Dam and Ethnic Disputes Threaten to Undermine Credibility of Burma’s President

Representatives of Burma's government and the KNU meet.

Representatives of Burma’s government and the KNU meet.

In order to open up trade with Burma, the West would love to think that the reforms of Burma’s President Thein Sein are for real and won’t be rolled back. As do, of course, the citizens of his own country. After all, as recently as 2011, Burma scored 1.5 out of 10 in the Corruption Perceptions Index run by Transparency International (10 is cleanest). The State Peace and Development Council — the ruling junta — was only dissolved in 2011 to provide it with a democratic (or less tyrannical) front, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. Nevertheless, they took a hit in the recent elections, which were comparably honest, in itself an achievement for Burma.

At Asia Times Online, Brian McCartan reports that on April 3 Aung San Suu Kyi’s

… National League for Democracy (NLD) had won 43 of the 44 seats it contested, including [Suu Kyi's] constituency. … The result was a clear defeat for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and. … sent the signal that the NLD will be a force to reckon with in the 2015 general elections.

However “Thein Sein and his reform-minded allies can afford to allow Suu Kyi and the NLD the victory. The 43 seats won by the NLD amount to less than 7% of the 644 seats in parliament.” His “reformist credentials have been further burnished through the legitimization provided by Suu Kyi and the NLD’s participation in the polls. The real prize is the elections due in 2015, when the NLD will be able to challenge the USDP for control of parliament. … The military and the government are surely aware of their own unpopularity. They know that to win the 2015 elections they will either have to resort to vote-rigging and intimidation, which would draw the ire of the international community, or find a way to undermine support for the NLD. The alternative is to resort to military power, through a coup or other intervention in the name of national security, to secure their hold on executive and legislative power.

Or Thein Sein could take a kinder, gentler (or less ruthless) approach:

… co-opt Suu Kyi and the NLD without giving them significant powers. There has been speculation that Suu Kyi may be offered a cabinet position, though she has said that she will decline any such offer. Even if rejected, the offer will still make the former generals appear reformist.

As for another sticking point for the Thein Sein government, McCartan writes:

Successful peace deals with ethnic insurgents negotiated with government representatives would also go some way to gaining the support of ethnic minority voters in 2015. At the least, the deals would see former insurgent groups transform into mainstream ethnic-based political parties, which could dilute the vote for the NLD in ethnic areas.

Still, of course …

… Suu Kyi said that her party’s priorities after the election would be to push for peace in ethnic minority areas. … poverty alleviation through job creation and improving education and public health services.

In fact …

Thein Sein’s government has already gone some way on the first point by starting a peace process with most of the armed ethnic movements.

David Tharckabaw, vice president of the Karen National Union (KNUS), reports on the government’s groundbreaking meeting with the KNU as representatives of the long-oppressed and brutal Karen ethnic group by the Thai border, who have been engaged in the world’s longest-running insurgency since 1998. From his April 7 press release:

…7 members of the KNU Delegation, led by … General Secretary Naw Zipporah Sein, left for [Burma's capital cigty] Naypyidaw … on April 7, to meet with President U Thein Sein.

…The following 6 points were focused on in discussions at the meeting.

1. To establish … ceasefire especially in the ethnic nationality regions.

2. To guarantee life security and freedom from fear of the people.

3. To establish a state among the people to acquire confidence.

4. To stop the practice of forced labor and cash collection by various means, including demand of cash as donation and by other means.

5. To release political prisoners and resolve rehabilitation and land problems of the people.

6. To start arrangement for monitoring, analyzing and rectifying the peace process.

Agreement was reached at the meeting regarding the code of conduct for ceasefire [with] a monitoring team

Still, Tharckabaw is understandably suspicious.

The KNU delegation was taken to Nay Pyi Daw to meet with U Thein Sein. Going there was not on the agenda. The regime is openly and cunningly using the delegation for its own benefit.

Why the objection to meeting in the capital? It’s Thein Sein’s turf. Tharckabaw:

All the talks should have been in neutral venue up to the stage of achieving a durable ceasefire. Some defeatists and self-seeking opportunists among us are manipulating the agenda with the help of Egress [a Burmese civil society group], the peace brokers for business, to please their German masters.

As should be apparent from point number one, Tharckabaw and the KNU are also concerned with their brethren, the other ethnic minorities. He writes:

The next development should be ceasefire in Kachin State. Without ceasefire in Kachin State, it would be difficult for us to continue building trust with the regime.

At ATimes, McCartan points out further cause for suspicion.

… already questions are being raised about the government’s most visible reformist move, the suspension of work on the Myitsone dam in Kachin State. There are growing indications that the Chinese company responsible for constructing the dam, China Power International, has quietly resumed work on the project following talks between the Myanmar and Chinese governments in early March.

The dam is controversial because of its environmental impact. Not to mention that the power is flowing from congenitally power-starved Burma to china. As if that would slip under the radar of the minorities and Suu Kyi, as well as the rest of Burma.