Burma’s military ‘still in control’
TWO bored-looking soldiers stand at the corner of a busy Yangon junction, armed with sizeable machine-guns. In a state long dominated by the military, it is an unusual sight.
In many ways, Yangon is now a normal South-East Asian city: busy, noisy and grubby but also exciting and energising. In the Burmese parliament last week, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, now the leader of the opposition after many years under house arrest, made her maiden speech in what appears to be a fledgling democracy.
The new civilian-led government seems intent on economic and social reforms that will help the formerly isolated country find more of a place in the new world order.
So where are the once ever-present police and military? Is their absence another positive sign that Burma (or Myanmar, to use its official government name) is moving towards a future characterised by democracy, human rights and economic improvement?
Not according to Thein Won Maung, a senior member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who recently returned to Myanmar after more than 20 years in exile, who is convinced the military state apparatus has merely gone underground.
“People don’t see a heavy police or military presence on the streets, and assume it is part of the positive changes going on,” he says. “But there are government informers everywhere – in hotels, restaurants and in the street – watching where you go and who you meet.”
And some believe the release and triumphant return of the charismatic Suu Kyi to frontline politics may only have served to make the situation worse for many Burmese by creating an illusion of change not borne out by reality.
There are fears that “The Lady” herself could be a problem for Burma rather than the natural solution many perceive her to be. The Myanmar Times reported this month that her global fame risked “eclipsing new stars” and could thwart the rise of a new generation of leaders. Suu Kyi will be 70 in the year of the pivotal 2015 elections.
The transition to a democracy began in earnest in January when a quasi-civilian government ended the military regime that seized power in 1989 and began political reform.
Suu Kyi, the NLD leader freed from house arrest in 2010, won a seat in parliament in April by-elections, along with 40-plus party colleagues.
Her subsequent election and triumphant tour of Europe in June was soon followed by the significant United States decision to suspend most economic sanctions against Myanmar. In a carefully choreographed series of events, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then met Myanmar president U Thein Sein in Cambodia and US corporates went to Myanmar to talk business.
However, the sense that the machinery of state remains all-pervasive is borne out by a report in the New Light Of Myanmar, a pro-government English-language newspaper. It reports a question by U Nyan Lin on falling standards of state worship in cinemas. He asks “if there is any plan to cure the situation as people hardly salute the state flag in cinemas”.
Since 2006, a reminder has flashed on screen, in Burmese and English, to remind cinema-goers of their responsibility before the flag appears. “In the past, law enforcement police were assigned at cinemas to search out those who did not salute to the state flag,” the report says. “They were taken out of the cinema and fined.”
In the light of recent non-compliance, the Home Affairs Ministry has issued orders that such behaviour will no longer be tolerated. Educative “signboards” reinforcing the message will be installed at “visible places” and loudspeaker announcements made. Cinema owners are being advised to hire “supervisory staff” to urge the audience to salute the flag.
This North Korea-style approach is at odds with the positive picture of Myanmar currently presented in the West. Asked if he and NLD colleagues are optimistic about the future, Thein Won Maung replies: “Not optimistic – very concerned. These changes are not meaningful. The dropping of sanctions has come too quickly and plays into the hands of the government. They need the investment but there are no guarantees these changes will lead to real democracy and human rights.”
Human Rights Watch has criticised the US for failing to impose stringent conditions, while the Burma Campaign UK says human rights issues are being talked down and positive changes talked up due to investment opportunities.
The EU suspended sanctions in April and a blue-chip UK trade delegation – including Rolls-Royce, BP, British Gas and Ernst & Young – has visited Myanmar.
Thein Won Maung urges caution and is blunt in his assessment of the government’s intentions. “There is no chance that the military will allow the democratic parties to form a government if they win the full election in 2015,” he said.
Even staunch supporters fear too much expectation is placed upon Suu Kyi. Dr Cynthia Maung, de facto leader of the enormous exiled Burmese community in Mae Sot, Thailand, says: “There are huge expectations of what she can do, especially in the West – too much on one person’s shoulders.”
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