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DVB Debate: Has Burma’s reformist government kept its promises?

Exactly four years have passed since Thein Sein’s reformist government was sworn in. Propped up by a new constitution, the nominally civilian government shocked both its citizens and the world by springing into a transformative set of democratisation pledges. The recent crackdown on and arrest of student protestors has led many to recall some of the darkest days of the former regime, when prisoners of conscience were held in secretive detention.

Both domestic and international watchdogs have accused Thein Sein of backsliding on reforms, and urged Naypyidaw to carry out its mandate for democratisation. The leader has remained steadfast, and at times motioned to lower expectations when it comes to the pace of change in Burma.

On this week’s episode of DVB Debate, the first shot in Moulmein, Mon State, the panellists ask how different is Burma from the country it was in March 2011. Is there a politician that could have done a better job?

Mon State Minister for Civil Development Dr Toe Toe Aung believes that not all of what Thein Sein has promised has come to fruition, but that the people of Burma must be patient.

“We need to wait for a certain time to implement the government’s promises,” Toe Toe Aung said.

“If you ask to solve an issue which cannot be solved within four years, we cannot make it happen.”

Zaw Htun of the Mawlamyine (Moulmein) District Development Group believes that society has already become more equal under Thein Sein’s government.

“Among his promises, there are some achievements. For example, phones used to be for elites only, now ordinary people can use them too. “

The Thein Sein government found perhaps an unlikely supporter on the panel, with words of encouragement coming from Padho Man Nyein Maung, of rebel group the Karen National Union (KNU).

“It is not easy for the government to handle this transition,” said the KNU man. “I think no government can do better than that.”

Burma’s upcoming general election will provide the opportunity for the people to make their own judgement on whether Thein Sein is the man to lead Burma forwards. However the politician who is perhaps his most obvious presidential replacement, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is constitutionally blocked from attaining the country’s highest rank. Despite that, her National League for Democracy will contest the elections, having boycotted the vote that installed the current government.

Dr Aung Naing Oo, of the Questions, Proposals and Law Implementation Monitoring Committee, believes that Thein Sein’s time is up.

“The change of government or the change in leadership is crucial to the changing of the country. I don’t accept that no government an do better than this one.”

Despite giving Thein Sein a pass-mark, Padho Man Nyein Maung believes that corruption is remains rife in Naypyidaw.

“It is not possible that they are a clean government,” The KNU member began. “They are the same people as before, with the same spirit.”

But Aung Naing Oo retorted, saying that the new government is now listening to the people.

“The access and the trust between government and the people is very important.”

The benefits of political and economic reform in Burma have been felt to differing degrees across Burma. Many living in small villages inside ethnic areas have felt little of the reforms that have dragged the country out of international pariah status.

“I suggest the government should be all-inclusive when implementing their promises,” said Mi Kon Chan Non of the Mon Women’s network.