Burma’s rollercoaster reform ride is again sending mixed signals to the outside world. Within a few days, the country has been rebuked by a senior UN official for imposing “dire” conditions on the displaced Muslim Rohingyas, a former leader of the 2007 democracy protests has been re-arrested, and President Thein Sein has cancelled a trip to Australia and New Zealand citing domestic concerns.
This stands in sharp contrast to just two weeks ago when Thein Sein was basking in the diplomatic limelight amid the first visit to his country by a sitting U.S. President, Barack Obama, followed by him attending the annual leaders’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The Burmese leader won plaudits after he answered Obama’s call, freed political prisoners, presented a united national front alongside the pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and proved himself an able statesman on the international stage.
But his reputation has been tarnished by his inability to deal with internal strife between hardline Buddhists and the Rohingyas, which has forced about 135,000 people to flee their homes over the last six months with thousands seeking shelter in camps that the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, has described as “terrible.”
Amos also complained that the UN in Burma was facing funding shortages, had trouble obtaining the correct visas and was unable to get into the camps where they had hoped to improve living conditions.
Her comments were delivered as U Gambira – an organizer of the 2007 monk-led protests against the military government which became known as the Saffron revolution – went missing amid suspicions he was arrested due to his support for demonstrators opposed to a Chinese-backed copper mine.
His family has told reporters that police arrested him on Saturday night at his brother-in-law's house, took him to a police station and indicted him. Police told his family that he would be detained at Burma's notorious Insein Prison, however, prison officials have denied he is there.
U Gambira was released in January along with hundreds of others as part of Thein Sein’s political reform initiatives, which have been well received by the wider international community.
No major reasons were given for the cancellation of his trip to Australia and New Zealand, announced after both countries dropped travel restrictions and economic sanctions. Canberra has also recognized the government’s preferred name of Myanmar.
But Thein Sein obviously has immediate issues to deal with – not to mention the ethnic strife among other groups that continues elsewhere along his country’s borders – and next year will be pivotal to his reforms and in winning wider acceptance for his long troubled country. Without this, 2014, when his country will take on the chair of ASEAN for the first time, could be the most difficult of times.