Thursday, January 5, 2012

Burma (Myanmar) Clemency Hopes Dashed!

Those who awaited the recent clemency of political prisoners by Myanmar’s president Thein Sein were to be gravely disappointed when the order issued by the president failed to satisfy their expectations. By this order, the Myanmar president commuted death sentences to life imprisonments. Furthermore, those who had received sentences longer than 30 years had them reduced to 30 years. However, this means that those who are serving long sentences will be in prison for a long time to come.

This clemency has further disillusioned the opponents of the country’s newly instituted nominally civilian regime. Although it had undertaken unprecedented reforms in recent months, this step appears to be a step back.

The civilian regime is actually led by the men who led the former military regime. Therefore, it is still the same outfit in a new face which is ruling the impoverished nation. A regime which had been repressive as Myanmar’s cannot reform itself overnight. The president, Thein Sein, had been described as a reformer in recent months with the bold steps he took in altering the course his country was taking up to then.

Nevertheless, outside observers really cannot fathom what goes inside the ruling circles in Naypyidaw. Perhaps, Thein Sein is really the reformer he appears to be; or else, he may be implementing reforms in order to mollify the outside world.

If the first assumption is correct, Thein Sein may be prevented in implementing extensive reforms by the hardliners within the ruling party. Any regime which tries to reform itself has to overcome opposition from internal hardliners. There is no reason why Myanmar should not be an exception.

On the other hand if he is just playing for the benefits of outside world, he had been doing a good job in 2011. The break with China may have been due to the fact that Myanmar leader realizing the danger of relying extensively on one outside power. Myanmar is now expecting the Chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, which speaks volumes of recent gains in the region by the regime. Meanwhile, other international players such as India and the United States are trying to counter the rise of China with forging new alliances. India’s improving relations with Myanmar during the last few years is an important development in towards that end. Myanmar may be hoping to get the maximum benefit out of the geopolitical situation.

Whether genuine or not, Myanmar regime is expecting to mollify their people and also the outside world at the same time. Undoubtedly, their ultimate goal is to cling on to power as long as possible. The regime of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is inherently weaker than the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) as the former cannot hope to win a free and fair election against the latter. Perhaps the USDP is trying to divert some of the supporters of the NLD towards them by appearing conciliatory. They may be afraid to implement extensive reform in a short period of time in fear of things going out of control.

Myanmar has become the board for a political chess game involving the USDP, the NLD and various outsiders such as India, China and USA. The clemency was just a move by the ruling party. It is interesting to see what the next move will be.

Image: Hillary Clinton with Thein Sein, Naypyidaw. December 2011. US State Department.

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