Burma’s rudderless opposition

Photo credit: Andrew Becraft

With the release of Aung San Sui Kyi from house arrest in November, there has been a renewed feeling within Burma that progress, however slight, might be being made toward democracy and ethnic autonomy. But is this expectation realistic? Twenty years ago, Western countries began to impose sanctions on Burma due to the junta's failure to transfer power to the National League for Democracy (NLD), which had defeated the military regime in free and fair elections. Those sanctions have since been expanded in an effort to force Burma to free its political prisoners and move towards democratic governance, but have failed to attain either, particularly as General Than Shwe has forged closer relations with neighbouring countries. In turn, these countries, especially China, have used the Western sanctions as an opportunity to gain economic, political and strategic military advantages. China is now Burma's patron at the United Nations Security Council, and protects it from universal censure.

In August 2003, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the regime's official name, announced its 'Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy', a seven-step process toward restoring democracy to Burma and transitioning from direct military rule to civilian rule. With the recent elections, the first five steps have been completed, and the SPDC will soon begin to implement the final two steps – convening the newly elected legislature and building a 'modern, developed and democratic nation'. Initially, Suu Kyi represented a threat, both as a person and as the leader of the democratic opposition. Through skilful manoeuvring, however, Than Shwe has been able to effectively neutralise her as an immediate political threat, forcing even the dissolution of her political party. Often derided by his detractors as a simple postal clerk, ignorant and superstitious, Than Shwe has proven himself to be both shrewd and proactive, in addressing problems posed by both Suu Kyi and Western governments. Although his official role in the new set-up has not yet been determined, it should be expected that he will continue in a leadership position – and, thus, the grip of dictatorship will continue to strengthen.

Suu Kyi is now free from house arrest and, as in the past, continues to provide hope to the people of Burma. Since the 1990 elections, she has been considered by most Western countries to be the opposition leader in Burma. It was she who successfully lobbied the United States, the European Union and others in the West to impose the economic and political sanctions in the first place. However, Suu Kyi was unable to take advantage of the initial openings afforded by the imposition of sanctions and the initial dialogues with the military regime. For too long, she held fast to a central precondition: recognition of the results of the 1990 elections. With the ascension of China into the affairs of Burma, she failed to recognise, until it was too late, that the sanctions-based leverage with the SPDC had been lost. Also, her dialogues with the regime, through General Khin Nyunt, ceased with his political demise in 2004. Again, Suu Kyi had failed to make effective use of these dialogues to achieve even incremental results or 'small victories'.

The national convention to draw up a new constitution presented another opportunity for Suu Kyi and the NLD to engage in dialogue with representatives of the military regime and various ethnic groups. Despite the major flaws of this convention, it again provided a forum in which to work towards incremental results and build networks among representatives. Yet Suu Kyi and her party chose to stand on principle – withdrawing and boycotting the sessions until they were expelled from the convention.

Ahead of elections last year, Than Shwe placed the NLD on the horns of a dilemma, outlawing any party that included members with criminal records – thus technically including Suu Kyi. For the NLD to remain a political party and participate in the elections, Suu Kyi would need to resign. After deliberation she did so, but also recommended that the NLD not participate in the elections. The NLD leadership, though not unanimously, made the decision not to participate in the national elections ostensibly due to its opposition to the 2008 Constitution, and the valid observation that the polls would not be fair or free. This was certainly their choice, but again constituted a missed opportunity to have dialogue with the parliamentary representatives of the government and ethnic groups, and to achieve incremental results – especially at the state/region level and in the important areas of education and health.

Some NLD leaders disagreed with the decision not to participate in the elections, and so resigned to form a splinter party that would contest. They were branded by the NLD as traitors. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi, the NLD and its supporters in and out of Burma urged people to boycott the polls. These supporters then decried the Election Commission's decision to cancel voting in certain village tracts in conflict areas or controlled by groups that forbade polling sites. They said that the government was denying voters in these areas their right to vote. On the one hand, then, NLD supporters seemed to want voters to boycott the elections and, on the other, they wanted the government to allow people to vote in the denied village tracts.

Time's up
Do Suu Kyi and the NLD truly want a democracy of the people, or one of their own choosing? Are they really ethnic Burman autocrats posing as democrats? Is this treatment of party dissidents and promoting of voter boycotts a situation of 'not walking the democracy talk' by Suu Kyi and the NLD? In a democracy, political parties freely form around the perspectives and agendas of contending groups. Also in a democracy, people are encouraged, not discouraged, to vote. Instead, the elections saw a number of democratic candidates who wanted to represent their constituents, especially in certain urban wards and ethnic areas, at both the national and state/region level. How many good candidates lost their elections because of the boycott call, and denied their constituents the possibility of making positive changes at the local level to improve their health, education and economic situations?

In December 2009, Suu Kyi spoke of a reorganisation of the NLD leadership, receiving approval for the plan from the key elders. Many observers feel that the NLD leadership is composed of too many aging members who have lost touch with the people, do not accept intra-party disagreement, and are unable to function without Suu Kyi's instructions. There was initial excitement among the party's supporters that younger member would be elevated to high leadership roles. This past December, however, Suu Kyi went back on the plan, saying she now saw no need to a reorganisation of the leadership.

Importantly, in recent months Suu Kyi has made calls for a second Panglong Conference, the conclave of ethnic minorities that met in 1947 to debate the structure of the future post-independence Burma, shortly before the assassination of General Aung San, Suu Kyi's father. In addition, Suu Kyi has been increasingly calling for a tripartite dialogue with the regime, the ethnic groups and the pro-democracy groups. Yet if she is a leader of the opposition, why is she calling for tripartite dialogue and not bilateral dialogue? In fact, Suu Kyi does not give the same emphasis to ethnic autonomy as she does to democracy, even though ethnic autonomy has been the key issue since independence and no democracy can stand for long in Burma until there is genuine ethnic autonomy in practice. Yet she and her supporters among Western governments and Burma advocacy groups appear to view the achievement of democracy as far more important than ethnic autonomy within a federated nation.

Suu Kyi has had two decades to resolve the ethnic issue through binding memorandums of understanding with the key ethnic groups, spelling out exactly what ethnic autonomy would be provided under a democratic government and the conditions under which the ethnic armies would give up their guns. However such memorandums were never negotiated. Of course, she has been under house arrest for much of this time, but has still been able to communicate with her supporters and foreign media through intermediaries. Also, her cousin, Sein Win, leads the Burmese government-in-exile. However, there has been no movement on the ethnic front. If Suu Kyi and her party cannot stay united themselves or create and sustain a single opposition of Burmans and non-Burmans alike, how can they hope to govern a country of 55 million people with a multitude of nationalities and languages?

While the ethnic groups, including the Shan and Karen, hang Suu Kyi's picture in their offices and speak warmly of her to the media, they do not trust her talk and they will not give up their weapons until ethnic autonomy is assured to their satisfaction. Suu Kyi is an ethnic Burman, and Burmans have lorded over the other ethnicities of Burma since the times of the Burmese kings. Today, there is a feeling among the ethnic leaders that many of the NLD elders are nationalistic Burmans who would ultimately undermine any form of federalism or ethnic autonomy, which would detract from the rule of the Burmans and the prominent role of Buddhism in the country. As such, any Second Panglong Conference held in the current context would be able to accomplish little more than provoking the government.

Multiple times over the past fifty years, Burma's ethnic groups have formed political and military alliances. Unfortunately, these have only ever lasted a few years, or have otherwise proven ineffective in forcing the regime to the bargaining table on favourable terms. The National Democratic Front (NDF), the alliance of eight ethnic armed groups formed in 1975, is a good example of an ethnic military alliance, but today there appears to be no strong leadership, planning or coordinated military operations in this grouping. Further, a number of original members of ethnic organisations have now left the NDF and signed ceasefire agreements with the Naypyidaw regime, though some have recently become aligned again. Nonetheless, with a lack of a united and sustainable political and military structure, as well as no strategic unity with their counterparts in the pro-democracy opposition, the ethnic groups will continue to lose ground, and their people will continue to suffer atrocities by the Tatmadaw military and their allied ethnic armed groups.

Suu Kyi has indeed offered much hope to the people of Burma, and endured most of the past two decades under detention. Yet she and the NLD have done little to transform that hope to move democracy – or, a significant corollary, ethnic autonomy – forward. While they stand on principle and refuse to compromise, the dictatorship has become stronger than it has ever been since the military coup d'état of 1962. Looking forward, Suu Kyi and her party might well remain confrontational, stubborn and unimaginative. They have also become increasingly concerned about their image, especially with regards to their Westerner supporters, and this could help to shape their future actions. Without a change in leadership in the democracy movement and a unified opposition, there is little chance that the oppressive regime will end – and, more importantly, that the suffering of the people of Burma will cease in the near future.

There will be no movement toward democracy and ethnic autonomy in Burma unless the reality on the ground is recognised and action based on what is truly possible. This reality is that there has been, first and foremost, a failure of leadership among the opposition forces – democratic and ethnic alike. The opposition leadership must look beyond ethnicity to see the commonality in the oppression and suffering of the Burmese people. To change the oppressive government, the opposition must become a sustainable united front, capable of gaining the power to overthrow or bargain on a strong basis with the regime, and gain the attention of China and ASEAN. To do this, a new generation of leaders should be identified, trained, mentored and supported; become united as a single opposition force; and nurture a bias in favour of reasoned, disciplined, coordinated and skilful action. Not only must they provide aspiration, they need to be able to plan strategically to mitigate and eliminate the regime's pillars of support, and execute those plans effectively.

The opposition must be forced into sustainable unity, facilitate a generation of effective leadership, and be accountable for results. This will be very difficult for them to do without strong pressure. That pressure can be exerted through the control of funding to various opposition groups by Western governments and aid groups, and the closing of refugee camps in adjacent countries. Excepting legitimate humanitarian assistance, which does not prolong conflict, Western governments must cease all funding of ineffective advocacy and training programmes for the opposition and re-allocate that funding only towards programmes that serve to directly weaken the regime's pillars of support. There has been more than enough advocacy and training over the past twenty years with no positive effect upon the travails of the people of Burma. The closure of the refugee camps at a stated date in the near future – eg, 2015 – would add another layer of pressure on the opposition to effectively address the situation in Burma with a sense of urgency.

The democratic and ethnic opposition groups, and their Western supporters, will do everything in their power to resist such actions if past proclivity is any guide. However, the international community has a humanitarian responsibility to protect the people of Burma because their leadership – regime and opposition – has failed to do so. As such, opposition leaders must be compelled to act, or move aside for new leaders who are unafraid to act skilfully and decisively. With this, the Tatmadaw will lose ground, the political and economic support of neighbouring countries and business groups will be undermined, and dissension will be stoked within the ranks of the military and other groups and sectors associated with the regime. At that time, the regime can be overthrown or brought to the bargaining table, and the new democratic Federal Union of Burma will finally have the opportunity to emerge.

Moegyo is the pseudonym for a political observer who lives and works in the Thai/ Burma borderlands.

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