Burma’s Leadership Tries Plan B

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Burma’s Leadership Tries Plan B

Desperate for international legitimacy, Burma’s new president has been keen to give the impression of change in the country. ASEAN shouldn’t be fooled.

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.