No questions are a bad sign

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein put on a good show at SAIS yesterday.  In his prepared remarks, he talked about:

  • His country’s transition from autocracy to an open society and democracy;
  • Ending Myanmar’s isolation and its internal, communal wars;
  • Bringing perpetrators to justice;
  • Pursuing national dialogue;
  • Establishing the state on the basis of the people’s sovereignty;
  • Opening the economy in a way that is fair to all;
  • Taking advantage of Myanmar’s geopolitical situation in a resurgent Asia;
  • Protecting the natural environment;
  • Reforming the military;
  • Opening the political system to multiple parties, civil society and free elections;
  • The coming of age of a new generation unburdened by past conflicts;
  • Meeting the challenges of natural disasters, sea-level rise and epidemics;
  • Broadening the concept of national identity and finding ways to work together to build the state and nation.

All this he noted will require compromise, tolerance and patience.  It will also require going beyond the 10 ceasefires already in place to another imminent one with the Kachin.  The ceasefires will have to be made sustainable by devolution, resource-sharing and broad popular support.

What more can a proper 21st century American professor ask of a former dictator?

Then two things happened that cast a shadow on the event:  he did not take questions, and when I got back to the office news of a two-child limit on Muslims in an area where they are already subject to ethnic cleansing reached me.  I already knew that the President had not fulfilled his commitments on a number of reform issues.

So what are we to make of this virtually impeccable speech and a less than perfect record?  I wouldn’t doubt Thein Sein’s sincerity.  I thought his speech written in Washington (a couple of well-informed colleagues disagreed), but he read it with conviction and the things it said were vigorous.  He’ll have to wear them when he gets home.  But his performance in an interview at the Washington Post was at times been opaque and at times defensive of the military role in Myanmar.

Thein Sein is a transition figure who can’t avoid the contradictions of his transitional position, even if he was unequivocal in describing the regime he spent his career in as an autocracy. He said a lot of the right things.  What was missing in the presentation was however something fundamental:  he never mentioned human rights.  The transition he was describing was an elite-decided and elite-led transition, not one respectful of the rights of individuals.

Had there been a Q and A session, I and likely others would have explored this lacuna.  That is only proper, in particular at a university event.  It’s only the second time in many years of attending such events that I remember no Q and A.  The last time was more than 10 years ago, when Michael Armitage appeared as deputy secretary of state at USIP to justify the Iraq war.  No questions then either.  It was a bad sign.

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