Is Burma’s president a prize-worthy leader? The experts speak…
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Is Burma’s president a prize-worthy leader? The experts speak…

Burma’s President Thein Sein has bagged a number of coveted accolades this week, including the International Crisis Group’s top peace award, to be presented in April next year, and a spot on Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list, which he shares with Aung San Suu Kyi. The magazine praised his “willingness … to embrace short-term compromise and foster long-term reconciliation in what was only recently one of the world’s most isolated countries [as] something to celebrate”. Does everyone share this enthusiasm? I picked the brains of five longtime Burma watchers, and got an interesting range of opinions.

Bertil Lintner, journalist and specialist on ethnic conflict in Burma

There is no peace in Kachin state, and Thein Sein himself suggested that the UNHCR should remove all Rohingygas from Burma and put them in a camp somewhere, i.e. organised ethnic cleansing. In Shan State, there is, officially, a ceasefire agreement but skirmishes happen every day. In Karen State, there is also an official ceasefire but the area remains heavily militarised. There can be no peace in Burma unless they throw out the 2008 constitution, which is neither democratic nor federal, and get a new one, which is democratic as well as federal. And Thein Sein is not interested in that. There are some shaky ceasefire agreements here and there, but nothing then even resembles a lasting solution to Burma’s ethnic crisis. To give him a “peace prize” is outright stupid and just shows how naive ICG is in its assessments of the situation in Burma.

Aung Naing Oo, political analyst and deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute

I think it’s great. He deserves recognition. He has a tough job dealing with the legacies of the military rule. He has achieved so much. In terms of peace, for instance, although the Kachin have yet to enter into ceasefire, there is progress on every front. For instance, the amputation ward at 2,000 bed military hospital just outside Yangon is now just a store room gathering dust; before it had around 200 amputees, and this is indicative of how well the peace process is going. He is very open to discussing ethnic issues and grievances. I think if there is someone who deserves recognition in our country, it is him. And these recognitions will help him go further to cement his work on peace and democratization.

Khin Ohmar, exiled activist and chairperson of the Network for Democracy and Development

Thein Sein’s cynical maneuvering has left many outsiders with a skewed view of the realities for many people in Burma, especially those in ethnic areas. Military offensives and a plethora of human rights abuses by the Burma army started under his watch and are continuing with impunity in Kachin state, while humanitarian aid is blocked. Political prisoners are used as bargaining chips in a ploy to gain concessions from the international community. He does nothing as crony businessmen confiscate large swathes of land from the rural poor. He is allowing the Rohingya to burn at the hands of racist mobs while continuing to deny their basic rights. Thein Sein is not a person who promotes peace.

Cheery Zahau, ethnic Chin human rights activist

I am not convinced that Thein Sein has made his best effort to end ongoing armed conflicts in Kachin state, where the military’s actions are in breach of international law. His approach to the Rohingya crisis is not aligned with international human rights standards and has caused serious humanitarian problems as people continue to suffer. His government has not tried to eliminate racial or religious discrimination that is deeply rooted in Burmese society and encouraged by the policies of the former military junta. If the president envisages a peaceful co-existence of the many ethnic groups in Burma, the first step should be national reconciliation among the people that includes ethnic political entities. These steps have yet to be achieved. The president has the upper hand, but I don’t see persistence in the struggle to achieve democracy and peace from his side.

But I have no doubt that President Thein Sein has the goodwill to lead the country towards genuine democratization. He’s made risky decisions, such as halting Myitsone Dam project; he has granted amnesties to political prisoners and some criminals, although the continued lack of a formal judicial process shows that he has power over the judicial system, which is not healthy in the long-term. The president needs to push for institutionalized reforms on military, equal power at the parliament and a more democratic and transparent administration.

Nicholas Farrelly, Southeast Asia specialist at the Australia National University

President Thein Sein deserves high accolades. He is the central player in an historic and risky transformation of what was until very recently a wretched political system. Slowly but surely the system is improving, and with it the prospects of millions of ordinary Burmese. Nonetheless, it is early days and inevitably there are still plenty of problems. The ongoing war in Kachin areas and the sectarian strife in western Burma are at the top of that list. But there is nonetheless a real chance that those issues can now be resolved. If Thein Sein  ultimately manages to bring lasting peace to ethnic minority areas, deliver on real democratic reform and then gracefully retire from public life he will have the eternal gratitude of the Burmese people. And he may even pick up a Nobel Peace Prize along the way.