levels of domestic investment in industry are rising, one must not forget about one of the most important issues that Burma has faced for decades—systematic human rights abuses that the people of Burma have to endure at the hands of the Burmese military regime for decades.

While Thein Sein urges the exiled Burmese to come home and work together for the better, he cannot forget about hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). These people have no safe place to live and are basically nomads in Burma’s jungle. And then of course, there are the refugees who have to seek safer place at the borders with the neighboring countries. One has to ask, is this invitation also extended to the IDPs and the refugees?

Thein Sein is responsible to stop the war and order his troops to withdraw from the ethnic areas so that all the IDPs can come back and live in their villages safely and so that there will be no need for the refugees to have to live on foreign soil. I’ve been an IDP for 12 years and a refugee for 17 years, so know too well about such experiences.

If Thein Sein is sincere enough for change, why does it seem that he has no intention of releasing the 1995 political prisoners? What does he have to be scared of? Many of these political prisoners have the potential to help make a difference and contribute to the changes for Burma.

Remember Burma is an ethnically diverse country. One might perceive the ethnic resistance groups as rebels, but I can tell you such resistance is just to protect ourselves from the massive and brutal human rights abuses. We want to live a life as human beings, not be killed like animals.

Therefore, the article above is a relevant for eye-opening information about the current situation in Burma. The people of Burma deserve to live in peace, freedom and dignity.

Ko Thein Han - Institute of Economics, Yangon
August 31, 2011 at 23:35

In recent weeks, Myanmar government made some kind of show for progress for changes. Thein Sein, Nominal President meet with Aung San Su Kyi. They put up the photo of General Aung San, Burma Independence Hero and father of Aung San Su Kyi behind the meeting scence. Aung San’s photo was removed from government offices since 1988. People are happy to see their national leader back again in the office. Myanmar peoples were very happy to see the unity between Aung San Su Kyi(NLD) and Military leaders to make the changes for the country. The whole nation welcome it . It is just hoping and Nobody can know the real motive behind it because Than Shwe is still behind the curtain and pulling the ropes. Thein Sein has to play according to his master’s mind. This can be for real changes or for show to cheat the ASEAN and the world again. But international community or Burma / Myanmar peoples cannot be fooled again. We have to wait and see what is the real. But until now, there is no much difference between the military junta(SPDC) and Thein Sein’s government. Aung San Su Kyi should continue her nation wide political tour. EU, US should keep on continue their sanction until concrete reforms can be seen. ASEAN, China, India should not support the human right abusers. Instead, They should support Myanmar people. Myanmar cannot continue without political and economic reforms. It will reform within five years by any means. Government reforms or Myanmar people will reforms by their own means , by any means within five years.

August 31, 2011 at 18:39

This is just another article repeating the claims of the anti-burma lobby, whose existence requires making a lot of noise so as to keep the donations coming in.

As an ex-pat in Myanmar for 10 years, I firstly do not deny that the anti-burma lobby, have had a role to play, but that role is coming to an end.

The gov’t under President Thein Sein is enacting meaningful reform, however his job is not an easy one, and he faces opposition from the hardliners notably his VP, and certain other ministers, who are continually attempting to undermine him. The President however deserves support from the int’l community, as this will assist him in moving forward, and also derail the attempts of others to maintain the status quo.

What’s more many Myanmar people are confident in the sincerity of reform. Economic growth is occurring, and levels of domestic investment in industry are rising, now that the fear of expropriation by gov’t is reducing.

I have many Myanmar friends who are now looking to start new businesses and are seeking investment funds, preferably from overseas. However with the continuing of economic sanctions, it is difficult to find investors.

The debate on currency reform is happening in a meaningful way, including with economists that are members of the NLD, and would previously not have been listened to.

There is still much that needs to be done, but the country is finally on the right path, and needs to be supported and assisted to ensure it continues.

Articles such as Baronness Kinnock’s above, do nothing to enhance the discussion about Myanmar, and do the majority of the population a great disservice.

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