In Burma: a fake out – or real reform?

Longtime Burma (Myanmar) watchers say recent reforms may amount to a genuine democratic opening for the authoritarian regime, but critics dismiss the moves as a propaganda offensive.

After nearly a half century of brutal military rule, Burma's government, which formally made the transition to a civilian government in March, has made a series of reforms that could signal more than superficial reform.

Burma (Myanmar) is no stranger to public relations efforts. It periodically releases large numbers of prisoners out of "goodwill." In May, military rulers released some 14,000 prisoners. In 2009, the country released around the same number, but in both instances, only a tiny percentage were considered "political."

Still, the amnesty of thousands of prisoners, the induction of a parliament, the scrapping of a major dam project, and a number of other more minor actions – such as allowing a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's main opposition leader, to appear in government-censored publications – seem to indicate a noticeable shift.

Is Burma, a country that has been in virtual isolation for the past 50 years and is often compared with North Korea, taking steps to embrace democracy?

Burma's location, nestled between China, India, and Thailand, puts it in a key position to be a major regional player. When the military seized control in 1962, the country was considered more developed than Thailand. Now sheer poverty pushes millions to leave the country in search of work. The military held on to power by crushing any sign of dissent through detention and torture.

But in late September, Burma's new government turned heads when it announced that a massive $3.6 billion Chinese dam project would be "suspended" after years of planning because of public pressure. And on Oct. 12, the government freed iconic comedian Zarganar and announced that more than 6,350 other prisoners would also walk free in amnesty.

Zarganar was arrested twice for poking fun at the military and inciting violence, and served three years of an initial 59-year sentence. He told the Burma Today journal that the amnesty "was like putting lots of makeup on an old lady's face."

Out of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners in jail, Human Rights Watch estimates that the current amnesty applied to only 200.

Indeed, according to the state-run newspaper, only prisoners "who do not pose a threat to the stability of state and public tranquility" would be released on humanitarian grounds.

It was a step, but a small one, says Human Rights Watch's Burma researcher David Mathieson, and it was "disappointing, given the limited number of political prisoners released."

Critics such as Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma point out that criminal records of released political prisoners are not erased, and that there was no indication of wrongdoing from the government or a change in the laws that put them there.

Key players such as Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 1988 student protests, will remain in jail. "Leaders like these guys … have a lot of cachet and the government knows they can't control them. They challenge its legitimacy," Mr. Mathieson says.

Still, he adds, "the recent wider reforms have been uncharacteristic of previous regimes."

For example, until a new law was passed on Oct. 11, workers were banned from forming or joining unions under an autocratic 1962 law passed soon after military rule began.

Now, workers will potentially see "massive" benefits, according to the head of the International Labor Organization in the country, Steve Marshall.

This law would guarantee not only the right to join unions but also to strike, making it illegal for employers to breach that right.

The government has also begun unblocking news websites such as those of Reuters and the BBC. Press has been heavily censored in the country; dozens of journalists have been sent to jail.

Another possible reason for Burma's concessions is the dire state of the economy. Economist Zaw Oo recently noted that "many officials became quite dependent on the artificial exchange rate," but have since realized the magnitude of Burma's economic problems.

Some fear the recent reforms are all part of a propaganda offensive.

"Based on my current experiences, I dare not think changes are real and big this time either … the release of prisoners was just a sprinkle – way too little," said Zarganar to the local news after his release. Still, expressing that sentiment would most probably not have passed the censors a year ago.

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