Burma’s Junta: Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes?

Than Shwe

Than Shwe

Since at least the fake elections of November 2010, the Burmese junta has floated the fiction that it is now a “civilian government” with a real parliamentary process in place at the Potemkin capital of Naypyidaw, or “The Seat of the King.” Senior General Than Shwe, who “retired” in 2010, and his wife are said to have a Burmese royalty fetish, with only two chairs in their reception room. Visitors, it is said, must sit or grovel on the floor and use the “royal language” of the old pre-1886 Burmese court when addressing them. This may be apocryphal, but “Naypyidaw” does mean what it means, and the parade ground there features the three great conqueror kings of Burmese history.

General Thein Sein, now changed into civilian clothes, is Burma’s nominal “Prime Minister.” He is supposed to be the “reformer” behind the so-called moderate group now said to be on the ascendant. Since anti-sanctions, pro-junta apologists have always been seeing “young Turks” in the Burmese army, I think it is little more than a good cop, bad cop routine. But two weeks ago the controversial Myitsone Dam in North Burma was halted in response to “the people’s wishes.”

The junta also announced it would free 6,359 prisoners. The hope was that Burma’s over 2,000 political prisoners would be included in this “amnesty,” but the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, Burma (AAPPB) has said that only 207 political prisoners have been released so far. Prominent leaders such as Min Ko Naing of 1988 fame; Ashin U Gambira, the monk who led the Saffron Revolution in 2007; and U Khun Htun Oo are not among the released.

Famous Burmese comic Zarganar, or “Tweezers,” is.

In an interview with the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, Zarganar—with the charming insouciance of the true comic genius who can’t help speaking the truth, even at possible detriment to himself—said. “Yes, thank you, my health has been good, but since before I got on the plane [and heard about] the possible reforms, I got a headache and my neck began to hurt.” (I did all the translations presented here).

He added, “I can’t say that I am seeing any significant reforms, just because I have been released.” He explained that he “was allowed to read newspapers and 12-13 journals, so I could keep up.”

Zarganar had been sentenced to 35 years, of which he had served only 3. “Up to yesterday [while still in prison],” he said, “I sort of believed there might really be reforms, but today, doubt has entered my mind. If it is true reform, then why aren’t all the [political] prisoners released? The number released is miniscule. Even former Lt. General Khin Nyunt [imprisoned in 2004 due to an internal junta purge and corruption charges] should be released. These weren’t arrested during the Thein Sein government. If it’s true reconciliation, please let everyone go…I’ll put up my life as security.”

Zarganar said in other interviews that he needed to consult with Aung San Suu Kyi and that he would be traveling to see other political prisoners and lend his support.

About his arrest and jail time he quipped, “Since I was arrested for giving alms to Buddhist monks, I might have to excommunicate myself from Buddhism.”

Long live Zarganar, and all the artists and jesters.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kyi May Kaung is a poet, an artist, and an analyst of Southeast Asian politics.