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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 18, 2013

Thein Sein a man of war, not peace
By Nancy Hudson-Rodd

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On April 22, Myanmar President Thein Sein will be honored by the International Crisis Group (ICG) as the recipient of this year's "In Pursuit of Peace, Prosperity and the Presidency Award" at a gala dinner in New York City.

The award is given to recognize and "celebrate inspirational figures whose visionary leadership has transformed the lives of millions and brought forth the promise of a world free of conflict". ICG said Myanmar, also known as Burma, is being rewarded for

"its remarkable and unprecedented set of reforms since President Thein Sein's government took over in March 2011, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, liberating the press and promoting dialogue with the main opposition party".

Rising international praise for Thein Sein's quasi-civilian regime has meant turning away from many hard truths. A new constitution enforced in a bogus referendum in 2008 ensured that the military maintained control and power under the guise of democracy. Thein Sein, who served as prime minister under the previous rights-abusing military junta, was appointed president after rigged 2010 general elections were swept by predominantly military-linked candidates.

Thein Sein's image has benefited from his cold-turned-cordial relations with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 16 out of 21 years under house arrest during the previous military regime that Thein Sein obediently served. Suu Kyi said that she felt Thein Sein meant well and was a sincere man after a one-on-one meeting last year many have wrongly characterized as an equal dialogue.

After failing to kill Suu Kyi in an assault on her caravan in 2003, and with consistent international support for her and her heavily harassed National League for Democracy (NLD) political party, the military apparently decided it would benefit more from having Suu Kyi as an ally rather than enemy.

Thein Sein's government created a loophole in the constitution to allow her and the previously banned NLD to contest and win 43 out of 48 seats in parliament up for grabs during by-elections held last April. When the NLD resoundingly won elections held in 1990, the military annulled the results and maintained power, ruling with an iron fist. The NLD now holds a mere 6% of the total seats in parliament, where the military is reserved 25% of the total seats.

Under the guise of democratic reform, Thein Sein's regime is selling off virgin lands and natural resources to the highest bidders, more often than not military cronies, across the underdeveloped country. Foreign investors can now lease land for a period of 50 years with two 10-year extensions, meaning the land doled out to military cronies will soon command First World rents for decades to come.

In undeveloped and remote areas of the country, Thein Sein's government has announced it will allow longer foreign investment periods. This will effectively steal away for generations huge swathes of land and ecosystems from local farmers and villagers, jeopardizing their right to food and secure livelihoods.

Hundreds of political prisoners, whom the government had long insisted did not exist, have been released through presidential amnesties. Those releases have earned Thein Sein praise in the international community. U Myint Aye, a prominent human-rights defender and supporter of people affected by the Cyclone Nargis disaster, was released when US President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in November.

Yet few of the draconian laws that allowed for their imprisonment have been amended or abolished. Those released by presidential amnesty can be thrown back into prison if they are perceived to break the terms of their release, including by offending the government. There have been no moves to offer compensation to those who unjustly served time in the country's abysmal prisons.

Meanwhile, new arrests are being made, including leaders of demonstrations against the Letpadaung Mountain copper mining project in the country's north. The mine, a joint venture of a Myanmar army-owned business group and a Chinese company, would displace local villagers and pollute the environment, the arrested protest leaders say. Violent police assaults on protesters camped near the mine site, including the apparent use of incendiary devices, left dozens of monks and other citizens hospitalized, some with severe burns.

In November, Yangon police arrested six leaders of a rally supporting the anti-mine protest. They were charged with offences against "public tranquillity" and are currently in prison. Four shopkeepers in Kachin State were sent to prison for filming a demonstration against the relocation of a marketplace.

Prominent former political prisoners, meanwhile, continue to face harassment. U Gambira, a former Buddhist monk and leader of the 2007 Saffron Revolution protest has been denied residency by authorities in any Buddhist monasteries. He has been disrobed as a result of the government repression.

Instead of praising and rewarding Thein Sein, the ICG and other international organizations should encourage him to suspend large-scale land transactions, demand a stop to oppression of dissidents and the criminalization of people defending their lands from military-backed seizure and development, and call for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners still held behind bars.
They should also focus more attention on the plight of the ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that has faced an upsurge of violence since clashing with Rakhine Buddhists in the country's western Arakan State.

It is unclear why once-respected groups like ICG have allowed themselves to be seduced by socio-political doctrines and a continuation of totalitarian terror for the sake of some hypothetical peaceful future.

Why are so many Myanmar citizens being denied the international support they need now more than ever to create a country based on genuine democratic principles? Why is there now less international criticism of the injustices that continue to be committed under Thein Sein's supposed democratic regime?

It is clearly too early to heap praise on Myanmar's Thein Sein. Despite recent easing of government restrictions, including a loosening of press censorship and rights of association, Myanmar's people are still deprived of many basic rights. The people are increasingly expressing their displeasure with the status quo in mass demonstrations, many staged to fight for their lands, livelihoods and voice in government.

As those popular calls mount, so too should demands for accountability for past abuses, many committed under Thein Sein's watch while serving as prime minister under the previous junta. The 2008 constitution, devised by military leaders keen to protect their power and interests, gives the military amnesty for any human-rights violations.

In 2006, Paulo Sergio Pinheirio reported to the United Nations' General Assembly that sexual violence, forced labor, and child soldiering were "widespread and systematic over the last decade so as to suggest they are not simply isolated acts of individual misconduct of middle or low rank officers but rather the result of the upholding of a system under which individuals and groups have been allowed to breach the law and human rights without being held to account".

Some of these crimes, international rights groups note, could fall under the International Criminal Court's jurisdiction.

Many of those same abuses continue under Thein Sein's current watch as the army intensifies its assaults on rebels in Kachin State. While the ICG rewards Thein Sein as a man of peace, the country is still at war. International groups like ICG are now focused on supporting the very men who committed past human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity, and continue to do so under different guises and through different means.

Nancy Hudson-Rodd, PhD, human geographer, former director of the Centre for Development Studies, honorary research fellow, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia, has conducted research in Myanmar for the past decade on the arbitrary confiscation of farmers' land by the military regime. She may be reached at n.hudson_rodd@ecu.edu.au.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

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