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Conflicted peace prize for Thein Sein

Asia Times - April 22, 2013

William Corliss On Monday night, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a self-described independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, is scheduled to host a black tie optional, gala dinner at the Pierre Hotel in New York City to present its annual "In Pursuit of Peace Award".

This year's recipients are Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former President of Brazil, and Thein Sein, the current President of Myanmar. In addition to an evening of accolades and toasts, the event also serves as a carefully orchestrated fundraiser. The ICG's webpage detailing the event provides a window into the political economy of conflict resolution and rights-based advocacy organizations and dramatizes some of the tensions between their independence and financial sources.

Awards ceremonies cum fundraisers are a time-honored tradition adopted by several non-profits engaged in research and advocacy on human rights, press freedom and conflict. The corporatization of journalism over the past decade has left a gaping hole in the coverage of ongoing conflicts and abuses in the developing world, as belt-tightening consolidation of foreign news bureaus has stretched limited resources.

Fund-raising events provide organizations with the resources necessary to help fill some of these gaps. The well-heeled are often willing to part with their cash in exchange for the opportunity to hobnob with political celebrities and the personal satisfaction that comes with donating to a humanitarian organization. But these events often also feature a less altruistic dimension: in exchange for their financial support, corporate interests are given privileged access to politically influential global players.

Donor guests receive several perks determined by the extent of their generosity. The ICG website markets various table and ticket levels for this evening's event. A contribution of US$1,000 gets a donor in the door; for $75,000, donors receive "diamond" status, which includes a table for 10 along with access to a VIP reception with the honorees and special guests, in this case high-level Myanmar government officials.

The list of distinguished benefactors who paid for diamond status is exclusive and distinctively corporate, including oil and gas giant Chevron, specialist bank Investec, private investment firm Silk Road Investments and Thai state energy company PTT Group. Many of the attending companies are known to be pursuing business contracts in Myanmar as the country opens to greater foreign participation in its underdeveloped, resource-rich economy.

However, for those donor guests who pre-booked their reservations, Thein Sein's unexpected cancellation of his trip to New York means they will miss the chance to meet with the head of Asia's newest and hottest developing market. Aung Min, the Myanmar government's Chief Negotiator with Non-State Armed Groups and Senior Minister in the Office of the President, will accept the award on Thein Sein's behalf, according to a report in the Irrawaddy magazine. Aung Min, formerly a military general, now a civilian politician, served as minister of railways under the previous military junta.

The selection and endorsement of presentable "Pursuit of Peace" awardees entails significant risks for ICG's reputation and credibility as an independent actor. Slight flaws in awardees' backgrounds are necessarily overlooked. But in the case of Thein Sein, the blemishes have required an extreme makeover. Below is the biographical sketch of Thein Sein posted by ICG on their website for tonight's event:

Since taking office in March 2011, President U Thein Sein of Myanmar has pioneered a historic transformation of his country with bold reform initiatives. His leadership has seen decisive action towards improving Myanmar's relations with the political opposition and liberalizing past repressive laws. He has made significant strides in ending the country's decades-long internal conflicts, securing ceasefires with all but one of the ethnic armed groups. Key challenges remain to be addressed, a legacy of Myanmar's authoritarian past. These include: securing a sustainable peace in all regions, ending discrimination against certain ethnic groups, and ensuring that all in Myanmar benefit from the opening up of the country to the international community after so many years in isolation.

Thein Sein has a long and controversial resume. The ICG's abridged biography presents a few choice bits of his recent political career but glosses over many imperfections. Thein Sein is a retired lieutenant general and served as the last prime minister (2007-2011) of the military regime that ruled the country consecutively beginning in 1962. He served previously as regional commander of the Golden Triangle Region in the Shan State (1997-2001), an area where the military has been widely accused of human rights abuses in its fight against ethnic Shan rebels.

Thein Sein's government has received credit for reforming some of the country's notoriously repressive laws used to squash dissent under the previous military administration he served. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released under Thein Sein's watch. The new Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association Act has allowed for the first legal protests in years, though local officials still have sweeping discretionary powers over whether to accept or reject protest applications. A police crackdown on an unauthorized protest over a China-backed gas pipeline in Rakhine State on Friday was testament to the limited nature of the reform.

Yet many of the vague and arbitrary laws that give precedence to order and security over civil liberties remain on the books. For instance, state officials continue to use the Unlawful Assembly Act to justify detaining and incarcerating protestors and dissidents. The government also disbanded the Ministry of Information's illiberal Press Scrutiny and Registration Board, which oversaw the recently phased out pre-publication censorship regime, but provisions in a new draft media-related law has raised concerns that authorities will continue to control and sanction the press.

Thein Sein's reforms have not been limited to the political sphere. The new Foreign Investment Act has established a legal framework for a more open foreign investment environment. Two new land laws have provisionally bolstered land rights for small-scale farmers, though it is not clear that they will provide enough protection to end the current practice of land grabbing for large-scale commercial farming.

As ICG highlights, Thein Sein's government has played a role in renewing ceasefire agreements with 13 armed groups as part of a broader initiative aimed at fostering political dialogue. However, most of these groups entered into this so far ineffectual process as far back as the early 1990s. The long-term success of the process will likely hinge on the government's willingness to guarantee political rights in a federal arrangement of different ethnic states a concession the previous military government was unwilling to countenance.

While the truces have led to a significant decline in human rights abuses against civilians, military units have not withdrawn from ethnic border areas. Regular armed clashes continue in areas, including Shan State, where the government has ceasefires with rebel groups.

The breakdown of the ceasefire agreement between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 2011 is one of the most glaring marks on Thein Sein's supposed peace credentials. After 17 years of tenuous peace, the resumption of fighting in Kachin State has led to some of the most explosive fighting in Myanmar in the last 25 years. The renewed conflict has featured the use of aerial bombardments, helicopter gun ships and massive artillery strikes that have displaced an estimated 100,000 civilians.

The fighting has not been limited to the KIA. The Arakan Army, the All Burma Student Democratic Front, and the Ta'ang (Palaung) National Liberation Army all smaller armed groups situated in the Shan and Kachin States are now fighting alongside the KIA. Despite continued efforts at peace mediations, including those led by Aung Min, Thein Sein's stand-in at tonight's ICG dinner, the fighting continues apace.

In the view of many policy makers, investors and independent analysts, Myanmar, like Wall Street, may be too big to fail as a front-line state in Washington's "pivot" policy towards Asia. Despite the difficulties in implementing Thein Sein's "reform" initiatives into democratic practice, various interest groups ranging from the Sinophobes in the US Pentagon to Big Oil corporations to European timber barons have vested interests in portraying the fits and starts of Thein Sein's reform in the most favorable light.

This tendency to praise Myanmar's incomplete reforms belies the hard truth that political transitions from military rule do not always lead to democratization. Indeed, they are usually driven by a variety of forces. Unlike the groundswell of popular opposition that precipitated the recent Arab Spring, the current turn of events in Myanmar reflect a top-down, elite-led reformist agenda derived from the previous military regime's "Seven Step Roadmap to Disciplined Democracy."

The recent initiatives that Western governments and nongovernmental groups like ICG are so keen to reward are reflective of the decision making of a narrow clique of elite power holders, rather than a popular consensus. The evaluative benchmarks for reforms established by many Western countries reflect an incomplete, proceduralist understanding of democratization that emphasizes the importance of elections but pays little attention to the "guts" of a functioning democratic system.

Judicial reform and the establishment of rule of law are at best in their infancy under Thein Sein's reforms drive. After a five decade hiatus of a democratically elected Parliament, the members of the current still military-dominated body face challenges in making it an effective forum for meaningful reforms.

The European Union's recent announcement of plans to permanently lift its sanctions aside from an arms embargo dramatizes the West's willingness to reward Thein Sein's incomplete, if not insincere, reform efforts. The prevailing enthusiasm for his government's initiatives is wholly disproportionate to the extent of the actual reforms. Selling the reforms to the public is the domain of politicians, while cutting deals with government officials is the private sector's prerogative.

When ICG grants its "Pursuit of Peace" award to Thein Sein this evening in New York City, the organization will effectively perpetuate those political and business agendas while raising uncomfortable questions about its own credibility and independence.

[William Corliss, a pseudonym, has over a decade of experience researching Myanmar politics and conflicts.]

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