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Is Burma's 'Gorbachev' Really a Reformer?

President Thein Sein Visits President Obama May 20, 2013 (White House photo)

By Rena Pederson
March 9, 2015

When he visited Washington, D.C. two years ago, Burma's new president was being hailed as an "Asian Gorbachev." America's capital rolled out the podiums and cocktail receptions because it appeared a "Burma Spring" was underway -- or at least a winter thaw.

Thein Sein was lauded for opening the economy and freeing political prisoners such as Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The hope was that a new normal was at hand in the long-suffering country that military rulers had renamed Myanmar.

But has the former general turned out to be the reformer everyone hoped?

Not yet -- and this is the last year of his five-year term.

It should have been a clue when Thein Sein insisted, "I would like to say thatGorbachev and I are not alike, I tell you that."

Thein Sein's record is inconsistent at best:

• He allowed a human rights movie festival in Rangoon -- but Rohingya Muslims were herded into detention camps.

• He criticized corruption -- but contracts still go to cronies of generals and ministers.

• He said all political prisoners would be released by the end of 2013 -- but more have been arrested.

• He finally allowed the Red Cross access to prisons -- but humanitarian aid for thousands trapped in conflict zones has been blocked.

• He promised to allow the U.N. Human Rights Commission to open an office -- but hasn't.

• He spoke out against religious hatred -- then supported the ultra-nationalist monkWirathu, who has inflamed prejudice against Muslims.

The opaque President remains something of a paradox. His spindly, bespectacled appearance has contributed to the impression that he is a mild-mannered apparatchik, still beholden to the shadows of the old regime. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in her memoir that the stoop-shouldered leader "looked more than an accountant than a general." 

Observers tend to say Thein Sein is "less corrupt" than other generals and was "less ruthless" as a commander. Some say he is an intelligent man in a difficult position, trying to keep control while making incremental change. Others think his primary goal all along has been to get economic sanctions removed in order to draw needed investment, not to engineer wider political reforms to please the West.

In that regard, he has been wildly successful: More than 500 businesses are taking a chance on what used to be a blacklisted backwater. They have invested more than $50 billion since the military started liberalizing the economy in 2011. Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Ford and Hilton have rushed into the untapped market of more than 50 million. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken is looking for locations.

Still, it's not a good sign that a steady stream of reporters and editors have been imprisoned or attacked. One was beaten to a bloody, unrecognizable mass and shot to death. It's not a good sign that land is still being confiscated. Or that fighting continues in ethnic regions while peace talks stretch on. Students protesting the lack of academic freedom have been attacked on the streets by police and thugs.

In retrospect, Thein Sein's early embrace of Aung San Suu Kyi after her release from house arrest now appears to have been a feint to appease western interests. The President then repeatedly snubbed the democracy leader's requests for six-party talks about constitutional reform. Instead he convened a 48-party media event with barely time for participants to introduce themselves.

After he met privately this week with Suu Kyi -- the first time in a year -- local commentators assumed it was merely to give the government "breathing room" from criticism before elections in November.

When I asked popular comedian and activist Zarganar last fall why he thinks Thein Sein has not been able to effect more change, he thought carefully before answering, "I think he is afraid of his old bosses."

It's true, Thein Sein spent 45-years as a dutiful officer; he has a military mindset and military ties. The office of President is also weak by design. Notably, the Commander in Chief of the armed forces does not report to the President and gets to appoint three of the most influential cabinet ministers (Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs). A National Defense and Security Council, composed largely of military stalwarts, is the ultimate authority and can re-impose martial law. There was understandable concern recently when Thein Sein handed over executive and judicial power to the military in the troubled Kokang region on the border with China.

Thein Sein, who will be 70 in April and has a pacemaker, has said he won't seek another term. But in the time he has left, he could rectify issues that have taken the bloom off the Burma Spring -- by supporting human rights and press freedom, rooting out more corruption, increasing academic freedom, curtailing executive manipulation of the judiciary and supporting more than "gentle" constitutional reform.

Thein Sein is considered the mastermind behind current peace talks -- he initiated them and has nudged them as far as they have come. The military is derailing them, but Thein Sein might regain status by getting them back on track.

The United States could help by pressing him harder to uphold the promises he made two years ago in exchange for economic favors - before more time and an election slide by.

Rena Pederson is author of "The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of Burma."

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