Burma opens to a round of applause

Author: Sigourney Irvine, ANU

The Burmese government recently pardoned 651 prisoners, an act that international media greeted with positive fanfare and applause.

It may be thought absurd for a government to conduct such a mass amnesty, and the reaction of the media may seem even more out of place. But for Burma, absurdity has long been a staple. In 2008, for example, its fear of Western incursion saw it refuse much-needed aid in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands of people.

Also, it did not escape notice in 2008 that the government’s release of 9002 prisoners included less than 10 political prisoners — a marginal concession unworthy of applause. This time around, the release of 299 political prisoners has finally tempered international criticism. The US will review its sanctions following by-elections in April and the EU has stated it will ease its sanctions.

But the pressure resulting from these sanctions and international criticism has already thrust Burma into the arms of Asia’s two emerging economic powerhouses, China and India. So, with relative economic stability already secured, what might be President Thein Sein’s agenda behind this sudden mass pardon? Many point to the hunger for credibility.

The government lost its modicum of credibility during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when it violently responded to protesters and imprisoned thousands of activists. This resulted in a ramping up of criticism and international sanctions across the board. But even though the government’s current game plan remains hazy, it definitely seems to be changing course. The moves to liberalise Burmese society have reinvigorated the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and have signalled a new willingness to open up and bargain with Europe and the US.

But the desire for respect as a liberal reformer seems to conflict with the government’s self-preserving conservatism.

NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who enjoys free press coverage under the new reforms, has run into government red tape during her by-election campaign. In a recent example, she was denied use of a football stadium in central Burma to conduct a political rally. And while many of the monks who led the 2007 protests have since been released in the government’s effort to pursue liberalisation, 48 are still imprisoned. The government has also prevented a re-ordination ceremony for the released monks in Rangoon, accusing the monks of harbouring a political agenda. Tellingly, the 2007 religious boycott of government officials is still active.

Another challenge is that the military continues to maintain the same power structures. This creates a difficulty in enacting reforms; troops in the borderlands continue to attack civilians, deaf to President Thein Sein’s orders and peace talks, and do not exist within the same absolutist chain of command.

At this rate, will Burma be a fitting ASEAN chair in 2014? Aung San Suu Kyi is hopeful, stating: ‘We have to take risks. We need the courage to face a future that is really not known to us’. Foreign investors are also hopeful. Singapore has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Burma to deliver training for reforms in its financial and trade sectors. Japan has also been quick to promise economic support and lock down trade agreements.

The atmosphere in Burma is optimistic and the role of the media is expanding, an important development for a liberalising country. And while the number of Burmese who know how to use the internet is still extremely small, the increasing prevalence of cheap internet cafes may change this.

Although it is important to applaud Burma’s progress, we must remember that in the midst of recent reforms, the Burmese government has managed to evade accountability for its past crimes against humanity. States such as the US, which have vocally supported a UN inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma, are now giving the government ‘a chance to demonstrate they have their own approach toward achieving [accountability]‘. Conflict continues in the borderlands and released dissidents still have a criminal record. Pardoned journalist Sithu Zeya said he had been ‘released with a rope around [his] neck’. Whether the Burmese government seizes this opportunity to face up to its past misdeeds and begin the process toward national reconciliation remains to be seen.

Sigourney Irvine is a graduate student in Japanese Studies at the Australian National University. She has previously conducted research in Burma and along the Thai-Burmese border.