For more than two years now Burma’s military leaders have been holding secret talks with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The dialogue started while Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. When she was released earlier this year, the international community and the people of Burma expected the process to move to the next stage – substantive political negotiations. But instead it now looks as if the whole process has stalled. Progress needed to resolve the country’s political deadlock looks as far away as ever.
Just a few months ago a political breakthrough seemed not only possible but also imminent. The United Nations special envoy, Razali Ismail, who brokered the talks between the two sides, in fact, believed that it was just a matter of a few weeks before something substantial was achieved to break the impasse that is now more than a decade old. But Burma’s generals have revealed their true colours. The military leaders have for long asserted that the country was going through a transition toward a multi-party democracy. Now, however, the country’s powerful intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, says, “Such a transition cannot be done in haste or in a haphazard manner”. He warned, “The world is full of examples where hasty transition from one system to another led to unrest, instability and even failed states”.
In line with this, Burma’s generals have taken to making public pronouncements about their vision of democracy, and the hardline underlying that vision does not inspire much confidence. They have borrowed quite liberally from the political philosophy of one of their few uncritical supporters, Dr Mahathir Mohammad. The Malaysian prime minister has always maintained that Malaysia’s form of paternal democracy, which he believes incorporates what he terms ‘Asian values’, is the most appropriate for Burma. He told the generals when he visited Rangoon earlier this year that they do not necessarily have to adopt a Western approach to democracy. More importantly, he has constantly warned the regime that it should not bow to international pressure and instead evolve a Burmese variant of democracy.
But ‘native democracy’ seems to derive its more practical orientation not from Malaysia, but from the Chinese approach to politics. This is best exemplified by the intelligence boss’ recent rhetoric. He has been saying, “The democracy we seek to build may not be identical to the West but it will surely be based on universal principles of liberty, justice and equality”. It is therefore more than likely that Burma’s military rulers are now looking at the Chinese political model as the basis of their new constitution.
Despite recent expectations to the contrary, what seems to be happening is that the country’s top military leader – Senior General Than Shwe – has actually strengthened his control over both the army and the administrative structure. Ever since the arrest of four members of the former military dictator General Ne Win’s family six months ago, allegedly for planning a coup against the current military regime, there have been growing signs that Than Shwe is intent on establishing his own dynasty.
Even before Ne Win’s son-in-law and three grandsons were detained in March, Than Shwe had been reasserting his authority. He dismissed two top generals who had been accused of being heavily involved in corruption. He then made major changes within the army high command, transferring 10 out of 12 of the country’s regional commanders, who exert almost complete authority in the areas under their control, and stationing them in Rangoon instead. They were replaced by officers whose allegiance to Than Shwe is unquestioned.
These actions have fuelled the growing suspicion in many quarters that Than Shwe, having secured his leadership position beyond question, is intent on staying in power. “General intends to hold onto power for another 10 years”, says a senior military source close to Than Shwe. “He is prepared to talk to the opposition leader, work with the NLD in an interim administration, and even consider power-sharing at some point, but his main strategy is to drag the dialogue process out and retain power as long as possible”.
The trend of recent promotions in the army – with Than Shwe’s two top lieutenants being promoted and one of them, General Maung Aye, also being appointed Deputy Senior General – is a clear indication that this is an army top brass that does not intend retiring soon, despite being overtaken by old age. The suspicion that the generals are bent on consolidating power is strengthened by the death sentence awarded to the arrested members of Ne Win’s family, even though most observers believe this will be commuted to life imprisonment. Either way, the end of the Ne Win dynasty as a potential rival to the ruling combine in Rangoon is certain. Indeed, the fear in pro-democracy circles is that General Than Shwe is fashioning a lineage of his own on the model of the Ne Win dynasty. The Senior General is now often accompanied on his official travels around the country by his teenage grandson, who has on occasion even been paraded around in his military uniform. This was conveyed in a particularly stark manner when the state-owned media continuously showed pictures of the two, even as the Ne Win affair was getting full play.
Those who know Than Shwe well say he is an avid sports follower. In fact many diplomats in Rangoon believe he spends much of his time watching international football games on satellite television. A senior Asian politician recently asked the general how he saw Burma’s political game – between the army and the pro-democracy opposition – working out in the future. “You’ve got it all wrong”, he replied. “We are the umpire not one of the teams in the match”. For the Burmese people, all this is par for the course. For them the past 14 years have been full of hopes being raised only to be dashed by the junta’s intransigence.
Today, on the streets of Rangoon there is growing despondency. This is in stark contrast to the mood throughout the country six months ago, after the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on 6 May. She had spent the previous 19 months confined to her residence for trying to visit party activists in Mandalay, central Burma, in defiance of a travel ban slapped by the State Peace and Development Council. For the residents of Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi’s release was a moment they had long waited for. Though the state-run media studiously avoided covering the event for hours, on the day she was freed people were watching satellite television and listening to overseas radio broadcasts. The official silence was to no avail, and by the time she arrived at the party headquarters everyone in Rangoon knew that she had been freed and large crowds had gathered to greet her.
“The country needs her free”, an old man buying rice in the shop a few doors down from the NLD office said back then. “She will rebuild her party and win the next elections”. Others were looking to her for some relief in their daily struggle for survival. “Now Daw Suu is free, things will get better – we will get more meat and vegetables to eat”, said a young mother shopping in the market near the party headquarters. For the NLD and its key leaders, Suu Kyi’s release was an ecstatic moment. “They are relieved”, a senior member of the party said. “They have shouldered all the responsibility for the last 18 months and now Daw Suu is free, a great weight is lifted from their shoulders”. These three reactions encapsulate the range of expectations of the freed leader, but the political expectation is clearly the most demanding one. The leader’s release lifted the sagging morale of the opposition movement and transformed the headquarters into a hive of activity from the cemetery it had come to resemble during the period of her internment. On 6 May, the ramshackle office, near the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, was full of party activists preparing for the arrival of their leader.
But what happened on that day in many ways exemplified the political process that was to unfold – that the climate and agenda of opposition activity is still at least partially being dictated by the junta. On 6 May, the crowd outside the party office was destined to be disappointed. No sooner had Suu Kyi arrived than she was whisked into the building by NLD leaders who feared that the crowds outside might get out of hand, thus giving the military an excuse to place her under house arrest again. Her moment of arrival became also in a sense her moment of seclusion. Now, as time passes without any concrete progress towards negotiations the public euphoria over her release has been gradually dissipating.
This discouraging recent history notwithstanding, the United Nations envoy Razali Ismail continues to be optimistic that progress towards real political discussions is still possible and that a meeting between Suu Kyi and a senior representative of the military government, probably General Khin Nyunt, is on the cards. This, despite the fact that many other concessions he expected from the regime are yet to materialise. Perhaps Razali’s optimism stems from the fact that external pressure has been consistently maintained on the Rangoon government to find a negotiated settlement.
There is no doubt that international pressure has been largely responsible for diluting the junta’s intransigence. For more than 10 years, the world community has been trying to engage the Burmese generals in a dialogue through the UN, which has consistently demanded that the regime improve its human rights record and institute political negotiations. For the past 11 years a special rapporteur on human rights in Burma has compiled annual reports which have been tabled at the UN General Assembly. These reports have been among the principal bases for the UN resolutions adopted unanimously every year urging Burma’s government to respect human rights, free all political prisoners, start concrete tripartite talks with the opposition and the ethnic groups, and honour the election results of 1990.
The 1990 elections remain, even after more than a decade, one of the most contentious unresolved issues of Burmese politics. Back then, the Burmese military had honoured the outgoing military dictator Ne Win’s 1988 promise to hold national elections. Despite the fact that the opposition leader had been under house arrest since July 1989, the NLD swept the elections on 27 May 1990, winning over 80 percent of the seats. But the military regime then refused to honour the election results and held onto power despite the barrage of international condemnation. This has always stood in the way of international engagement with the Burmese regime.
Apart from monitoring the human rights situation in Burma, the UN has also tried periodically to help break Burma’s political stalemate by offering to facilitate discussions between the two main protagonists in the conflict. This was how Razali Ismail, a senior Malaysian diplomat, came to be appointed UN special envoy to try and break the Burmese deadlock. He has visited the country every three months since his appointment and held discussions with both Aung San Suu Kyi and the top military leaders, including General Than Shwe.
Razali has not only had the weight of the UN behind him, but the active support of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, who is regarded by Than Shwe as Rangoon’s most important regional and international ally. On several occasions over the past three years the general has sought the Malaysian leader’s advice on a number of issues, including on how to reduce the country’s international isolation and develop the country’s economy.
While international pressure has played its part in improving the situation, Razali Ismail’s own efforts at selling the idea of negotiations to both sides cannot be discounted. It was he who finally convinced the generals that they should release Suu Kyi if they entertained any hope of ending their international isolation. For her part, Suu Kyi was far from certain that being released would actually help the opposition’s cause. In fact, while under house arrest she often told visiting diplomats that her release was her only bargaining chip with the generals. Razali eventually persuaded the reluctant leader that her release was an important precondition for the negotiations to make substantive headway. Discussions between the two adversaries on the political future of Burma, he argued, would require Suu Kyi to rebuild the NLD and discuss crucial policy issues with other leaders of the party.
The secret talks started shortly after the NLD leader was put under house arrest in September 2000. Since then, it has been a slow and tortuous process. The key priority was to build confidence between the two sides, to overcome mutual suspicion. For the NLD, the main demands were the immediate release of all political prisoners, the reopening of the party offices, and assurance that party members would be allowed to function without being harassed or intimidated by the military authorities.
The general expectation was that with the release of Burma’s most prominent political figure, national reconciliation would graduate to the phase of substantive political dialogue. “Both sides agree that the confidence-building phase is now over”, Suu Kyi told a news conference in Rangoon immediately after she was released. “The authorities have said they look forward to moving to a more significant stage of the talks”. But things have turned out somewhat differently. During her captivity, Suu Kyi had met top generals, including Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt, more than 70 times. But in the five months since her release, according to the NLD spokesman, U Lwin, there has been no meeting between Suu Kyi and the generals.
The party and its perils
As always, the generals seem to be calling the shots and stalling the talks. The opposition leader and the NLD still have their work cut out for them if they are to succeed in sustaining the pressure against the regime. They need to rebuild the party and rejuvenate its activities. Most party offices throughout the country have been defunct for years. The party headquarters has fallen into disrepair, and even today resembles a rundown mausoleum of democracy rather than a vibrant centre of political activity.
Fortunately, the general despondency about the negotiations petering out seems not to have infected the NLD itself and some signs of revival at the party headquarters can be detected. On most mornings, there are education classes in session on the ground floor, where young activists study subjects ranging from public health to English language. In the afternoon, the party’s medical workers run a health clinic where babies are measured and weighed, and the mothers given powdered milk. There are regular meetings of the various sub-committees that have been established to revitalise the party and prepare the ground for it to function properly as a well-equipped political party when the situation changes in Burma and there is full political freedom.
“There are committees preparing policy on health, education, defence and the economy”, says U Lwin, “but our most important task is to reopen all our offices in Rangoon and the divisional headquarters throughout the country”. While most offices in Rangoon have now been opened, only a small fraction of those outside the capital have been revived. Allowing the NLD to function is one of the government’s concessions to the political process.
It is critical, at this juncture, for the NLD to show that it will be able to run the country in the future. Although the party won the 1990 elections convincingly, that victory was seen by many not so much as a vote for the NLD as an endorsement of its charismatic leader. NLD leaders even admit privately that the party would be nothing without her. The party has to be prepared to fight another election, in case the military allows polls to be held, and demonstrate that it has the organisational fire to match Suu Kyi’s personal charisma.
Paradoxically enough, it is Suu Kyi’s popularity that fuels concern about the NLD leadership as a whole. The fear is that there really may be no one within the NLD who could replace her. The other top leaders – U Lwin, Aung Shwe and Tin Oo – are all in their 70s, and the party in the near future will feel acutely the lack of a new generation of leaders. Unlike the military, which is carefully grooming junior officers to occupy high office in the future, there is little succession-planning within the opposition movement.
The party also faces the problem of inadequate cadre expansion. U Lwin admits that membership is falling. “We once attracted the students, but we now have great difficulty in interesting them in joining us”, he says. He feels this will change though when there is greater freedom for political action. However, there may well be a deeper basis for this problem. Ever since the NLD was formed, there has always been tension between the young radical students and the old guard, most of whom were formerly soldiers under General Aung San and later General Ne Win.
There has been resentment among young NLD activists over the past decade that Aung San Suu Kyi has appeared to favour the old guard. And there is also growing impatience among the younger rank and file, who would like more transparency and vigour in the negotiation process. “We are frustrated by constantly being told to be patient and trust our leader”, says one young NLD member. The junta’s delay in taking the dialogue forward could potentially deepen the generational divide in the opposition.
The party’s problems are compounded by the incipient and dangerous rift between the NLD and the pro-democracy opposition groups in exile, such as the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, which refuse to take the military’s sincerity at face value. That attitude is likely to conflict with Aung San Suu Kyi’s present political strategy, and if the divide becomes more pronounced it could diminish her ability to be the unifying force she currently is.
For Suu Kyi and the NLD, one positive change that may help overcome these problems is that since her release there have been few restrictions on her movement or her political activity. She has even been allowed to visit government development projects and UN projects. In a calculated publicity ploy, the military regime has even told her that it welcomes suggestions from her. “But they have been careful to tell her to send any comments or suggestions she might have in a letter”, says a Western diplomat. “They certainly do not want to give an impression that she is being given any role in government at all, even in what would be seen as the legitimate role of an opposition”.
No matter how slim the possibility may seem at present, Aung San Suu Kyi and the party need to prepare themselves for future political talks with the generals. This entails taking a substantial number of important policy decisions and clarifying the party’s explicit position on many issues. The two major issues are its stand on the status of the 1990 election results and the NLD’s participation in the National Convention, created by the military regime for formulating a constitution, which the party walked out of six years ago. The leadership will also have to formulate its position on an issue that has international implications, namely its attitude to trade sanctions and humanitarian aid. Any changes in the party’s policy will have to be based on a vigorous discussion both within the party central committee and with the rank and file.
The biggest question that will confront the party, and one that gives the military regime the greatest scope for manipulation, is how to involve the ethnic leaders in any substantive talks about Burma’s political future. Ever since the secret talks between the opposition leader and the generals started, there has been pressure to involve the leadership of ethnic groups in tripartite talks. This is something that Aung San Suu Kyi has also been particularly concerned about. The NLD has always maintained good relations with the ethnic political parties. To emphasise Suu Kyi’s commitment to strengthening this relationship, on the day she was released, leaders of four ethnic political parties – the Shan, Mon, Arakanese and Chin – along with a Kokang representative were invited to join the NLD central committee members for a briefing by her.
So far the NLD has been advising ethnic leaders that they need to organise themselves before they can directly participate in talks. The de facto leader of the ethnic groups, Khun Tun Oo – who heads the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) – says he wants the ethnic groups to form their own national convention to discuss their common concerns, political aspirations and, above all, to build trust and confidence between all the ethnic groups before they are even involved in the dialogue process, let alone in tripartite talks.
This in itself is a major stumbling block, since a national convention of ethnic groups would involve legal political groups like the SNLD, political groups that have been de-registered by the military government, ethnic rebel groups which have signed cease-fire agreements with Rangoon, and armed ethnic guerrilla groups like the Karen National Union which are still fighting Burmese troops. So far the generals have tried to prevent political groups like the SNLD from meeting and talking with Shan rebel groups like the Shan State Army which have signed a ceasefire agreement with Rangoon.
There is no doubt that Rangoon’s military chiefs know that only the ethnic groups can provide an answer to Burma’s decades of ethnic strife and political uncertainty. However, the military regime to date has not given up its talk of a unitary state, whereas the ethnic groups want a federal state. The NLD vision of Burma’s new constitution actually comes quite close to a federal structure, and talks may in fact lead Burma out of its decades-old morass, but the generals are adamant about not allowing a meeting among all the players in the game. So far they have kept the ethnic groups who have signed ceasefire agreements out of the national reconciliation process. It is likely that Burma’s military leaders see the ethnic groups as a pawn they can use against the NLD.
The army’s resistance to ethnic autonomy and a federal system has been clear from the outset. When the army first seized power in 1962, it claimed that it had been forced to take control in order to prevent Burma from being split by ethnic rebel guerrillas demanding autonomy, and plunging the country into anarchy. In the circumstances today, if the generals do allow the ethnic question to be raised, it may well be to drive a wedge and pre-empt the possibility of a combined opposition.
Consequently, the NLD will need to address these issues at the earliest, for though the talks have stalled for the present, the possibility of the regime returning to the negotiating table as a consequence of accentuated social unrest cannot be ruled out. At that juncture the NLD cannot afford to have permitted the situation to get out of its control.
Rice and revolt
The rapidly deteriorating social and economic situation has affected the NLD no doubt, but it is the government which may find its plan to cling to power for the long term undone by inflationary tendencies in the market and the accompanying collapse of law and order. In fact, what the government is confronted with today is an internal crisis of serious proportions. Though the public at large is despondent, some activist students have started a campaign demanding immediate political reform. In the wake of the recent arrest and release of some dissident students who had been protesting publicly in Rangoon, more students are planning a leaflet campaign demanding political change.
There is a real danger of social unrest escalating throughout the country. The aborted political negotiations may be the focus of some of the current protests, but the underlying economic crisis will very likely amplify the disturbances to unmanageable proportions. Reports of looting from across the country are increasingly frequent now. Diplomatic sources in Rangoon say at least six rice warehouses in rural areas have been ransacked in the past few weeks. Several trucks transporting rice to the districts have been robbed on the highways and two rice boats were attacked on the Irrawaddy. These incidents are direct consequences of inflation and the shortage of basic necessities.
Rice prices have been escalating rapidly as the government finds it increasingly difficult to procure sufficient stocks of rice to meet the domestic demand. A 50-kilogram bag of the lowest quality rice currently sells for more than 7000 kyat, an increase of more than 50 percent in the past two months. Better quality rice is now more than 1000 kyat for a kilogram. In Rangoon, the price of rice has registered a more than 100 percent increase since the beginning of the year, while in some rural areas, residents complain of a four-fold increase in price over the past five months. There is certainly a serious problem of supply in the domestic market. Analysts believe this is partly because of the government’s obsessive export drive; the junta has set a target of exporting more than a billion tonnes of rice this year. This export-induced domestic scarcity is accentuated by crop damage due to floods, which have severely disrupted the government’s distribution system. The flood forecast for the coming agricultural year is not very promising either.
The fear that the rice shortage is going to reach unmanageable proportions because of long-term environmental factors next year is not unfounded. An independent agricultural expert doing preliminary research in Burma has privately warned the UN that there is a very real risk of famine in the year ahead because of the likelihood of crop failures due to massive soil degradation arising from over-cropping and acute lack of fertilisers.
Burma’s generals have always been nervous about the prospect of civil disturbances as a result of rice shortages. In the past six months they have been selling rationed low grade rice at subsidised prices throughout the country but especially in urban areas like Rangoon. Residents there say people line up every day for hours to buy the small quantities of essential commodities being dispensed at these government outlets. These queues are getting longer even as the permitted ration is getting smaller in volume. Because of the low rice supplies available for distribution even the minimal relief being provided is shrinking as the number of stalls has been reduced in some areas of Rangoon.
Inflation is now at over 50 percent a year. Even the bribes necessary to keep basic amenities like phone lines in working order have gone up. Medical costs have more than doubled over the last three months since the border with Thailand has been closed. Wages and salaries have not kept pace with the rise in prices. Burmese economists estimate that an average family of five needs more than 80,000 kyat (USD 80) a month to live, costs of food, medicine and transport included but not luxury goods. As against this, the average monthly income of professionals – teachers, university professors, government officials – is less than 10,000 kyat (USD 10).
Many families, especially those living on the outskirts of Rangoon or in the poorer rural districts, can afford only one meal a day. They supplement this with a bottle of glutinous water that is left over from cooking and is available for less than a cent in roadside markets. Average Burmese living standards are declining rapidly and UN officials fear that a massive humanitarian crisis is looming. They estimate that already at least one child in three under the age of five suffers from malnutrition. If the situation remains unchecked, they fear that this could double in the next 12 months.
Rice shortages have in the past brought people out onto the streets in protest against the government. According to senior military intelligence sources, the government fears the possibility of food riots and has already begun to form and train special military units to control civil disturbances.
It is not surprising that there has been an inordinate increase in crime levels, especially in Rangoon. Some observers claim that the situation is worse than it was in 1987-88. This new spate of crime is certainly a reflection of Burma’s rapidly worsening economic conditions, especially in the cities, and could easily well up into political unrest.
Compulsions and equations
Political unrest sparked off by economic collapse will seriously compromise the government. But it is an outcome that the NLD does not want either. For the NLD, the process of building trust has come a long way, and it fears a return to the absolute repression of a few years ago. In September, on the anniversary of the founding of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated her willingness to cooperate with the military regime in the interests of the people. The real implication of this statement is still not clear, but it certainly was an invitation to the military to cooperate on social and humanitarian issues.
If the dialogue process is to make any progress, the NLD and the military must at least be seen to be looking for common ground. “Aung San Suu Kyi and the military must find ways of working together, the future of the country depends on it”, says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand. “The NLD needs the army because they do not have the necessary experience yet to run a country”. The first and most obvious step in this direction is the forming of a joint committee, involving representatives of both the military and the NLD, to set priorities in health and education and mobilise humanitarian aid to put these programmes into practice. But even this seems quite some way off. The NLD favours the idea, but so far UN envoy Razali Ismail has not been able to convince the generals to accept it.
Burma’s political future is now critically poised. There is no doubt that most people in Burma are struggling to survive and need a change. Aung Sang Suu Kyi may be free, but the military is still in control. Both the generals and the opposition have their compulsions, and there is really no clear indication of how events will transpire in the coming months. For the junta in Rangoon, politics may be manageable, but the economy is evidently not. The resultant social unrest may spiral out of the control of both the government and the NLD. That cannot be a pleasing prospect for either side or for Burma as a whole. It is therefore incumbent on the NLD to set about rebuilding and mobilising its base against the government, without provoking violence. At the same time it will need to cooperate with the generals on issues of humanitarian concern, without weakening its cadre’s agitational resolve. Both sides are treading a fine line, and it increasingly looks as if the final arbitrator will be the ‘international community’. When that final settlement will happen is anybody’s guess. But in the interim the threat mounted by spiralling inflation and social unrest have added to the difficulties of the regime in Rangoon. “The generals must know they are running out of time”, says a UN official, “and starting substantive political talks as soon as possible is essential if they want to ensure stability”.
Staying with ‘Burma’
IN 1989, Burma was officially named Myanmar by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997) to emphasise the fact that the country was made up of more than the Burman people. However, the substitution of the colonial name by the supposedly more ‘egalitarian’ Myanmar has been rejected by the pro-democracy movement because it is an initiative of the junta. The democracy movement in the country has, therefore, stayed with ‘Burma’, which is what Himal also follows.