In his address to Parliament on Thursday, Burmese President Thein Sein impressed many with his choice of politically meaningful words and colorful phrases reflecting the wishes of the people, but one simple question remains: How seriously can those words be taken?
From teashops around the country to Facebook, many have expressed their views on Thein Sein’s speech.
In his greeting, he called the people of Burma the “parents” of the country—something that might not strike many non-Burmese as particularly significant, but which would have a powerful resonance with citizens accustomed to being told that “only the Tatmadaw [armed forces] is the father, and only the Tatmadaw is the mother.” This motto, which has been used by Burma’s military rulers for decades, has always been seen as a deep insult to the Burmese people.
Ko Ko Gyi, a strategic leader of the 88 Generation Student group, listened to the speech carefully and told The Irrawaddy: “The words the President used, from ‘parents’ to ‘all political players’ to ‘political inclusiveness,’ are welcome. His words are very good and beautiful, as if he were a poet.”
The former student leader who was freed in January went on to say: “Generally speaking, his whole speech covered all the essential issues, from the political process and ethnic issue to even daily matters on the ground. That showed that he is aware of the day-to-day life of the people.”
In his speech, Thein Sein vowed that his nominally civilian government would continue the political reforms it initiated last year and strive to establish a lasting peace with ethnic armed groups. But he also touched on more mundane subjects, such as the availability of mobile phone SIM cards and the Internet.
Noting that some young soldiers serving in ethnic armies had expressed a desire to replace their guns with laptops, Thein Sein said he was saddened by this and firmly stated: “I have decided to eliminate all these misfortunes during my administration. It is necessary to help ethnic young people who hold guns to be able to hold laptops and try to live a good life.”
This remark understandably attracted a great deal of attention from the tiny minority of Burmese with access to the Internet, as well as Burmese living overseas. One young Facebook user simply said, “I love U, President,” while another was more sarcastic: “Mr President, I want a 17-inch Apple laptop.”
In what was surely an unintentional parody of the president’s words, the Friday morning edition of The New Light of Myanmar wrote at the top of the front page: “All must try to see race youths who brandished guns using laptop.”
“The gun represents war and conflict. But laptops represent modernity and development. I think that is a beautiful, meaningful metaphor,” said respected journalist Maung Wuntha, who edits the People’s Era journal in Rangoon.
The writer and editor—a prominent dissident who was detained several times after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising until 2001—listened to the president’s speech carefully and cautiously. He found the speech very comprehensive.
“I am quite satisfied with the way the president used ‘parents’ to refer to the people,” he said.
Maung Wuntha said he was also pleased that the president highlighted the important role of civil society. He added that Thein Sein’s open denial of speculation about hardliners and reformists within the government was also good because in the past, Burmese leaders didn’t respond to such speculation.
Critics believe that there are high-ranking officials in the government who have been resisting the president’s reforms since last year.
One question might reinforce their belief. The president said he came out to make his speech to mark the first anniversary of his government. However, he didn’t come into power until the end of last March. So why the rush to address the nation?
“The timing of the speech suggests there was some urgency,” said Ko Ko Gyi. “There seems to be some concern that pushed him to speak a bit earlier than expected.”
Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, has been quite popular recently since he made a number of proposals, including increasing the salaries of civil servants.
At the end of the speech, Thein Sein asked the people to “guide and steer our government.” And he promised, “I would like to reaffirm our commitment to serving the interests of our people and country with all-out effort, even by sacrificing our lives.”
An Irrawaddy reporter based in Burma who spoke to several residents in Naypyidaw about the president’s speech found that most were impressed. However, one resident said: “Words are not enough. He has to show us he can really work for the people as he said.”
“The speech was filled with the fragrance of democracy,” said Maung Wuntha. “I just hope that that fragrance will soon bring about the real essence of democracy.”