RANGOON — US President Barack Obama’s reading of Burma’s current political situation is markedly different from what many Burmese people have perceived over the last two years.
“In part because of President Thein Sein’s leadership, the democratization process in Myanmar [Burma] is real,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Thein Sein on Thursday.
The majority of pro-democracy groups and parliamentarians, including prominent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who held discussions with Obama for an hour on Friday, didn’t expect to hear such a rosy view. Many of them found it disappointing.
“That’s absolutely wrong and an insult for Burmese people,” said Yan Myo Thein, a Burmese political analyst based in Rangoon. Others I spoke with following Thursday’s press conference shared a similar opinion.
Bo Kyi, secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), said Obama’s endorsement of the reform process was out of touch with reality.
“What Obama said is wrong. Burma today is not even in transition yet. It was a totalitarian state. Today, it is a constitutional totalitarian state,” he told me over the phone.
Obama received a similar message directly from the people he met in Rangoon on Friday. When the US president met a group of young Burmese at Rangoon University’s Diamond Jubilee Hall, some stood holding posters at the back of the room that read “Reform is fake,” “Illusion!” and “Change?”
Long before Obama’s latest trip to Asia, many Burmese activists, politicians, intellectuals, social workers and other informed locals had voiced concern that the Obama administration was pulling closer to Burma’s quasi-civilian government and away from opposition groups.
Exactly one week before Obama arrived in Burma on Wednesday, Suu Kyi held a rare press conference (for the first time this year) at her party’s headquarters in Rangoon. The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader told the media: “We do think that there have been times when the US government has been too optimistic about the reform process started by the present government, but if they really studied the situation in this country they will know that this reform process started stalling early last year.”
“In fact, I’d like to challenge those who talk so much about the reform process, and ask what significant reform steps have been taken in the last 24 months?” she said, adding, “That is something the US should think about seriously as a country.”
It was a crystal clear message from the country’s most popular pro-democracy leader, who Obama said once inspired him. But on this occasion, Obama simply seemed to ignore her pointed message to the US government.
We Burmese don’t expect miracles from the reform process that started in 2011. We just want to see gradual progress towards a democratic and prosperous nation. But the Burmese people haven’t seen any genuine progress toward this end in recent years.
Many serious issues remain unaddressed—from ethnic conflict and the continued imprisonment of political activists to human rights violations against minorities and restrictions on freedom of the press.
We don’t see any possibility that the current undemocratic Constitution will be amended, though pro-democracy groups led by Suu Kyi’s NLD and the prominent 88 Generation Peace and Open Society have managed to obtain 5 million signatures on a petition calling for constitutional change.
The peace process isn’t progressing smoothly because some ethnic armed groups simply don’t trust the government or the military, which have failed to promise a measure of autonomy to ethnic groups that have fought for decades.
Among the Burmese public, the main question regarding the reform process is simply whether Thein Sein’s government has the genuine political will to institute real reform. Burmese people who were convinced of the reform process back in 2011 and 2012 have now begun to lose their initial optimism.
Like other leaders around the world, Obama seems convinced of the Burmese government’s reformist credentials. This is not surprising, as Naypyidaw has become adept at talking the talk on democratic reform.
Obama managed to thrill many Burmese during his first visit to the country in 2012, but has fallen short this time. This was almost the last chance for him, as president, to demonstrate support for the pro-democracy movement that the United States has backed ever since the military regime staged a coup in 1988.
Obama’s latest message was simply an endorsement of Thein Sein’s administration. While the Burmese government was no doubt pleased, pro-democracy groups, including Suu Kyi, prominent 88 Generation groups members and ethnic leaders, would have been very disappointed.