Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.
Last Friday, Foreign Policy magazine named Burma's President Thein Sein (pictured) and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the two top global thinkers for 2012. On the same day, Thein Sein was named Asian of the Year by the Singapore-based Straits Times.
These days, few people are surprised when Aung San Suu Kyi receives accolades, but this level of public recognition for Thein Sein has prompted a range of comment, both about the former general and the status of Burma's 'disciplined democracy'.
Before the inauguration of its new parliament in March 2011 and the launch of Thein Sein's ambitious reform program, Burma's government was condemned as a brutal military dictatorship, guilty of appalling human rights abuses and nefarious dealings with pariah states like North Korea. The only prize it ever won was to be labeled one of the world's most repressive and corrupt regimes.
For her steadfast and non-violent opposition to this regime, Aung San Suu Kyi was given the Nobel Peace Prize, the US Congressional Gold Medal of Honour, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and numerous other prestigious awards.
Yet Aung San Suu Kyi is now an elected member of Burma's new parliament, and its government is winning warm (albeit still guarded) praise from the international community. President Thein Sein is playing host to a stream of world leaders, most recently Barack Obama. He in turn has been invited to make state visits to numerous countries, including the US and UK, which were once the strongest opponents of Burma's military regime.
In addition to those announced last week, Thein Sein has been considered for several honours and awards. For example, he is soon to be presented with the International Crisis Group's (ICG) In Pursuit of Peace Award. He has been tipped to be TIME magazine's Person of the Year (along with Aung San Suu Kyi). And, in what can only be described as a supreme irony, it appears he was a nominee for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.
The mere suggestion of such high level recognition for the president has provoked protests from human rights campaigners and other activists, who point to Burma's continuing harsh treatment of political prisoners, Muslim Rohingyas, members of the ethnic minorities and civil protesters. One British MP recently queried whether, during Thein Sein's visit to the UK, the president could be arrested and charged with war crimes.
Discussions of honours and awards tend to generate more heat than light. To put the current public debate into perspective, it is worth looking briefly at the nature of these awards, why they are given and, in particular, who has received them in the past.
The ICG has always been forward leaning in its assessments of developments in Burma. While not blind to the former regime's record of abuses and the current government's shortcomings, the ICG has consistently based its policy recommendations on the principle of positive reinforcement. While this has attracted some strong criticism, granting an award to Thein Sein for his 'visionary leadership' is consistent with this broad approach.
Like other media outlets, TIME's interest is in people who have been particularly newsworthy over the past 12 months. The magazine's editors claim to take into account the views of readers, but they do not apply any test for high ideals, observance of democratic values or contributions to world peace. Past Man (now Person) of the Year covers have featured Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Yuri Andropov, Ayatollah Komeini and Vladimir Putin.
For its part, the Nobel Peace Prize is no stranger to controversy. While many of the Nobel Committee's decisions have been popular and widely respected, as was the case when Aung San Suu Kyi received the award in 1991, others have been greeted with much less enthusiasm. Past recipients have included several leaders of authoritarian governments, two former terrorists and at least one statesman accused of crimes against humanity.
One of the notable characteristics of the Nobel Peace Prize, however, has been its recognition of world leaders and other public figures who have been prepared to take political risks and embrace bold change, despite their personal histories or official positions. Thus, the committee has felt able to recognise characters like Menachem Begin, FW De Klerk and Yasser Arafat, none of whom enjoyed reputations as conciliators or peacemakers.
At times, dramatically changing the political climate and offering hope for real improvements in people's lives seems to have been sufficient grounds for the Nobel Committee to make its choice. Barack Obama was awarded the 2009 Peace Prize less than a year after taking office, more on the basis of his lofty aspirations and idealistic approach to world affairs rather than as the result of any specific achievements.
There is no denying that Burma still faces difficult problems and that, measured against widely accepted international standards, its reform program has a long way to go. This would argue for caution in handing out bouquets to the current government or any of its representatives. Yet, given the precedents, the choice of Thein Sein for international recognition — even a prestigious award — does not seem as surprising, or out of place, as might first appear.
Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.