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President’s Inaugural Speech Fails to Inspire Hope in Burma’s New “Democracy”

By Burma Partnership  •  April 4, 2011

On 30 March, Senior General Than Shwe officially dissolved the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to transfer authority to the nominally civilian parliament elected during the flawed November 2010 elections. However, the dissolution of the infamous SPDC has not led to the change that many inside and outside Burma had hoped to see.

“The now disbanded SPDC and the current government is one and the same. The military regime is transferring power to none other than themselves – how is that democratic progress?” stated Naing Aung, Secretary-General of the Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB).

Little has changed in the way of governance, with the same military elites and business affiliates holding top leading positions in the new government. Former Prime Minister and ex-General Thein Sein now serves as the new President – a far cry from a real change in leadership.

President Thein Sein’s inaugural address to Parliament revealed the lack of genuine motivation for change or reform at the heart of this handover. His speech called for a strengthening of military might, with laboured references to Burma’s history of colonization. Recalling the Konbaung Period, an era dating back to 1752-1885, Thein Sein argued that the “country fell under the subjugation of the colonialists without any strong resistance. That was due to lack of a strong Tatmadaw.” He warned, “if we do not take national defence seriously, we will fall under the rule of neo-colonialists again.”

Thein Sein’s refusal to relinquish the ancient past, while simultaneously overlooking the SPDC’s more recent history of abuse against its own people, and claiming a brighter future full of change and progress, proves hypocritical and fails to inspire hope in the ability of the new government to bring about any genuine reform.

Part of moving forwards is recognizing the past.

Thein Sein’s portrayal of the past, aside from the aforementioned reference to colonialism, is unsurprisingly positive, despite all the atrocities that have marred Burma’s history. Reflecting on the events of 1988, the largest nationwide uprising in Burma’s history, Thein Sein noted:

“The Tatmadaw with a strong sense of duty and loyalty saved the country several times whenever the country was close to collapse and loss of independence and sovereignty. Also in 1988, the Tatmadaw government saved the country from deteriorating conditions in various sectors and reconstructed the country.”

After glossing over the brutal crackdown of the 1988 uprising, which resulted in the death of as many as 3,000 peaceful protestors, Thein Sein claimed, “now, [the Tatmadaw] has laid sound foundations to build a peaceful, modern and developed nation.” However, it is this very foundation that will inevitably cripple any efforts towards political change or reform in Burma. Built upon the SPDC’s unilaterally drafted 2008 Constitution and the undemocratic elections in 2010, any efforts at genuine reform in the new government will be continually plagued by guarantees of state impunity and military dominance. The lack of accountability for election-related human rights violations committed by the regime and the SPDC-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, certainly sets a “sound foundation” for Burma, but one that will be perpetually scaled towards military interests, rather than those of the people.

Thein Sein, and the government he now leads, has refused to recognize any flaws in their actions in the past, and yet now trumpets their future plans as the solution to all the problems in Burma. Failing to take any responsibility for the destruction of the economy, widespread poverty, and systematic human rights violations reveals a lack of sincerity in the new government’s stated intent of reform.

In Thein Sein’s rhetoric, the people, rather than the regime, are likely to be at fault for future stalls in reform. During his speech, Thein Sein said that in the past,

“National races [were] involved in armed conflicts among them for about five decades due to dogmatism, sectarian strife and racism instead of rebuilding the nation. In consequence, the people were going through the hell of untold miseries.”

Looking forward, Thein Sein urged “each and every citizen wishing to see the interests of the nation and the people to serve those interests only in the constitutional framework and not to try to disrupt democratization process outside the constitutional framework and harm peace, stability and the rule of law.”

For the new government, the people are the problem – the people who have risked their lives to call for democracy, those who have dedicated their time and savings to help support fellow citizens in crisis, the ethnic groups who continue to strive to protect their communities and their culture.

The people are not the problem. They have endured decades of abuse at the hands of the same military elites, years of corruption and irresponsible spending that destabilized the economy and shored up the military, and have watched lifetimes slip away from the over 2,000 political prisoners that remain behind bars, even in the new “democratic” Burma. For the people, this new government does not represent a new future, but merely a continuation of the same old oppressive regime.

See the full text of President Thein Sein’s inaugural speech to the Parliament here.

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