As a crucial national election looms, the government’s true colours begin to show
“If you take the mask off, it is still a military regime underneath.” That was the observation of one of the student protesters beaten by police during the crackdown at Letpadan on March 10, in an interview with BBC TV in Yangon. The sentiment is not new but exposes what many in Myanmar view as a “hidden truth” – the allegation that hardline generals are pulling the strings behind President U Thein Sein’s democratic reform façade.
Myanmar continues to teeter on a knife edge between a mindset inherited from the former junta, including the use of secret police, paid informers and government vigilantes, and the image that the president tries to convey of a nation making progress in a transition towards democracy.
U Thein Sein has taken care during the four years of his presidency to portray an image of a moderate former general who genuinely desires to create a parliamentary democracy to replace the dictatorship that ruled with an iron fist for more than five decades.
But the façade is beginning to crack, say critics, who claim powerful men in green are pulling the strings. The brutality shown by riot police at Letpadan, at the protest in Yangon suppressed with the assistance of vigilantes wearing red armbands, and in the cruel use of white phosphorous grenades to disperse monks and other protesters at Letpadaung in November 2012, are signs that there are those in the government who cling to old ways.
In a BBC interview on March 20, the President defended the behaviour of the riot police at Letpadan, saying they were acting in self-defence because rocks were thrown at them.
“Even though the crackdown was violent, the police were only beating them back after they were beaten,” U Thein Sein said.
“It doesn’t only happen like this in our country, look at similar cases of crowd trouble in the West, the way they handle this is worse than us and we have seen this recently in the United States,” he said.
“You are choosing to focus on the violent acts of the police, you know that police cars were smashed, barricades had been broken and a police woman was injured on the head. You should be balanced.”
Less obvious are the “hidden hands”, the hardliners in powerful places accused in a recent report by human rights NGO Justice Trust of instigating unrest to derail the democratic reform process.
President U Thein Sein challenged suggestions that the pace of reform was too slow.
“People’s expectations are high because we are a country in transition. But you can’t fulfill everything in one term. If you look at our achievements from four years in power, you see we have brought real benefit to people,” he told the BBC.
But who are the “hidden hands” accused by Justice Trust of deliberately fomenting sectarian violence and why can’t they be stopped? And why does President U Thein Sein appear to be powerless to prevent the Tatmadaw from launching offensives against armed ethnic groups?
In the following stories, we show that all is not well with the democratic reform process as the country heads towards one of the most important general elections since independence.
This Article first appeared in the April 2, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
Mizzima Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com