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Precarious balance for Myanmar reform

Asia Times - February 15, 2012

Larry Jagan, Bangkok The future of Myanmar's reform process is in question as hardliners and liberals in government ramp up an increasingly bitter power struggle. Change in Myanmar remains fragile despite some encouraging reform signals and growing international goodwill towards President Thein Sein.

So far, though, President Thein Sein's good intentions have produced only limited practical change. Now, there are growing fears that the recent political gains, including the release of political prisoners and allowances for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to contest upcoming by-elections, could be reversed.

The reason is that the more liberal-minded ministers who support Thein Sein and his reform agenda are being cramped by persistent pressure from hardliners led by Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo and other ministers who seem intent to derail reforms despite publicly declaring their support for democratic change.

Analysts and activists are split on whether these signs of change are genuine or a smokescreen to hide the regime's real intention to keep the military in power for as long as possible under the guise of civilian rule. Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has so far tentatively endorsed Thein Sein's reforms but according to sources close to her remains cautious.

Much rides for all sides on by-elections scheduled for April 1, where 46 of parliament's total 664 seats will be up for grabs and Suu Kyi will contest a seat on the outskirts of Yangon. The NLD overwhelmingly won polls held in 1990 but the military annulled the results and maintained its grip on power. The party failed to register and contest the 2010 elections and was banned as a result.

Both the European Union and United States have indicated they may roll back their economic and financial sanctions with more progress on reforms, including the holding of free and fair by-elections in April. The elections should also provide clarity about whether government reformers or hardliners are on the ascendency as well as the pace and extent of future reforms.

According to one government insider's estimate, around 20% of current ministers are in the liberal camp while another 20% fall with the hardliners. The other 60% are believed to be sitting on the fence waiting to see and side with whoever wins the intensifying power struggle, according to the government insider.

Other observers believe that the apparent divisions and splits among the ruling elite, both sides with military backgrounds, are being well-orchestrated and stress that the nature of the regime has not changed. They believe that even though the old military guard led by former junta leader Senior General Than Shwe have retired they still pull strings from behind the political curtain.

"President Thein Sein is a puppet of the new Myanmar government's strategy known as the eight-steps," said Aung Lynn Htut, a former military intelligence officer who defected when stationed as a diplomat in Washington in 2005, told Asia Times Online. "Than Shwe still directs policy and controls everything from behind the door," he said.

Others with links to top members of Thein Sein's government disagree and argue that the new nominally civilian government is sincere in its desire to bring reform, development and peace to Myanmar after decades of devastation and destruction under heavy-handed military rule.

"Thein Sein and his supporters are motivated by a 'gentlemen's' agenda," Myanmar academic, writer and editor Nay Win Maung, who died of a heart attack on January 1, frequently said of the new government he personally advised. Old soldiers now in government and aligned with Thein Sein are now motivated by a new sense of fair play and public duty, sources close to the current Myanmar leadership told this correspondent.

Many of them now claim to have abhorred Than Shwe's abusive rule, including its mass corruption, international isolation and the tarnished image it gave the army across the country. To reverse Than Shwe's legacy is one of the key drivers behind Thein Sein's reform agenda, they contend.

Thein Sein recently told Norway's development minister that he had wanted to reform the country for a long time but was frustrated by Than Shwe's control, according to diplomats in Yangon. Thein Sein's wife told Suu Kyi that her husband wanted to introduce reforms for more than a decade but was powerless to do so, even when serving as prime minister under the previous Than Shwe-led military junta.

Pent up reformer

Some close to Thein Sein believe that the 2007 mass demonstrations by Buddhist monks against the previous military junta he led and the devastation and destruction caused the following year by Cyclone Nargis impressed on him the need for dramatic change, according to military sources in the capital, Naypyidaw.

Thein Sein was reportedly physically shaken by the devastation he observed when inspecting storm-hit areas and overseeing the government's relief work after Cyclone Nargis, a close aide to the president told Asia Times Online. Nor is Thein Sein apparently alone in this view: there are also many in the bureaucracy and military who are firmly committed to his democratic reform agenda.

"There are those in the military with honorable intentions and who want to be seen as improving the sorry lot of the people," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at the US's Georgetown University. These same soldiers have a strong sense of nationalism and strong desire to redeem the honor of the military, Steinberg said.

Reforms have so far been implemented in an ad hoc, personalized manner. For example, Railways Minister Aung Min now leads the government's negotiations with various armed ethnic rebel groups to sign ceasefire agreements. Some of the ethnic leaders involved in the talks who spoke with this correspondent say that they trust in Aung Min's sincerity.

"It's personal," an ethnic Karen leader told Asia Times Online soon after the armed Karen National Union (KNU) signed a truce last month to end hostilities and agreed to exchange liaison offices with the government. Trust with the Karen was built during relaxed drinking sessions at preliminary meetings held last November in Thailand's northern Chiang Rai province, according to a source familiar with the situation.

During one of the toasts, Aung Min apparently endeared himself to certain Karen representatives when he pleaded personally that the KNU refrained from attacking public railways. There had been several attacks on Myanmar's railways earlier in the year that were believed to have been carried out by the KNU.

Some observers believe that personalized approach could eventually backfire. "Everything appears to be the result of personal connections even the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the president," said a former European diplomat who has spent more than 15 years involved in Myanmar. "That is the major flaw in this whole process there is no overall plan so it can be thrown out overnight if circumstances change."

"Until these changes are institutionalized, there is a danger of them being reversed in the future, especially if corruption continues and there is violence," said Thailand-based former activist and development specialist Aung Naing Oo, who recently visited Myanmar for the first time in over 20 years.

The overriding concern of Myanmar's ruling establishment both liberals and hardliners alike is to maintain peace and stability during the political transition. Fear of renewed bouts of unrest could explain why the highly anticipated release of political prisoners was delayed for several months. Those fears also likely motivated the recent arrest and questioning of Buddhist monk U Gambira, who was recently released early from a 68-year prison sentence for his role in the 2007 uprising against the government.

Than Shwe's transitional plan clearly intended to delay reforms and pit military groups against one another in a divide and rule fashion. The 2008 constitution, which was passed in a sham referendum and embodies Than Shwe's vision for the Myanmar's political future, was intended to create a system of power sharing whereby no individual would become powerful enough to challenge his position and family's wealth. Than Shwe famously detained and harassed the family members of former long time military dictator Ne Win.

Than Shwe's new system also aims to create a structure that makes legal change difficult, including a requirement than over three-quarters of parliament must agree to make constitutional amendments. A quarter of parliament is made up of military representatives, giving the military virtual veto power over any proposed charter change.

Gentleman's agreement

However, Than Shwe seems to have failed to foresee that new President Thein Sein, speaker of the lower house Shwe Mann and army chief General Min Aung Hlaing would reach a "gentlemen's agenda" in ruling the country. This agreement has spurred an accelerated reform process that has gained momentum and moral authority through Suu Kyi's public support and upcoming participation in the process.

Often overlooked in Myanmar's evolving transition is the role parliament has played in the reform process. Analysts and activists widely believed that the upper and lower houses of the new National Assembly would rarely meet and when they did would dutifully follow a pre-arranged script much like the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) parliament in the mid-1970s did under Ne Win.

So far that has not been the case. Parliament speaker Shwe Mann was apparently devastated when Than Shwe overlooked him and chose Thein Sein as president, confining Shwe Mann instead to what was expected to be a rubber stamp parliament. To give parliament a more representative veneer, Shwe Mann has lent his support to Suu Kyi's and the NLD's participation in the upcoming by-elections.

He also reportedly told US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting at Naypyidaw in December that he wanted to make Myanmar's new parliament as good as the US Congress.

"We have taken the necessary measures so that the upcoming by-elections will be free, fair and credible," Shwe Mann told European Union development commissioner Andris Piebalgs, speaking through an interpreter, earlier this week.

The manner in which the by-elections are held, even more than the actual results, may indicate the future direction of the gentlemen's agreement. At the least, the by-election results will affect the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), which swept the November 2010 elections in a contest foreign observers said lacked credibility but is expected to face stiffer competition, including from the NLD, at the next general elections scheduled for 2015.

Thein Sein has unofficially announced that he will only serve one term as president; Shwe Mann has made it clear he would like to one day serve as president. To win a free and fair election in 2015, however, he will need to purge the USDP of dead wood and obstacles including hardliners like Aung Thaung, Htay Oo and Maung Maung Thein, according to Shwe Mann's senior advisors.

The hope among Shwe Mann's allies in government is that a lopsided by-election win for the NLD will provide him with the political excuse to clean house and purge hardliners opposed to reforms. If Suu Kyi wins a seat in parliament, Shwe Mann will be expected to allow her to become opposition leader. However, any strategy leveraging Suu Kyi to gain political ground against hardliners will be fraught with dangers and could open new divisions with those who currently support the reform process.

"What is remarkable is the way in which Thein Sein and company have reached out to her [Suu Kyi] since August last year [when they first met in Naypyidaw]," said Justin Wintle, a British academic and writer of a biography on Suu Kyi. "The signs are that this has not been a cynical move. One way of dealing with your political enemies is to co-opt them, but this is a genuine attempt to reconfigure Myanmar," he said.

Yet even this potentially crucial move reflects the ad hoc nature of Myanmar's still tentative reform process. If Suu Kyi is elected to parliament at the upcoming by-elections, she will quickly emerge as a challenger to Shwe Mann and the USDP's current dominance at the 2015 polls. "I know, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Shwe Mann reportedly recently replied to his son Toe Naing Mann, according to sources close to the family.

[Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.]

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