News / Asia

Burmese President Says Poor Governance Slowing Reforms

Burmese President Thein Sein delivers a speech at the President house in Naypyitaw, Burma, December 26, 2012.
Burmese President Thein Sein delivers a speech at the President house in Naypyitaw, Burma, December 26, 2012.
Daniel Schearf
Burma's President Thein Sein on Wednesday issued rare public criticism of officials, saying poor governance and corruption maintained from military rule were slowing reform efforts.  He urged a change of behavior to a "people-based development strategy".  But, political analysts say reforming decades of military misrule will not be easy.  

In a major policy speech to ministers and local leaders, President Thein Sein noted a remarkably smooth transition in the last two years from military to civilian rule.  

Broadcast live on national TV and radio, he touted progress in political and economic reforms that were attracting international praise and investment.

But, President Thein Sein underscored that Burma still lags far behind its neighbors both socially and economically and its governance does not meet international standards. He said the scale of the remaining challenges to democratic reform was immense.

He says success or failure, to have improvements in politics and the economy of the country, depends on the effectiveness of government mechanisms.

The president went on to criticize officials for poor governance and maintaining the same practices and mindset that was prevalent under military rule.

He said local officials in particular lack transparency, fail to listen to the people, and skirt rules and regulations.

The president says, as a result, there is corruption among officials and it is slowing government mechanisms.  Therefore, the governance and management system is weak and the characteristics and qualities of good government are also weak.

President Thein Sein took office in March 2011, just months after Burma's first nation-wide election in 20 years ended decades of military rule.

The former general, and prime minister under the military government, surprised critics by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, allowing unions and freedom to protest, and ending direct media censorship. He also embraced democracy and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a partner in reform after the military released her from years of house arrest.

Political analysts say his speech was a significant step aimed at maintaining the momentum of reform. However, it also risks upsetting military hardliners and others who have a stake in the old top-down system.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of Bangkok's Institute of Security and International Studies.  He says since the 67-year-old president does not plan to run for office again he can take more risks with his credibility.

"He has a mandate to push through these reforms and he does not have to be concerned, unlike Aung San Suu Kyi for example, of winning the election.  So, it's a bold move," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight.  But, it has to be clear.  He's setting the tone here.  And, we will have to see, if he goes too fast he could also be derailed.  So, it's a delicate balance that Thein Sein is trying to maintain."

To encourage good governance, and reduce public grievances, the president announced plans to form township level committees across the country that will be made up of officials, community and business leaders, as well as activists.  They will have the power to discuss, decide and implement local matters that were previously handled by township officers.

Aung Thu Nyein is director of the think tank Vahu Development Institute.  He says the president wants to move away from centralized power and military-led politics.

"The country need to promote meritocracy rather than, you know, appointing officers, you know, who are loyal to the government or to the military," he said. "So, until at this moment, you know, I found there are many retiree from the military you know are appointed again in higher position in the government."

Burma's past military rulers cited ongoing ethnic insurgencies as part of the justification for maintaining their grip on power.

In his speech, President Thein Sein noted progress with ethnic armed groups in setting aside differences to work with the government.  He said the country would not be able to enjoy peace and development without national reconciliation.

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