News / Asia

Observers Doubt Burmese Government's Overtures

Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein pose for photos before their meeting at the presidential office in Naypyitaw, August 19, 2011
Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein pose for photos before their meeting at the presidential office in Naypyitaw, August 19, 2011

Burma's normally defiant authorities have in recent weeks been welcoming their domestic and international critics for candid discussions. They have also slightly loosened their iron-clad grip on the media, leading observers to speculate on whether authorities could be softening their hard-line position. Analysts and rights activists have welcomed the moves but have dismissed suggestions that it represents any substantive change.

The United States special envoy for Burma, Derek Mitchell, is in the country this week meeting with representatives of the military-dominated government, the political opposition and activists.

Mitchell's visit is his first as U.S. special envoy and the latest in a series of meetings between authorities in Burma and their critics.

In August, Burma allowed the visit of United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana.

He has been spear-heading calls for a U.N. commission of inquiry for possible crimes against humanity and was previously denied requests to visit.

Burmese President Thein Sein also met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent almost two decades under house arrest for challenging military rule and was just released last year.

Both leaders described the talks as friendly.

Will Thein Sein be a reformer?

Carl Thayer is a professor of politics at Australia's University of New South Wales. He says the diplomatic moves by Thein Sein's government have raised hopes that he might become a historic reformer like South Africa's apartheid-era president, Frederik Willem de Klerk.

"It shows the president in a new light. People are debating whether he's a puppet of Than Shwe, the military man behind the scenes, or whether he's the F.W. de Klerk who is going to usher in a new period. I think we shouldn't be too premature in seeing 'the opening' occurring but we can see positive trends and then speculate as to the reasons for them,"

In recent weeks, President Thein Sein called for peace talks with rebel groups, invited political exiles who fled persecution to return home, and set up the government’s first human rights commission.

Journalists were for the first time invited to observe legislative debates.

Burma's strict censors also allowed some positive media reports about Aung San Suu Kyi and toned-down regular propaganda condemning the BBC, VOA and other western media.

Are changes real?

However, political analysts and rights activists point out military leaders have taken similar actions in the past only to reverse course when it suits their purpose.

At least one dissident journalist who took Thein Sein’s offer and returned to the country was immediately detained and questioned at the airport.

And authorities punished a local journal that published Aung San Suu Kyi’s first interview in years with a domestic publication.

Benjamin Zawacki, a Burma researcher for Amnesty International, says any hints of reform in Burma should be greeted with skepticism.

"And so, we've seen this before, perhaps as a concession on the part of the government, perhaps as a means of deflecting international criticism. But, it has not ever translated into real progress on the ground in human rights," said Zawacki. "And, I think the real measure of whether or not these moves on the part of the government are real or simply strategic or simply window dressing will be determined by actual events on the ground.”

Zawacki notes more than 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma despite ongoing international pressure.

'Polishing international image'

He says authorities are polishing their international image in hopes of getting western economic sanctions lifted.

Burma also wants to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. It was previously pressured out of its turn in the prestigious role so as not to embarrass the regional group.

Burma has for decades been dominated by the military and its fight against ethnic rebels seeking autonomy. The result has been tight controls on society and one of the world's worst human rights records.

'Military still in control'

Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based author on politics in Burma, says the military is still firmly in control. He say only internal disobedience will bring about real political change. Lintner points out that dissent within the ranks was crucial for bringing down former military governments in South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

"And I cannot see Burma changing in any other way," he said. "As long as the military remains united, and they are very united, there won't be any fundamental changes of the present power structure in the country. And, certainly, no steps toward real democracy."

Elections in 2010 brought Thein Sein to power but were widely condemned as a sham designed to cement harsh military rule in the guise of democracy.

Even before the vote, the military-drafted constitution gave it a quarter of all seats in parliament. And the polls were marred by fraud and intimidation.

The main opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, boycotted the election because of unfair rules that banned her from running for office.

The NLD won Burma’s previous election in 1990 by a landslide but the military refused to give up power.

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs