Since Thein Sein became president of Myanmar (also called Burma) two years ago, he has won international praise for his attempts at democratic reforms. He has received historic visits from Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has praised Sein for “his vision, leadership, and courage to put Myanmar on the path to change.” And last year,Foreign Policymagazine named him Thinker of the Year. Now, the International Crisis Group (ICG) plans to present him with its In Pursuit of Peace award at a gala dinner in New York City in April, for having “transformed the lives of millions and brought us closer to a world free of conflict.”
A world away, in the remote mountainous region of Kachin in northern Myanmar, news of the peace award was greeted with horror. Lives in Kachin have indeed been transformed, but not for the better. Up to 100,000 have fled their homes since the Burmese military reengaged with Kachin rebels in June 2011, just three months after the new president took office. Human Rights Watch has documented the extensive use of “sexual violence, forced labour, torture and summary executions” by the Burmese military. One woman I met in a refugee camp along the Chinese border recounted how Burmese soldiers hacked off her husband’s legs with a machete before shooting him in the head. He was a paddy farmer who had returned to his village to tend his crop.
All this has had little effect on Sein’s positive reputation within the international community, which is willing to ignore the war in Kachin for three reasons: Sein deserves praise for reforms in other parts of the country, he has sought cease-fires with other ethnic rebel groups, and he is engaged in a struggle against military “hard-liners” that requires international support.
It is true that Sein’s efforts to open up the country have been shockingly sudden and far-reaching: He has eased censorship laws, held free and fair by-elections, released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of political prisoners, and made efforts to reform the economy through new investment and labor laws.
Of course, significant obstacles remain. One of them is the constitution, which still reserves 25 percent of seats in the parliament for the military, requires 75 percent of parliamentary members to approve any constitutional change, and practically allows the military to impose martial law on a whim. It also bars Suu Kyi from ever becoming president on the grounds that she was married to a foreigner. Further, old repressive habits have not fully died, as evidenced by the government’s heavy-handed reaction to copper mine protests last November, in which dozens of protesting monks were injured. Still, at least in the big cities, the change is dramatic. A population that lived in permanent fear of the secret police now talks openly about politics in Yangon cafés. It is clear that Sein has been a driving force behind these changes.
The second rationale for international praise -- that Sein’s government has pursued peace with the country’s myriad ethnic rebel groups -- is more questionable. Together, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities make up an estimated third of the population. Each group has a distinct language and culture, and many of them have never accepted ethnic Burmese authority. Three of the most prominent groups, the Kachin, Shan, and Chin, have bitter memories of the Panglong Agreement, a 1947 peace treaty with the Aung San regime that promised the groups “full autonomy in internal administration” but was never implemented. The agreement was instead followed by government efforts to “Burmanize” ethnic groups by suppressing local languages and cultures, discriminating against non-Buddhists in jobs and education, and destroying non-Buddhist places of worship. As a result, the government has spent half a century fighting myriad insurgencies around its periphery.
In his inaugural statements in 2011, Sein made the landmark pronouncement that ethnic conflicts are due to “dogmatism, sectarian strife, and racism,” and that the country cannot move forward without lasting peace. In 2011 and 2012, his government signed cease-fires with two of the largest ethnic rebel groups -- the Karen National Liberation Army and the Shan State Army–South -- and reconfirmed existing cease-fires with about a dozen other organizations. Sein’s chief negotiator, Aung Min, has outlined a road map for a political dialogue with all ethnic groups.
But events in Kachin cast a dark pall over the government’s progress. Before Sein came to office, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was already party to a cease-fire that had lasted for 17 years. The group’s political arm, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), had repeatedly attempted to hold talks with the government about the creation of a federal union, which would grant greater powers over local affairs to ethnic groups. The government rejected all the KIO’s proposals and barred it from registering a party for the 2010 general elections. At the same time, the group was told to turn its army, which numbers between 10,000 and 20,000 soldiers, into a pro-government militia. Unsurprisingly, the KIO turned the government down.
Accordingly, in June 2011, government troops moved into KIO territory near a hydropower dam site. Clashes quickly escalated into all-out war. The KIA admits to destroying roads and bridges and carrying out ambushes on government troops, in which they claim to have killed dozens at a time. However, accusations by the government that the KIA has committed “terrorist actions and atrocities” against civilians are not supported by any international observers on the ground. Indeed, civilians caught in the fighting preferred to take their chances by running into rebel-held areas and away from the government.
In mid-December 2012, Sein’s government launched a major operation using Russian- and Chinese-made jet fighters and helicopter gunships near the town of Laiza, the rebel headquarters. Amid mounting international condemnation, Sein declared a cease-fire on January 19 and was widely praised for the move. In reality, though, the cease-fire applied only to a small area called Laja Yang, which the army had already captured.
With government troops surrounding Laiza, fighting has eased and preliminary talks have been held. But, with the idea of federalism still an anathema to many among the military elite, the prospects for lasting peace are remote. In the meantime, the cease-fires throughout Myanmar’s border regions remain highly tenuous, and none of the rebel armies is even close to relinquishing its arms. Sporadic clashes continue in Kachin and, in recent days, the ceasefire in Shan State looks on the verge of collapse.
Westerners, still anxious to acknowledge the real progress that has occurred under Sein, has a third rationale for forgiving his sins: They are eager to envision him as a Gorbachev-style figure facing down military hard-liners who oppose his reforms and attempts at peace. Sein and other government ministers have repeatedly presented this picture in private discussions with foreign diplomats, observers, and journalists. It has been dutifully repeated in press accounts, helping Sein garner support for his leadership from an international community wanting to bolster his position against ”hardliners in the power structure and spoilers with a vested interest in the status quo,” as the ICG put it in a September 2011 report.
In reality, though, Sein’s reform process has been carefully choreographed to ensure the continued political and economic dominance of the military and ensure military officials never see the inside of the International Criminal Court. Although many among Myanmar’s “moderate” group may harbor genuine hopes of democracy, the majority were directly involved in the brutal dictatorship of Than Shwe.
The parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, for example, whose reformist credentials earned him a sit-down with Obama last November, was until recently considered “Burma’s dictator-in-waiting,” according to a 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. The former general helped to orchestrate the vicious crackdown on pro-democracy protests by monks in 2007.
Sein himself has a less murky personal reputation, but few men are more complicit in Myanmar’s dictatorial past. He spent four decades in the military and was a close confidante of Than Shwe, who personally chose Sein to be his successor before going into comfortable retirement in 2011.
In other words, the reform process was not some sudden blossoming of moderate spirit. The regime had grown tired of its status as an international pariah and economic basket case, and it feared a similar fate to those of the Middle Eastern autocrats during the Arab Spring. Sein was presented as a moderate reformer in order to rebuild ties with the West and win over domestic opponents. But he was installed in office only after Than Shwe had forced through a constitution and rigged elections that guaranteed the military’s continued dominance and protection.
The master stroke was the release of Suu Kyi. Over the last year, her global tour has made her a one-woman public-relations campaign for the regime and its carefully controlled reform process. She has rarely criticized the government’s treatment of minorities, even after hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship, have been killed in racist pogroms in the southwest of the country beginning last summer. While the Kachin rebels were facing some of the most severe shelling in late January, she was addressing a luncheon at the East-West Society in Hawaii. She made no mention of the civil war raging back home, nor did anyone in the audience ask about it.
Does any of this matter? Perhaps the motives of the military are irrelevant so long as the country is moving in the right direction. Perhaps Suu Kyi is right to play the long game and avoid controversial topics. After all, the momentum of reform might take the generals further toward real democracy and accountability than they intended.
But by supporting such a carefully stage-managed reform process so eagerly, the international community has effectively provided an amnesty for war criminals and corrupt despots, without any guarantees that they will stop launching wars against the ethnic minorities that are asking for basic political rights. If Myanmar decides to put a break on reforms in the coming years, Western governments will face intense opposition to renewed sanctions from their own companies, who are already making major investments.