President U Thein Sein will be presented the International Crisis Group’s top award at a ceremony on April 22 in New York City. He will be honoured during the ICG’s annual In Pursuit of Peace Award Dinner along with former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The award, which is being presented for its eighth year, is given to recognise individuals who are working towards peace and bringing an end to deadly conflict worldwide.
“At a time when so much of the world seems to be headed in the wrong direction, Myanmar and Brazil stand out as clear examples of presidents working for a better path for their people”, said Thomas Pickering, chair of the International Crisis Group in a statement released on November 26.
Since making the transition from military to civilian leader in March 2011, President U Thein Sein has enacted rapid and widespread reforms. The steps towards democratisation and economic openness have been lauded by the international community.
“Myanmar has initiated a remarkable and unprecedented set of reforms since President Thein Sein’s government took over in March 2011, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners, liberalising the press and promoting dialogue with the main opposition party,” said ICG President Louise Arbour of his short time in office.
Former president Lula of Brazil, who served from 2003 to 2010, is widely recognised as a driving force behind Brazil’s social and economic growth that, according to the ICG, was responsible for “taking millions out of poverty.”
The awards are the culmination of “an internal process that takes many months” according to Jim Della-Giacoma, South East Asia Project Director at ICG. He added that there was not a singular event that guaranteed President U Thein Sein the honour, but rather his collective efforts since assuming leadership of Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government.
“There is no one particular moment, but under his leadership the country has become a very different place than anyone would have imagined two years ago after the flawed November 2010 elections,” he said.
While President U Thein Sein and chairperson of the National League for Democracy Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were ranked jointly by Foreign Policy as number one in their Top 100 Global Thinkers list on November 26 in what is becoming a trend of dual recognition for reforms, Mr Della-Giacoma said that the group did not consider honouring both.
“President U Thein Sein is being honoured for his leadership in leading the country away from its authoritarian past. Clearly, though, his relationship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in traversing current and future challenges as Myanmar continues its transition will continue to be of vital importance,” Mr Della-Giacoma told The Myanmar Times by email.
The award is not without its detractors who have criticised it as premature. Journalist and author Bertil Lintner and Khin Ohmar, chairperson of the Network for Democracy and Development, both slammed the decision by the ICG in an article published by Asia Correspondent for ignoring ongoing ethnic and minority mistreatment and human rights abuses within Myanmar.
“To give him a ‘peace prize’ is outright stupid and just shows how naive ICG is in its assessments of the situation in Burma,” said Mr Lintner in the article.
Mr Della-Giacoma explained that while the award acknowledges the fundamental role that President U Thein Sein has played in the country’s transition, the ICG is well aware of the issues that still persist.
“…We will be looking to President Thein Sein and the Myanmar leadership to address these ongoing challenges in a manner that advances, and doesn’t hinder, the transition process. Every effort must be made to ensure that Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts are brought to a satisfactory end, which recognises the important role all of those groups must have in the country’s future,” Mr Della-Giacoma said of what needs to be done.
Last week, images of severely burned monks, torched encampments and uniformed military turning water cannons on peaceful protestors at the Monywa copper mine provided an unwanted glimpse back into an authoritarian Myanmar that many had hoped was gone forever.
“As this week’s violent break-up of the copper mine protest demonstrates, Myanmar has a long way to go before the vestiges of its recent ugly past have disappeared. But we believe that the President is determined to ensure that they will indeed disappear,” said Mr Della-Giacoma.