18 November was a big day for Burma watchers, at least for those in favour of detente with the regime. On that day, President Barack Obama, apparently deciding to give the Burmese government the benefit of the doubt with regard to its ‘reforms’ process, called democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from Air Force One as he was on his way to Bali, Indonesia, to attend the annual ASEAN Summit. They talked for 20 minutes, with Suu Kyi reportedly inquiring about the president’s entire family, even his dog, Bo. Soon after, President Obama announced that he would send his secretary of state, Hilary Clinton to Burma on 1 December, to test whether the validity of the new reforms put in place by the government. It is yet unclear whether Clinton will be able to see the political prisoners still in jail, especially the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’ leader U Gambira and Min Ko Naing, the political activist made famous during the 1988 uprisings.
Since November 2009, the United States has been pursuing a twin-pronged approach with respect to Burma, on the one hand keeping sanctions in place and on the other trying a more direct approach of face-to-face talks with Suu Kyi, encouraging the government to talk meaningfully with her and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. After a ‘pilgrimage’ that Suu Kyi and her son made to the ancient city of Bagan in central Burma this spring, things moved quickly, with the Nobel laureate attending a workshop on economics in Naypyidaw, the new capital city. As Himal goes to press, she has talked to the government’s official liaison on four occasions.
It was also on 18 November, a Friday, that ASEAN announced that it would accept Burma as chair of the regional bloc starting in 2014, a key victory for the regime. The same day, Suu Kyi announced that the NLD would re-register, reversing the official ban on the party put in place in the run-up to the November 2010 election; Suu Kyi herself would also be standing for by-elections slated for December. The news did not stop there: Three days later, the following Monday, representatives of five armed ethnic groups met in Naypyidaw with the minister of railways, Aung Min, acting as President Thein Sein’s representative. At that meeting, two groups, the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army, agreed to informal ceasefires.
This flurry of activity capped months of changes in Burma – changes that remain highly debated. Commentators, representatives of the US State Department and even The Irrawaddy magazine, based in Thailand, have been seeing signs of true reform in Burma. These observers have particularly latched onto such recent events as the suspension of construction on the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam, in northern Burma, ostensibly ‘in response to the people’s wishes’, according to President (and former General) Thein Sein; Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Naypyidaw; the release of 208 political prisoners; and the appearance of portraits of Aung San – national hero, father of the nation and of Suu Kyi – on the wall of an official meeting room in Naypyidaw. Yet in order to properly address the true reach of these changes, we need to go back farther than the past few months: We need to examine what has really changed, in contrast to what we would like to see in Burma as advocates of democracy and an open market economy.
During the Japanese Occupation and World War II, Aung San was the commander of the Burmese army’s predecessor, the Burma Defence Army, later called the Burma Independence Army. At that time, Ne Win was a junior officer under Aung San. Those who started the Burma Independence Army have since come to be known as the Thirty Comrades, those who went to Hainan Island for Japanese military training. After the war, these figures became living legends, partly due to the grandstanding of Ne Win himself. On their return from Hainan, the Comrades filled a silver bowl with their own blood and drank it symbolically, swearing an oath of allegiance to one another and to Burmese independence.
After the coup of 1962, Ne Win, then the head of government, tried to gain legitimacy by presenting himself as the true heir to Aung San. He appointed a scholar named Ko Ko Maung (U Chit Hlaing) to write a tract called A Burmese Way to Socialism, an obscure philosophical statement that combined socialism with Buddhist terminology. Ne Win asked Maung Maung, another scholar friendly with him, to return from Yale and frame a new constitution, and to write a biography of Aung San. (Eventually the junta’s public embrace of Aung San reversed course dramatically; images of the general were banned from 1988 to 2011, as his daughter, Suu Kyi,emerged as her father’s true heir.) Ne Win also put Ba Nyein, a Soviet-influenced economist, in charge of a swift mass nationalisation process and the setting up of a planned economy. This top-down approach, with no input whatsoever from the people or their elected representatives, is typical of the military government’s constitution-writing process. The most recent Constitution, passed in 2010, was created through a similar process, and is widely seen as a document meant only to provide cover for the military.
Major government acts of the past half-century have been built around consolidating military rule. Ne Win was the primary architect of the top-down command economy and the totalitarian system that exists in Burma to this day. His Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) ruled from 1962 to 1988, during which time the government carried out three major demonetisations. The first of these, which declared 50 and 100 kyat notes to be no longer legal tender, wiped out many of the old rich families – who might have opposed his rule. On 7 July 1962, Ne Win’s soldiers shot students at Rangoon University and dynamited its Students’ Union building. Another clampdown took place in 1974, after the students hijacked the remains of the late UN Secretary-General U Thant, taking them to the grassy space where the Students’ Union had stood. Ne Win is said to have harboured personal resentment towards U Thant, who had been close to Prime Minister U Nu before becoming UN secretary-general.
When Thant’s daughter brought his remains back from New York, only two cars came out to meet the cortege – a far cry from the grandiose official welcome one might expect. The students, meanwhile, were evidently hoping to make the world ‘stand up and take notice’, according to a conversation I overheard at the time. The carnival-like atmosphere on campus, with fleeting moments of freedom of expression and impromptu soapbox speeches, continued till the final clampdown about two weeks later. Eventually, however, the sounds of the students giving speeches died down. At the end, they sang the old national anthem of 1948, ‘Kaba ma kyei’ (The world is not crushed), which faded into an eerie silence. From a mile and a half away, thuds could be heard over the public-address system, as the students were beaten.
After the mass country-wide demonstrations of 1988 and the clampdown that began on 18 September of that year (and is arguably still continuing), an important new decision was taken. Ne Win had officially retired by that time, yet he and Saw Maung, then the head of the new State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, the official name of the regime at the time), decided to open up Burma for foreign investment, declaring an ‘open economy’. In fact, this was open only to the junta leaders and their families, who combined with crony capitalists to form holding companies. From this period onwards, the total size of the Burmese economy became far larger than it had ever been in the previous quarter-century, thus vastly expanding opportunities for skimming or outright theft.
In 1990, Suu Kyi’s party won a national election, despite its leader being under house arrest. In the run-up to the polls, SLORC officials had reportedly carried out a survey asking the public their voting preferences; many respondents lied, leading the government to become overconfident and call an election that it ultimately lost badly. However, the military government refused to transfer power. Many elected MPs, fearing arrest or violence, fled, mostly to the Burma-Thai border; there, they formed an exile government called the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.
Shields and bargaining chips
In 2008-09, I helped a group of Burma experts to formulate a plan for democracy and development for the exile government. This encompassed issues such as a progressive, democratic constitution, the economy, the agricultural sector, electoral laws and international monitors, the displaced persons issue, money and banking, and other critical concerns.
Today, a year into the new Parliament’s tenure, offers a potent moment to compare the ideals suggested by the expert committee with what has actually happened on the ground. The experts, which included a civil-military-relations specialist, suggested that the army return to its barracks and re-organise as a professional force; and that the curriculum used for its officer-training programme be changed to reflect the values of an army devoted to protecting the people and democracy and subject to control by a true civilian government. This plan was drafted before 2010, as the exile government’s input and response to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, the name of the regime since 1997).
Since the new Parliament was constituted in January 2011, it has been largely unable to discuss the many critical issues facing the country. What role, for instance, will Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD play in this new government? How will the new members of Parliament represent the true wishes of their constituents? How will the widespread corruption be handled? When will the bombardment of the Kachin be stopped? When will real privatisation – not just moving money into the pockets of military-aligned oligarchs – finally take place? When will all of the remaining political prisoners be released? What will be done to truly safeguard people’s rights? How will we deal with the estimated million internally displaced persons, or the additional million refugees forced to live in other countries? What about the refugees who have lived in Thai camps their entire lives? Or the thousands of farmers who have lost their lands to the crony capitalists – what kind of land reforms will be put in place to allow them to get their properties back? What kind of truth-and-reconciliation process will there be to allow the country’s nearly 50 million people to move on with their traumatised lives? How will Burma’s ravaged environment be healed? And how will the generals’ disciplineflourishing democracy’ become a real, functional democracy?
Instead of discussing these massively important issues, today the showpiece Parliament in Naypyidaw is discussing such relatively mundane subjects as Rangoon’s water supply. (Indeed, even a motion to strengthen regulation to ensure that water supply lost by a large margin.) Meanwhile, the ‘reforms’ that have been enacted thus far barely scratch the surface of the deep structural changes required. For instance, the recent changes have made no mention whatsoever of overhauling Burma’s archaic banking system, despite previous warnings such as the 2003 run on the bank, as panicked people rushed en masse to withdraw their deposits.
Let us take a brief look at some of the outstanding issues not being dealt with by the new government:
Exchange rates desperately need to be unified, with licenses given to money changers. Some money changers have been regularised, but there remain strict limits on how much money each citizen is allowed to change. Two exchange rates continue to exist, with a vast difference between the official and black-market rates (around seven kyat to the dollar versus 1000-1200 kyat to the dollar, respectively); this offers well-connected individuals an opportunity to reap vast profits from the price gap. Since the early 1980s, the black-market exchange rate has gone from 20 kyat to the dollar to the current rates, an almost 60-fold increase – a situation of hyperinflation that explains why Burmese are walking around with wads of money just to buy daily food. Senior generals are all said to have vast foreign-exchange reserves, held in euros since the sanctions, kept in Singapore, Dubai and China.
What about the internally displaced and orphans within Burma, or the migrant labourers now forced to work in Thailand, India, in the West and in Asia? President Thein Sein has invited exiles to return, but so far few have done so. Most exiles do not trust the military, having left due to some kind of political or personal harassment. By now, middle-class exiles have established lives overseas; most others continue to be scared off due to the ongoing lack of jobs within Burma and government control. However, some prominent exiles, such as Zaw Oo of the Vahu Development Institute and Harn Yawngwe of the Euro-Burma Office, have gone back recently, though not to relocate. Zaw Oo did so to be part of the recent Naypyidaw economics workshop, while Harn Yawngwe went on a ‘private visit’, his first in a half-century. Harn Yawngwe – rumoured to have been trying to work out a peace accord between the central government and the various ethnic groups – expressed his surprise that Rangoon and the Shan states appeared to be more open than he had anticipated, though he was followed during his trip by the Special Branch. Harn Yawngwe may be cautiously optimistic; but what works out with the forces on the ground, which have much more at stake, remains doubtful.
While one of the most highly touted moves of recent months came with the release of 208 political prisoners, more than 1800 such prisoners remain behind bars. This was a release, then, of just 10 percent of the total – and, in fact, some suggest that the number of political prisoners, sometimes including whole families, could be far higher. The International Committee of the Red Cross made its last Burmese prison visit in 2005, and was only recently allowed in again to ‘inspect sites for tube wells and toilets in Moulmein prison’ – one of about 40 pris- ons and 90 labour camps inside Burma.
There is a vast, ongoing gap in recent estimates of the number of political prisoners. Suu Kyi and the NLD say there are 691 remaining in prison, but she admits they could only record those they could reach. According to Harn Yawngwe, in an interview with The Irrawaddy after his recent Burma visit, the Association for Assistance of Political Prisoners (Burma) now estimates the number to be 1300. However, in recent interviews with the Voice of America, the Burmese information minister, Kyaw Hsan, in effect denied there were political prisoners at all. ‘Today people who are serving prison terms in our jails are people who broke the existing laws of the country,’ he said. He failed to explain why some of these prisoners have received sentences of a minimum of 30 years and as long as 64 years and how laws such as the Electronics Act were decided on in the first place.
One of those released in the government’s first prisoner amnesty was the well-known comedian Zarganar, said to have been arrested for giving alms to monks during the popular uprising in 2007 and helping the victims of Cyclone Nargis is 2008. Su Su Nway, a labour activist, has also been released. But many other activists – Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Mi Mi and U Gambira – as well as some high-profile bloggers remain behind bars, and the government of Thein Sein has had nothing to say of when, or whether, it plans to release them. Several observers suggest that the political prisoners are seen as important bargaining chips for the regime.
Perhaps most notably, President Thein Sein’s administration has yet to publicly discuss the ethnic issue. There have been armed insurrections (mainly the Karen) since 1947 and only brief periods of ceasefire deals, often violated by the junta. Before the 2010 election, Naypyidaw tried to get armed groups such as the Kachin, the Shan and the Wa to lay down their arms and be absorbed into a Border Guard Force; but after the ethnic groups refused, some have suggested that civil war has become inevitable (see accompanying article by Maung Zarni).
Currently, the state army is bombarding the Kachin. The military has been accused of using chemical weapons as well as rape as a weapon of war, and many suggest that the hardliners in the government, led by the retired General Than Shwe, could be pulling strings in the background. In a poignant visual summary of some reactions to government moves, Harn Lay, the Irrawaddy cartoonist, has published a drawing of President Thein Sein using Suu Kyi as a shield.
The fact of the matter is that Burma does not have a civilian government just because the generals now wear civilian clothes. Ne Win did something similar in 1988, literally changing his clothes to show that he had ‘retired’ and also changing his formal prefix from General to U, meaning uncle. This was immediately before the mass demonstrations erupted. It can be argued that many of the Burmese generals learned how to play the great game from Ne Win; at that time, the day the 1988 clampdown began, a BBC reporter said, ‘The new generals are just like Ne Win, only more so.’
Likewise, Naypyidaw is not a real capital city just because government departments and bureaucrats were forced to move there – it is a Potemkin capital that does not even function as a real city, let alone as a capital city. The hluttaw or Parliament is today little more than an expensive scenic backdrop for photo-ops and publicrelations announcements to ‘prove’ that Burma is reforming. There is no real debate inside the building.
After her first visit to Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi said that there existed the potential for change, but that change itself had not yet arrived. As such, freedom lovers and democracy advocates need to continue their activism, while also waiting to see how the government responds to the need for an open society. What would be a meaningful indicator of true change on the ground? Let me suggest one – a truth-and-reconciliation process.
On this, I would like to quote from a published letter by David Williams, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University. He was writing in response to claims by David Steinberg, a Burma specialist, that a United Nations commission of inquiry into war crimes in Burma would ‘only salve Western consciences and do the Burmese people no good’. Williams subsequently wrote:
A commission of inquiry would hinder relations with the ‘new’ governmentonly if that government is controlled by those accused. Mr. Steinberg is really saying that we should not offend the authors of the atrocities because then they won’t talk to us. But they won’t talk to us now; the United States decided to support the inquiry only after the junta refused repeatedly to meet with senior diplomats to talk about reform.
A commission of inquiry would help the people of Burma in several ways. First, it would cost the junta hard-liners some political support at home and abroad, making a transition to democracy more possible. Second, an inquiry into the conduct of higher-ranking officers would make lower-ranking officers think twice before committing atrocities themselves. Third, an inquiry might be the first step in bringing justice to the victims of the junta’s atrocities – victims who, sadly, make no appearance in Mr. Steinberg’s analysis.