Burma’s continuing political drama has recently come to a major crossroads, with the ruling military junta’s future suddenly looking rather uncertain. The first stage on the Rangoon government’s roadmap to democracy – drawing up the guidelines for a new constitution – concluded during the second week of September with no indication of what, or when, the next stage may be. Meanwhile, for the first time in nearly 20 years, August and September saw weeks of sporadic but sustained public protests on the streets of Rangoon and many other cities. Ostensibly against rising food and fuel prices, the protests showed the political exasperation of a long-suffering populace. Overnight, officials had increased the price of diesel by 100 percent and that of compressed natural gas by 500 percent. But the government’s usual response to such public dissent – a concerted crackdown on activists – has subsequently begun to backfire, particularly with the country’s revered Buddhist monks also beginning to vent their anger against the regime.
As the social and political cauldrons threaten to boil over, Burma’s generals appear at a loss over what to do. Indeed, their greatest fear seems about to be unleashed: mass protests led by students and monks, similar to those that brought down the former dictator, General Ne Win, in 1988. At the same time, international pressure on the junta to introduce political reform has increased in response to the brutal crackdown on the peaceful protestors. While the international community remained largely unaware of the events that unfolded in Rangoon 19 years ago, this time around it is extremely concerned – and vocal. The Burma issue is certain to be put back on the UN Security Council agenda in the very near future. This will force Rangoon to call on its friends, especially Beijing, for support. But Burma’s allies may be more cautious in their defence of the regime than they have been in the past, and may demand concessions in return for their votes.
All this is casting a long shadow over the junta’s political future, and the generals are looking increasingly tentative. The key issue in the current context is how they intend to move forward with their proposed political reforms. A watershed appeared to have been reached in early September, when the National Convention finally ended its constitution-related discussions – deliberations that had taken 14 long years to conclude. The National Convention, which had been meeting intermittently since the beginning of 1993 to draw up a new charter, ended its last session with a document outlining a new set of principles that the junta has decided should be the basis of the new constitution.
The guidelines endorsed by the thousand hand-selected members are clearly intended to give only the illusion of introducing democracy, while effectively leaving political power firmly in the hands of the country’s military rulers. The next step in Burma’s return to so-called democracy will be a referendum on the new constitution, after it has been formally drafted, which will most likely be sometime next year. Elections would then be held in 2009.
At the closing session of the National Convention, the acting prime minister, General Thein Sein, proudly presented what is in effect the draft constitution – the recipe for what the regime has dubiously dubbed “disciplined democracy” – as an inspiring success. In so doing, of course, General Sein ignored the fact that the country’s pro-democracy leaders, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest, as well as the representatives of Burma’s numerous ethnic groups, have all been effectively shut out of the constitutional process.
Unsurprisingly, the military has done well for itself in the National Convention deliberations. Under the guidelines for the new charter, a quarter of the seats in Parliament will be reserved for military appointees. The president must be a military man ‘of stature’, while key ministries (including defence) will also remain under the control of the military. The army will be able to set its own budget, without reference to the civilian government, while army commanders will retain the right to declare a state of emergency and seize power at any time.
Meanwhile, the charter fails to meet the demands of Burma’s rebel ethnic groups, who have been demanding autonomy and cultural rights. Most of these are former guerrillas groups that now have ceasefire agreements with the junta. Many of them, especially the powerful Wa and Kachin in the China-Burma border areas, are now so frustrated with their exclusion that they have begun to rearm, and are threatening to resume their violent struggle against the Burmese army if their demands are not taken seriously before the draft constitution is put to a referendum.
The guidelines for the new constitution also severely restrict the rights of political parties, and place stringent limits on human rights, press freedom and the ability of people to protest. Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 12 of the past 18 years in detention, will be effectively barred from holding any elected office whatsoever, for being the widow of a foreigner. As yet, political parties are unable to operate openly in Burma, with the offices of the main pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), having been compulsorily closed for years, apart from its headquarters in Rangoon. Amnesty International estimates that there are still more than a thousand political prisoners languishing in Burma’s jails, while the NLD’s top two leaders, Suu Kyi and U Tin U, both under house arrest, are unlikely to be released before elections.
At the moment, it is unclear whether the NLD will even be allowed to participate in the elections. During a meeting last November, Burma’s top general, Than Shwe, told the UN’s envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, that the NLD would be permitted to field candidates in future elections. But most analysts are convinced the military will find some pretext on which to disqualify them. The NLD convincingly won the country’s last elections, held in May 1990, taking more than 80 percent of the seats. But the military rulers declared those poll results void, and have held tightly onto power ever since.
With the National Convention having now completed its work, the junta insists that it is committed to introducing multi-party democracy. But diplomats in Rangoon, along with the pro-democracy opposition in Burma, have dismissed the National Convention as a sham, with many pointing to the regime’s brutal suppression of the recent protests as proof of the government’s distaste for the democratic moves. Several thousand pro-government vigilantes, armed with wooden batons and sticks, attacked marchers in Rangoon in August, leaving them badly beaten. During subsequent weeks, authorities arrested hundreds of people for organising and participating in small protest marches, which were likewise broken up by government-organised thugs. These vigilantes are part of a pro-government group called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which the regime frequently uses to give it a veneer of public popularity. USDA members are the same ones who attempted to assassinate Suu Kyi in May 2003, when she was touring in the country’s north.
More ominous now is the USDA’s special security force, the Swan Arrshin. “The members of this group have been especially trained in crowd control and the violent suppression of protests,” a Western diplomat in Rangoon recently told this writer. “We have had reports of its foundation, to act as a security and intelligence wing, since the beginning of the year.” In fact, many former criminals are said to have been recruited as Swan Arrshin members upon their release from jail. Indeed, over 600 criminals are said to have been let out of Rangoon’s notorious Insein jail, and recruited as vigilantes. Pro-democracy advocates in Rangoon put the figure at closer to 2000.
It is this use of thugs that has particularly upset the Buddhist clergy. Pitting Buddhist civilians against other Buddhist civilians disturbs social harmony, a Buddhist monk in Mandalay explained to this writer. “The government should not condone this practise, let alone promote it,” he said. At this point, the junta needs to be careful not to anger the clergy, as the monks would not be as easily cowed as the population as a whole. But an attack on protesting monks near Mandalay on 5 September may yet prove to be a watershed. In that incident, around 300 monks took to the streets of the small town of Pakokku, and were badly beaten by vigilantes. The monks are now demanding an apology from the government, but the junta’s leaders are notoriously loath to admit an error. In an unprecedented move, police and security forces have been deployed outside the monasteries in Pakokku, Mandalay and Rangoon.
Public protests have been exceedingly rare in Burma in recent years. But the numbers joining the recent marches have grown dramatically since more than a hundred people joined the first demonstration in the middle of August. The original protest was planned by political activists from a group known as the 88 Generation, made up of leaders of the 1988 student movement that brought down Ne Win. The key leaders of this umbrella organisation – such as the poet Ming Ko Naing and the charismatic Ko Ko Gyi – were released only two years ago, after spending nearly 14 years in jail.
Immediately after the first protest, authorities detained nearly 20 members of the 88 Generation, who associates worry are currently suffering torture in prison. One of the group, Min Zeya, is seriously ill, and being kept in solitary confinement in the prison hospital’s leprosy ward. There are also unconfirmed reports that one of the most well-known leaders, Kyaw Min Yu, known as Jimmy, has died in prison as a result of beatings. The regime is aware of the public sympathy that these activists enjoy throughout the country, however, and have subsequently released one of the detained members, who had suffered a broken leg while being arrested.
Authorities are presently searching for a key member of the group, Htay Kywe, who has so far evaded capture. He remains the voice of the movement, talking to the Burmese population though various international broadcasters from hiding. In an email to foreign journalists on 9 September, he disputed the junta’s accusations that protesters were using violence to try to overthrow the government. “We believe that no Myanmar people … will accept these acts of political violence by the military government,” he wrote, adding:
We, the 88 Generation Students, together with monks, students, workers and farmers, will continue our efforts to remove the military dictatorship by firmly resisting any kind of arrest and torture. If the military regime only works towards clinging to power without consideration for its own people and tries to eliminate all dissents, not only us the 88 Generation Students but also other political opposition groups, the people of Burma will no longer accept this.
Much to the chagrin of the generals, the protests have grown in number and size following the detention of the 88 Generation members, indicating strengthened resolve to demonstrate against the government. “The current protests are still economic for sure,” explained Khin Ohmar, a leading Burmese activist based in Thailand. “But everyone recognises that the root cause of the inflation is the junta’s economic mismanagement.”
Ohmar was referring to the price hikes that have resulted from the mid-August increase in fuel charges. Following the increases, bus fares and taxi charges doubled immediately in Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein, hitting the poor in these cities hard. Food prices have also risen steeply in Rangoon. An unofficial Consumer Price Index, maintained by a leading Burmese journal in Rangoon and based on a basket of essential commodities, showed a general 35 percent increase following the fuel-price increase. The poor are not the only ones suffering. “I estimate that now the vast majority of Burmese people are spending over 80 percent of their monthly salaries on food,” said a UN economist based in Rangoon. The recent price increases have made it virtually impossible for most Burmese families to survive.
Beginning of the end?
Many activists are already drawing comparisons between the recent events and the run-up to the mass pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988. At that time, just under two decades ago, mass protests involving students, civil servants, workers and monks brought the country to a standstill for months, until the military brutally crushed the movement and seized power in a coup on 18 September 1988.
The dramatic events of August 1988 took months to evolve, but also involved a government-imposed economic crunch. This started in late 1987, with de-monetisation and the withdrawal of some currency notes, which wiped out people’s savings overnight. Initial protest marches were suspended after the regime cracked down violently. Three months later, students initiated a fresh series of demonstrations, which had grown into a mass movement by August. It was at this point that the involvement of the country’s Buddhist monks proved critical.
So far, the signs are that, while people are indeed angry, many are not yet prepared to risk joining the protests. But there is no doubt that fury is just below the surface, and that rising rice prices could be the last straw. With the heavy rains and flooding in Burma’s rice bowl this summer, there will be scarcity in the autumn. “A hungry man is an angry man,” a Rangoon taxi driver said recently.
Although the simmering public discontent is seen to be presently focusing on economic issues, it will inevitably turn political, according to activist Khin Ohmar. “At the moment, the movement is not talking about power. But by concentrating on what really concerns people in their daily lives, people will be encouraged to participate, and that will eventually generate a momentum for real change – that’s what happened in 1988.” She continued: “While we cannot expect dramatic news in the near future, this is certainly the beginning of the end.”
For the first time since 1988, the Burmese military government is facing concerted public protests against its stranglehold on power. It looks likely that if the regime is not able to manage these small, sporadic protests, the public mood could easily escalate into demonstrations demanding the outright end of military rule. “Burma is a social volcano ready to erupt,” according to a leading Burmese businessman. “These price increases may just be the spark that ignites it.”
~ Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist and Burma specialist, based in Bangkok.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
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