Democracy in Burma today is at a fledgling stage, and still requires patient care and attention,” General Than Shwe told Burma in late March, during his annual speech to mark Armed Forces Day. He also warned, “Some parties look to foreign countries for guidance and inspiration; they follow imported ideologies and directives irrationally.” But the general’s carefully laid plans for next year’s elections – including ensuring that the country’s iconic pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains in detention – may have been derailed by his own arrogance and disregard for the people.
Since Gen Than Shwe’s confident pronouncement in March, almost everything has gone wrong for him. First, the long-restive ethnic groups that have signed ceasefire agreements with the junta have defied instructions to hand in their weapons and join a border police force instead. More recently, the general has been taken aback by the overwhelming international reaction to his plans to put Suu Kyi on trial (on trumped-up charges) and lock her up in jail until after the elections. As a result of these hitches, the expected electoral law, which will spell out the procedures for the elections slated for March 2010, has yet to be announced.
Even the gods seem to be against the generals. In a highly superstitious society such as Burma, the collapse of a temple can send shockwaves through the country. So when the Danok Pagoda, on the outskirts of Rangoon, crumbled to the ground on 31 May (see pic), it was seen as a bad omen for the regime. Indeed, it was seen as particularly ominous for Than Shwe himself, as only weeks earlier his wife had overseen a blessing ceremony in which worshipers fixed a diamond orb (which she had donated) to the top of the pagoda. While that ceremony had been widely publicised in the captive local media, the pagoda’s collapse, killing more than a dozen people, was almost completely kept out of the press.
Nevertheless rumours of the collapse circulated quickly, and this, on top of last year’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, was readily seen by much of the public as evidence of the gods having deserted the generals. “It’s clear retribution for trampling and killing the monks,” one Rangoon resident told this writer by e-mail, referring to the military’s brutal crackdown on the Saffron Revolution of September 2007. At that time, Buddhist monks led massive street protests against rising fuel and food prices, and more than a hundred people were killed in the subsequent official reaction.
Anthropologist Ingrid Jordt, a Burma scholar, has been quoted as stating, “The fact that the [orb] did not stay was a sign that more bad things are to come, according to astrologers. It is also a sign that Than Shwe does not have the spiritual power any longer to be able to undertake or reap the benefit from good acts such as this.” She continued: “In a sense, the pagoda repudiated Than Shwe’s right to remain ruler.”
Than Shwe’s latest political ploy is also set to backfire. This is, of course, putting Suu Kyi on trial for purportedly having broken the ‘terms’ of her house arrest (The Nobel Prize laureate has been under house arrest for much of the past two decades, but even Burmese law stipulates that her term cannot be extended again beyond late May). when she received an unwanted late-night visit by a mentally unstable American war veteran, John William Yettaw, who swam to her backyard across the lake behind her residence. While analysts suggest that the move was an attempt to legitimise Suu Kyi’s continued incarceration, the trial has sparked massive anger across the country.
Almost every night in Rangoon since the trial began, government buildings are re-painted with graffiti demanding, Free Aung San Suu Kyi – a very unusual happening, and something that did not take place even during the 2007 uprising. “The security forces are busy all night and morning scrubbing off the slogans as quickly as they find them,” said one Rangoon resident, who declined to be identified. And according to opposition sources, these spray-paint attacks are being replicated in many cities and towns throughout the country. Even in ethnic-minority areas in the Kachin and Shan states, young activists are painting such slogans on government buildings and handing out pamphlets. “The ethnic youth are demanding Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate release,” said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the Burmese opposition based in Thailand.
This is, perhaps, a moment of rare opportunity for Burma’s pro-democracy activists. Their movement has been repeatedly trampled flat by the generals, most recently in September 2007. Meanwhile, the people have been beaten down by starvation and deprivation in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, and this has created its own reservoir of anger. But it remains to be seen whether outrage will come to anything amidst the near certainty that Suu Kyi will remain in detention for at least another five years, as is being suggested by diplomats based in Rangoon. Her trial, although having lingered for longer than anticipated (it is currently set to resume on 26 June) will almost certainly finish in July in yet another secret session inside Insein prison.
Still, there is reason to believe that, during the course of his recent run-in with Suu Kyi, Gen Than Shwe may have shot himself in the foot. Britain, France and the United States have demanded Suu Kyi’s immediate release, a move endorsed by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Meanwhile, several Southeast Asian leaders, normally loath to criticise their neighbours, have also joined the international outcry. Thailand, as the current president of ASEAN, has issued a collective statement raising the region’s concerns, expressing “grave concern about recent developments relating to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, given her fragile health.” Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have also individually raised their concerns publicly. Even China voiced a veiled warning, with the Foreign Ministry spokesperson telling reporters in Beijing shortly after the trial started, “Myanmar’s affairs should be decided by its people. As a neighbour, China hopes Myanmar can realise reconciliation, stability and development through dialogues of all parties.” India, meanwhile, has been embarrassingly quiet.
As important have been the protests that have been sparked within Burma by the movement to free the detained opposition leader. Young members of Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have in recent weeks been preparing for a silent protest when she is sentenced. Students and other young people with no political affiliations have also joined the underground campaign, which is currently handing out leaflets and pictures of the democracy hero throughout the country. In several towns where the NLD has strong bases, including Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, more than a thousand photos of Suu Kyi are distributed every day, even as the campaigners dodge the police and security personnel who are trying to stop them. Some young people have now formed a group known as Myay All Zar in Burmese, which translates to Best Manure (referring to refuse that is easily discarded but which can act as a fertiliser), and intend to challenge the government in every possible way if Suu Kyi is sentenced to jail at the end of the trial. “We’ll sacrifice our lives if we need to,” said one of the group’s leaders.
The simmering anger within the clergy is also another factor. “Young monks are angry, and are preparing to vent their feelings if Suu Kyi is not freed soon,” a senior cleric from Rangoon told this writer on condition of anonymity. The monks are still seething after the government’s brutal crackdown on their protest movement in September 2007, when numerous activist monks were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Many now see the release of all political prisoners, including the imprisoned monks, as a priority. Suu Kyi’s sentencing will only heighten their anger, according to opposition sources with good contacts amongst the monks.
Instead of the quiet trial and sentencing that Gen Than Shwe was undoubtedly hoping for, the international community is up in arms, and renewed protests within the country are growing. “With one fell swoop, Than Shwe has undermined his own strategy of trying to sideline Aung San Suu Kyi,” said a senior Western diplomat who knows the opposition leader well. “Than Shwe’s actions have proved once again that she remains in everyone’s minds – inside and outside the country – as Burma’s real leader.”
It appears to be the reaction from those outside of the country that is really making the junta leaders anxious. “The regime is really worried now: they never expected the international community to be so vociferous and united in pressuring them,” said Zin Linn. He believes this is what brought about the surprise series of suspensions of the trial. Linn says this was most likely to allow the junta leaders to formulate a new strategy to tackle the mounting international pressure in addition to the growing social and political unrest within the country. On the other hand, most diplomats and observers in Burma are convinced that Than Shwe has been hoping to delay the inevitable outcome. These hold-ups, goes the thinking, are part of Than Shwe’s strategy to bide time until the international pressure subsides, as it has at many tense occasions in the past – particularly when Suu Kyi and her entourage were brutally attacked while she was travelling north of Mandalay in May 2003.
The turmoil around Suu Kyi’s trial has meant that there still has been no official announcement about next year’s planned elections. Nonetheless, preparations for these polls seem to be dominating almost everything in Burma at the moment, outside of the trial-related machinations. “The regime is pre-occupied with the elections, and everything that happens now is related to them,” said Steve Marshall, ILO Liaison Officer based in Rangoon. During the last elections, in 1990, Suu Kyi’s NLD party won convincingly, but the junta leadership has never allowed a civilian government to form. This time around, the generals are not planning to make the same mistake, and are tightly controlling everything to ensure they do not lose.
The delay in the electoral-law announcement could be a seen as a central part of this strategy, which largely seems to consist of simply keeping everyone in the dark. “Than Shwe is keeping everyone guessing,” said Win Min, an independent Burmese academic based in Chiang Mai. “The electoral law is likely to only be revealed only a few months before the election is scheduled to take place, so that the opposition is kept off-guard and has little time to select candidates and register them, let alone plan a campaign.” During the 1990 election, election-related legislation was made public 20 months before the polls took place.
Then again, 20 years on, Burma is a very different country. Repression, harassment and economic decay have left many Burmese livid at the military – and this cannot but translate into a strong anti-government vote at the polls, if held freely and fairly whenever they eventually take place. As of now, the election seems certain to be delayed until the second half of 2010, according to military sources. Originally scheduled for 7 March, the Suu Kyi trial, the continued resistance of the ethnic groups, and the growing international pressure on the regime has forced Gen Than Shwe onto his heels. But the possibility that, at this late date, he could go back to the drawing board – let alone consider giving Suu Kyi and the NLD a role in the ‘roadmap to democracy’ – is highly unlikely.
~ Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist and Burma specialist based in Bangkok.