A Rough Road for Reform in Burma
Image Credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza

A Rough Road for Reform in Burma


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.

Rich Mookerdum
December 7, 2012 at 14:31

This is not the first time vile Burmese monks have engaged in politics.

The democratically-elected government of U Nu (1948-1962) also stared down at militant monks in the pay of politicians. The lay bouts in saffron robes would stage sit-downs outside government offices and disrupt public service.

Fed up with their puerile antics, the devout prime minister thundered: “If they don’t respect the precepts of Buddhism (which prohibits lying, slandering, gossiping and spreading rumours), then they are fake monks.’’

Another Burmese gentleman was also critical of the wayward monks.
 “Proportionately, we have more places of worship than any other country of the world and yet we are the least religious and the least cultured," said U Thant, former UN Secretary-General.

*We have a religion which forbids its priests to meddle in worldly affairs, yet some of our priests are political and more debauched than any other religious brotherhood,* he said.
 Unlike the mostly young radicals, the devout *Sayadaws* (revered elder monks), however,  are held in high esteem by the community.
 A monk’s place is in a monastery; disrobe if he wants to play politics.

John Chan
December 7, 2012 at 11:51

Burma was used to be smeared badly by the West, the West even justify their slandering of China by citing its relations with Burma as a proof that China was a low as Burma. But nowadays Burma is praised by the West as a new born star of western style democracy, even a sitting US President needs to make a historical visit to Burma in order to lift his international profile. The photo of the article is really telling, what a change of fortune for Thein Sein from a world despised despot to one can sit side by side with the leader of the so called western world democracies in a flick of switch.
Some lessons of the episode are:
1. The US can turn anyone into an ally or a tool in a blink of eye, therefore “USA has not allies but tools” stands true with time.
2. Neither the US nor the West has morality; in order to contain China, they will deal a devil they have banished relentlessly; therefore “ends justify means” is the motto of the West.
3. The US and the West can manufacture consense to label other nations good or bad at their convenience to suit their own needs, therefore the West is shameless.

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