Almost more than military equipment, public image and information are major tactics in any struggle. Recently, Burma’s new “government” has been taking steps to paint a public facade of democratic reform. Reading the headlines it might be easy to hope, but looking at the full situation of Burma it seems to us the same old charm offensive the regime usually takes when they want to alleviate pressure. Here at USCB we want real positive change to come to Burma, and years of experience of the regime’s maneuvers how not to be naive.
There are some significant upcoming events that are the regime’s impetus for these cosmetic changes. UN Rapporteur Tomas Quintana just left the country, and his response to the visit will have much impact at the UN General Assembly when they meet in October. ASEAN is also deciding right now whether they will allow Burma to have the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. A decision is expected at the ASEAN Summit in October.
These measures are also a smoke and mirrors tactic to draw attention away from the growing conflict in northern and eastern Burma (and with that the expanding humanitarian crisis). They also don’t want the world looking at the almost 2000 political prisoners still behind bars.
So here are the top seven public relations ploys by Burma’s regime and why not to believe them:
1. Fake peace talks:
The regime has said they are dedicated to peace and has offered an “olive branch” to ethnic armed groups to begin the process. Each group has been told to contact state or division governments.
All ethnic armed groups have rejected this insincere offer. They can clearly see that the regime wants these one-on-one ceasefire talks so they can subjugate the ethnic groups. Divide and rule has always been their strategy. La Nang from the Kachin Independence Organization told Mizzima news agency “The authorities do not want to lose absolute power. So to prevent that, it does not want to agree to a cease-fire with ethnic armed groups, All ethnic people living in the hill lands are losing their rights. The government does not want ethnic groups to form a political alliance to conduct a dialogue. The government’s afraid it would suffer and have to give up something in such a dialogue.”
Ethnic groups have said over and over again that they want peace, but only if the process is genuine. They want ethnic rights to be respected and want national negotiations between all ethnic parties, democracy groups, and the military.
2. Playing nice with Aung San Suu Kyi
The regime recently invited Daw Suu to Naypyitaw for discussions with high level officials. As much as we would like to think this is similar to de Klerk’s talks with Mandela in South Africa, what it looks more like is the time of Khin Nyunt in the early 2000s. When Khin Nyunt was at the top of the SPDC ranks there were hopes that it was a time of liberalization in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi for a brief period was treated with respect, and allowed to go along on tours of the government’s “nation-building” projects. However, military hardliners didn’t want to relax their grip on power, and eventually got frustrated with Khin Nyunt’s ways. In 2003 Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy was attacked and she was thrown under house arrest again. In 2005 Khin Nyunt was tried and sentenced to 44 years in prison, and is kept under house arrest.
3. Press Conferences
The regime really wants to improve their public relations and so have started the Spokespersons and Information Team. At the first press conference when Information Minister Kyaw Hsan was asked a question about the controversial Myitsone Dam project he broke down into tears.
4. Peace Committee
Yesterday on the first day of the second session of Parliament, the regime decided to form a “Peace Committee.” The Chairman is a former Brigadier General from the SPDC.
It’s so obviously Orwellian I’m not sure I need to say much more.
5. Telling activists in exile they can return
President Thein Sein last week in a speech said that activists who have left Burma can return back to the country, and leniency will be considered for those who have committed offenses. It’s impossible to take this seriously as long as almost 2000 political prisoners remain behind bars.
6. Papers end daily criticism of exile and foreign media
In the back of newspapers and journals in Burma, there has been for awhile routine space dedicated to accusing exile and foreign media of delivering “a sky full of lies” and warning people about listening to them.
23 journalists and media activists are still behind bars in Burma. People like 26 year old Hla Hla Win who was a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma. She is serving a 27 year sentence.
7. Meetings on poverty alleviation
The regime has been having meetings recently on poverty alleviation, and especially looking at “development” projects and reducing taxes. Meager projects would do little to help the populous after years of an economic and ruling system of impunity.
Last year the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma released a report on arbitrary and corrupt taxation in Burma. The report titled “We have to give them so much that our stomachs are empty of food” looks at how the military has transformed taxation from a routine and legitimate function of government into extortion and a tool of repression. It occurs on a such a level that it grossly affects the lives of people throughout Burma.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, Kellie Currie from the Project 2049 think tank said “Those who support human rights and democracy in Burma should avoid pressuring Burma’s democrats to pursue well-intentioned poverty alleviation schemes as a substitute for changing political structures designed to enrich and preserve the ruling clique. Instead the pressure should stay focused on political reform.” [Read “Change Burma Can’t Quite Believe In“]