The Burmese government has done itself another favor by releasing 514 political prisoners in a move aimed at heading-off any embarrassment caused by their unwarranted incarceration during a visit to the United States by President Thein Sein next week.
Their release should be a cause for relief but hardly a celebration, even though the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) thinks this could be the last of their ilk still languishing behind bars.
The powers that be in Naypyidaw have played a deft hand – with a combination of encouragement and brow beating from other Southeast Asian leaders – in leaving behind their banana republic status for an image slightly more befitting of the 21st century.
Designer suits have replaced the military uniforms, businessmen (including the carpet baggers) along with the tourists are lining-up, hoteliers in Rangoon are doing a roaring trade and governments are re-designing their foreign policies to maximize their relations with Burma and its strategic position.
But how much substance is behind the release of these prisoners and determining whether the junta really is making way for a fledgling democracy is much harder to determine.
Obviously the prisoners being freed should never have been locked up in the first place and their release was part of a tit-for-tat bargain with the West. The U.S. mandated their release in exchange for further economic incentives and Thein Sein is no doubt looking forward to the accolades that will now, probably, accompany his first trip to the United States.
He already knows such applause will pale when compared with NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who will receive a Congressional medal for her efforts in dragging her country out of an abyss that once earned Burma deserved comparisons with Albania and later North Korea.
But it still has a long way to go, despite media pronouncements written in the past tense that Burma was once ruled by an authoritarian junta for 49-years.
Given the well documented issues with the 2010 elections and a guarantee that 25 percent of all seats in Parliament would be reserved for the military, the reality is that Burma is still a military-dominated government, albeit with a savvier dress sense.
There are more than 10 ethnic conflicts – depending on how and when you count them – going on inside the country. The national response to the latest bloodshed involving the Rohingya Muslims was straight out of the Dark-Ages and amid all this Thein Sein is expected to bring home economic breaks from the U.S. simply for clearing his jails of prisoners who should never have been there in the first place.
Thein Sein has proved himself a clever politician and surely he must rate among the smartest Southeast Asian leaders of his time.
VOA Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi
Scott Stearns interviews Aung San Suu Kyi at VOA in Washington D.C.
STEARNS: Thank you for being with us this afternoon. Our time is short, we’ll get right to the questions. Political and economic reforms in Burma are clearly not yet complete. What needs to happen next?
STEARNS: What about efforts to trying to find a lasting solution to the Karen and Kachin issues as well.
ASSK: Lasting solutions are always difficult to come to. But they will have to persevere. I’ve been repeating ad nauseam that we in Burma we are weak with regard to the culture of negotiated compromises, that we have to develop the ability to achieve such compromises. If you want to bring an end to long-standing conflict, you have to be prepared to compromise. If either or both sides insist on getting everything that they want – that is to say 100 percent of their demands to be met, then there can never be a settlement. So we have to negotiate the kind of compromise that is acceptable to all the parties concerned.
——————————Translated Transcript of Aung San Suu Kyi Interview with VOA in Burmese with VOA reporter Kyaw Zan Tha
Kyaw Zan Tha: I am very glad to see you and thank you for being willing to be interviewed. Everyone is interested in the process of the reforms in Burma. Some people have said that the reforms are just empty words. What is your opinion?
ASSK: It is incorrect to say there have been no reforms at all; there have of course been reforms, but we still need to do more for the people. To become a democratic society we have to continually be reforming. So in conclusion, to say there have been no reforms is a one-sided view I cannot accept.
Kyaw Zan Tha: What then needs to be done in order to pass these reforms down to the people?
ASSK: There are a lot of things that need to be done. The first thing is we need to create better lives for the people. Practically speaking from my own experience with my constituency (KAWHME), the most important things at the moment are transportation, creating job opportunities, even clean water is a problem in many places in our country, Health, and Education.
Kyaw Zan Tha: The Legislature has previously been called a “Rubber Stamp” parliament. Is there any possibility of improvement? Recently we have heard that the Legislature has dissolved the constitutional tribunal or court under their (the Legislature’s) own authority. Yet many people consider this to be part of a personal rivalry between the President of Burma and the Speaker of the Lower House of the Legislature.
ASSK: I don’t think that is a personal rivalry. It is an issue of jurisdiction according to the constitution. If you listened carefully to the discussion in parliament, you notice that NLD (National League of democrats) MPs also participated in the discussion. The issue is related to the laws (constitution?) enacted by the Parliament. So how could this be a rubber stamp parliament? Also, there are also some MPs that do not act like rubber stamp politicians.
Kyaw Zan Tha: Is the rivalry between the President and the Speaker of the Lower House healthy for the country?
ASSK: It is not good to see the issue as a personal rivalry. As a matter of fact this type of debate and argument between the executive branch and the legislature is part of democracy and is common in most democratic countries. Even in the United States there was the unresolved budget issue between the executive and legislative branches that almost led to government employees not being paid. So it is common everywhere. One exception is that our country is still a fledgling democracy, so people get overly concerned over these types of issues. It may be possible that some people are deliberately attempting to make the issue into a personal rivalry for their own purposes.
Kyaw Zan Tha: Now I would like to ask you about your campaign promises. You said you have three ambitions: amend the constitution, phase out the military from politics, and end the civil war. So how much nearer are you to fulfilling these promises?
ASSK: Frist, let me correct something, the first ambition I said was to establish the rule of law. The second thing was to end the civil war, and only then can the constitution be amended. Our main goal in amending the constitution is not to phase out the military from politics. Our main point is to put the constitution in line with international standards and norms. I have made clear that in so doing we want to cooperate with the military to accomplish this ambition.
Kyaw Zan Tha: And what about those ambitions? How nearer are you to fulfilling those things?
ASSK: Our reason for putting the rule of law first is that there can be no civil peace without the rule of law, not because civil peace is less important. Now, you know that I am the chairman of the parliamentary committee on the rule of law, so that’s a pretty good situation!
Kyaw Zan Tha: Most of the ethnic people and ethnic forces believe that the peace process will be more effective if you personally participate in the discussion. Do you feel you are ready to do so?
ASSK: I would like to do whatever I can, but this is a problem between the Government and the ethnic peoples. I don’t want to try and exploit the situation for political gains. The important thing is our country needs to end the civil war and for this to happen both sides must want to end the war. I would only become involved if both sides asked me to. As for my party’s political gain from such an event, I don’t want it to look as if we are the only ones trying to solve the issue. If there are ongoing attempts to resolve the matter, we do not want to jump in halfway through the process. If we are wanted, for the good of the country, then we are ready to serve.
Kyaw Zan Tha: Government officials, including President Thein Sein have said that the forum for solving the ethnic problems is the Parliament. Ethnic groups on the other hand insist that they want all inclusive tripartite talks. Which do you think is more suitable to solve this problem? Is there any possibility to solve this problem in parliament?
ASSK: There are lots of ethnic MPs in parliament and there have been some discussions in Parliament over the ethnic issues. That shows that the Parliament is handling the ethnic issues in its own way. However, government officials have insisted that the issue only be discussed in Parliament while the ethnic groups have insisted that it only be discussed outside of Parliament. We have to negotiate between these kinds of differences. There has to be some give and take. As I have often said though, Burmese political culture lacks an understanding of negotiated compromise. We have to build up that kind of culture. Both sides must understand that it is impossible for them to get everything that they want. To have compromise you must first have dialog. That is the true path of democracy.
Kyaw Zan Tha: During this trip, what is your main message to the United States people and Government?
ASSK: Our main message is that we are not yet a full-fledged democracy. We have started working on the road to full democracy. We have a lot of things to do in order to build a democratic structure and to be become a full-fledged democracy. In building Democracy we would like the United States to cooperate with us as good friends. Another thing is to say thank you to the people as well as the Government of the United States for supporting us and sustaining us though out our difficult struggle.
Kyaw Zan Tha: The desire of the United States to actively engage with Burma is partly fueled by their own interests. I mean in order to contain China. Do you feel that the United States is over zealous to engage Burma because of that desire? And is this why you regularly remind this country to not be “recklessly optimistic” about Burma?
ASSK: We cannot avoid the geopolitical situation of Burma, but neither can we ignore Burma’s diplomatic traditions. Our country is located between China, India, and South East Asia. So it is quite natural that a country wanting diplomatic relations with our country would pay attention to who our regional neighbors are. It is not at all fair to ask a country to build relations with Burma but not take into account the situation in China. There is no way to think that taking the Chinese situation into consideration shows a disregard for Burma. We also want to have good relations with our neighboring countries. I do believe the United States itself wants to live in harmony with China and India. That’s why we have to lay down political policies that are fair for everyone. I think it is very mean to start taking sides.
Kyaw Zan Tha: Allow me to ask this question. Lastly, some human rights organizations have criticized you for not making a clear denouncement of the communal violence (in Rakhine State)?
ASSK: I don’t know what their accusation is based on. I have met with both Professor Quintana and Mr. Guters (both of UNACR) and the Turkish Foreign Minister and we discussed the events in detail and talked about the importance of human rights. Human rights and rule of law are inseparably connected. In the preamble of the International Human Rights Deceleration it says that human rights must be defended by the rule of law. At the moment the Government is trying to bring peace to the area. We don’t want to negatively affect the activities of the Government. If there is something we can effectively do, we will do it. We will not criticize the Government without being able to do anything ourselves. We also want to avoid making comments that would heighten the hatred between the two sides. If we are blamed for not taking sides, we are ready to bear that blame. When I was in London a Kachin youth criticized me for not condemning the Burmese military for their offensive in Kachin State. I answered “condemnation is not the solution.” We want to build reconciliation, not condemnation. Likewise we will look equally at both sides in terms of human rights and rule of law. We won’t take sides just for our own political benefit. Taking sides cannot bring peace and balance. We do not want to undermine the Government’s attempts to bring peace. What we can do, we are helping the victims as much as we can. As you know, the NLD is not a rich party. If either the Government or any of the other sides needs our help we are willing to give it.