The Asean summit that starts on Saturday is a debut for Burma's new President Thein Sein and the now ostensibly civilian, but still tightly military-controlled government formed on March 30.
Since the elections of Nov. 2010 and the release of dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, many governments in Asia and the West have intensified their search for moderates in Burma's new military-parliamentary complex, in order to increase engagement with the government. Thein Sein's inaugural speech is being lauded as a blueprint for a new moderate government, with his emphasis on tackling corruption, promoting the role of the media, and emphasizing health and education. But these are just words; there has been no discernible improvement in the human rights situation of Burma at all since the elections, no release of political prisoners, no letup in fighting in ethnic conflict zones or granting basic freedoms to Burma's 59 million citizens.
It is thus disquieting to hear many informed observers on Burma refer to Thein Sein as "Mr Clean." Without questioning the commentators' standards of hygiene, it is safe to say that the former Lt. Gen. Thein Sein is actually a ruthless loyalist with a well-established past in command positions during some of Burma's darker and most corrupt periods.
It is a matter of public record that Thein Sein was the commander of the Triangle Region Military Command from 1997 to 2001. This is the area infamously known as the Golden Triangle, long a redoubt of drug lords and warring ethnic and Communist armies. During his tenure, there was a decline in opium and heroin production in his area of operations, but there are two main reasons for this - neither necessarily due to a firm commitment to drug eradication.
First, Afghanistan heroin production was booming at the end of the 1990s, so Burmese syndicates such as the massive United Wa State Army couldn't compete on global markets because of the more labor-intensive production of opium in Burma, and overwhelming new supply. Second, the main drug producers were actually branching into massive methamphetamine production, which was proving easier to manufacture, supply, and sell. The UWSA's central narco-financier, Wei Hsueh-kang, has been under indictment by the United States since 1998, with a $2 million price tag on his head (eight other senior leaders were indicted in 2005).
Neighboring Thailand paid the highest price for the surge in meth exports, which was the main catalyst for then-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's murderous domestic "war on drugs" in 2003. The new town of Mong Yawn close to the Thai border was the lynchpin in the UWSA's strategy to increase drug supply into Thailand. To help Mong Yawn grow, the UWSA forcibly relocated nearly 100,000 civilians from northern Shan State from 1999 to 2001, ostensibly to break their dependence on opium cultivation. As the Lahu National Development Organization (an ethnic community development NGO from Burma), and numerous Western and Thai journalists who covered the operation reported, in this draconian transmigration hundreds are suspected to have died from abuses and disease, including an anthrax outbreak. I lived in this area in 2003, with ethnic Shan, Lahu and Akha refugees, who could see their seized land on the other side of the valley, occupied by relocated ethnic Wa, guarded by UWSA and Burmese army camps. Thein Sein's headquarters in the town of Kengtung was right in the middle of this nearly year-long relocation.
What Thein Sein's specific role was in the Mong Yawn project is not known, but he could not have been unaware of it, nor could he have been unwitting to the explosion of drug money in his area of operations. At the time, senior Thai army commanders claimed that Thein Sein not only knew the drug plants were there, but was actively protecting them: then Third Army Commander Lt. Gen. Wattanachai Chaimuenwong and Thai army commander Gen. Surayud Chulanont raised this fact on a regular basis, during frequent border skirmishes between Burmese and Thai forces during this period due to massive drug smuggling being protected by units within Thein Sein's command area. According to Bertil Lintner, a noted expert on the regional drug trade, and numerous academics and researchers on Burma's military such as Mary Callahan, Burma's regional commanders have long been suspected to be sitting on top of a corrupt patronage system that maintains order through regulating rackets and illicit trade, not interdicting them.
Thein Sein's recent past suggests no grounds for optimism either. Following his stint in the Golden Triangle, Thein Sein was the military adjutant general and then secretary no. 1 of the ruling State Peace and Development Council. He has since been a senior member of the regime, including serving as prime minister when scores of protesters were killed on the streets of Rangoon in a peaceful uprising in September 2007. He was in charge of the government when Western relief agencies were denied access to Burma following the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Instead of giving priority to aid for the sick and injured, the government focused on its sham constitutional referendum that is the blueprint for continued authoritarian rule. Perhaps most disturbing, since he became prime minister in 2007, the number of political prisoners doubled to more than 2,200.
The search for "pragmatists over hard-liners" within the ruling elite has been a central fault-line in the speculative trade of Burmese political analysis for years. Many Western journalists, academics, aid workers and diplomats believed former Prime Minister and military intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt was the pragmatic player who was negotiating between his intelligence faction, Suu Kyi and the West to broker a deal for democratic reforms. This apocryphal glasnost was ruptured in October 2004 when Khin Nyunt and his intelligence clique, more than 800 officers, were rounded up by the so-called hard-liners. Most are in prison or under house arrest.
It remains unclear why Khin Nyunt was considered to be a moderate given his long years of ruthless repression of the opposition, widespread use of torture against dissidents and lucrative cease-fire deals with drug lords. Perhaps it was because he would talk about possible reform with outsiders, yet his vision was of a Burma no longer ostracized by the rest of the world, not a free and democratic country. The Burmese academic Kyaw Yin Hlaing in a recent article disputed the view of Khin Nyuint as a clandestine liberal: "He was only liberal to the extent that being liberal served his interest."
Since the November 2010 elections, most Asian and some Western countries have adopted a "glass half-full" view of Burma, seeing the release of Suu Kyi as a key concession and searching for avenues of enhanced interaction. Pragmatic policy makers may well subscribe to this Ouija-board political analysis, but in the absence of hard evidence of the new government's sincerity to engage in reforms, including improving the rights situation, they should also take a glance at the ruthless past of these fledgling faux-democrats.
Admitting that many of Burma's power-holders have a brutal past does not suggest that the rest of the world doesn't have to deal with them: Asean and its dialogue partners must increase engagement on a number of fronts. However, engagement is best approached with some basic principles in hand and a clear view of whom you are dealing with, not who you would like them to be.
David Scott Mathieson is a senior researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.