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Democracy in Burma?

2 April 2012

Democracy in Burma?

By Gwynne Dyer

“It is never easy to persuade those who have acquired power forcibly of the wisdom of peaceful change,” Aung San Suu Kyi once remarked. But the leader of Burma’s main pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), never wavered in her belief that it was possible. Now it may actually be happening.

In last Sunday’s by-elections in Burma, the NLD won at least 40 of the 45 seats at stake. Burma is still far from being a genuine democracy, but the outcome was so encouraging that NLD official Myo Win said: “The army has changed and is now more lenient. So there is more of a possibility that Aung San Suu Kyi can become president in 2015.”

“The Lady”, as most people call her, is finally free after 22 years of political repression, most of them spent under house arrest. It’s hard to believe that she may be peacefully elected president of Burma in three years’ time – but it was also hard to believe that Nelson Mandela would be elected president of South Africa only four years after he was freed from 27 years in prison in 1990.

Not only is Aung San Suu Kyi free, but she is now a member of parliament. She boycotted last year’s general election, the first since 1990, because she distrusted the regime’s intentions, but she has now joined the political game. She had to, because otherwise the game would probably have ended quite soon.

The army has monopolised power in Burma for the past fifty years, ruthlessly suppressing all dissent and leaving the country the poorest in South-East Asia. Now a former general, Thein Sein, has persuaded his colleagues that it is time for the army to let go, but many of them are just waiting for him to fail. He has been president for a year now, and he badly needed a success.

Whether the outcome of these by-elections is quite the kind of success he needed remains to be seen. The army’s original idea, after all, was to open up politics just enough to end foreign economic sanctions and deflate domestic pressure for change. The new constitution of 2008 gave serving soldiers one-quarter of the seats in the new parliament, and in the elections of 2010 the regimes’ puppet political party won a huge majority of the seats.

It was probably the spectacle of the “Arab Spring”, with non-violent revolutions overthrowing decades-old Arab regimes that were just as cruel and corrupt as Burma’s, that subsequently persuaded the army it had to go further. Last August, President Thein Sein met Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time. What promises he made remains secret, but it was enough to persuade The Lady to rejoin the political process.

From the army’s point of view the recent by-elections, held to replace 45 regime supporters who gave up their seats upon being appointed to posts in the new government, seemed an ideal way to start the opening-up process. Even if the NLD did well in them, it would not shake the regime’s overwhelming majority in parliament, and the next national elections are not due until 2015. But the NLD may have done too well.

The pro-democracy party’s nearly clean sweep in these by-elections will remind many generals of the 1990 elections, and that is not a happy thought for them. Having drowned a non-violent protest movement in blood in 1988, the army held a general election in 1990 to legitimise its rule, confident that it could guarantee the right outcome.

It was wrong: the NLD won 80 percent of the seats. It was a political disaster for the military, who only preserved their rule by ignoring the election results and jailing the opposition leaders. That gave them another two decades in power, but their rule was clearly illegitimate and the regime became an international pariah.

Now we have another election outcome in which the NLD wins over 80 percent of the seats. It will already have occurred both to the soldiers and to Aung San Suu Kyi that if the NLD had not boycotted the national elections in November, 2010, it would have won them despite all the regime’s attempts to manipulate the results. And it virtually guarantees that the NLD will become the government in 2015, if those elections are ever held.

The Burmese army’s choice is now stark: it must either accept that outcome or halt the whole democratisation process. President Thein Sein seems committed to the process come what may, but some senior generals will certainly prefer the latter option, particularly because an NLD government might investigate how they got so rich. So it would be a good idea for the NLD to promise an amnesty for all crimes committed by the military regime.

The coming year will be a tricky one, and it could end in disaster if Aung San Suu Kyi overplays her hand. However, the past 22 years have taught her patience, and she clearly understands that Thein Sein needs her help in staving off the pressure from the more hawkish generals.

The rest of the world can also help him, by ending sanctions and allowing investment to flow into the crippled economy. And with luck, Burma will be a democracy three years from now.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Whether…process”)

 

Burma: Can you trust the army?

22 November 2011

Burma: Can you trust the army?

By Gwynne Dyer

Burma is the second poorest country in Asia (after North Korea), although fifty years ago it was the second richest. It is the second most repressive dictatorship in Asia, outdone again only by North Korea. It is third from the bottom on Transparency International’s list of the world’s most corrupt countries. And the credit for all these distinctions goes to the Burmese army, which has ruled the country with an iron hand for the past half-century.

So what should pro-democracy leaders in Burma do when the army shows signs of wanting to make a deal and withdraw from direct control over the country. Do you hold out for more, or do you co-operate with the generals in the hope that they can be persuaded to go further later on?

That’s the dilemma that faced Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the National League for Democracy, when the military staged the first elections Burma had seen for twenty years last November. Back then, she decided to boycott the elections, but last week she actually took the leap of faith and registered the NLD as a legal political party.

She had good reason to be wary last year, because 23 generals resigned and founded the Union Solidarity and Development Party just before the elections. They wouldn’t have done that unless the new party was going to “win,” and in the end it got a highly implausible 80% of the votes. But then Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a few days after the election, and the regime began to offer further concessions.

Thein Sein, the former general who became the president of Burma last March, put out feelers to see if the NLD leader could be coaxed into participating in the new political arrangements. He wanted her help in giving his government more legitimacy, and she realised that she could probably win some major concessions in return.

She saw Thein Sein in private in August, and it’s likely that they made the deal there and then. Six weeks later a Human Rights Commission was created, and the media suddenly became much freer. In mid-October 200 political prisoners were freed (although 500 more remain in jail for the time being).

These changes were probably part of the price that the regime had agreed to pay for Aung San Suu Kyi’s agreement to participate in a political system still dominated by the army.

Later in October it paid another instalment, passing a law that legalised trade unions. And then it was time for Suu Kyi to fulfill her side of the bargain.

She did it last week, declaring that she would register the National League for Democracy as a political party under the new constitution. There is even talk of her running for parliament herself in the December by-elections.

There is nothing illegitimate about making deals in politics. The question is whether this deal is wise — or is Aung San Suu Kyi just being taken for a ride?

Aung San Suu Kyi has probably been told a great deal more in private about the army’s ultimate intentions, but even if they have promised to give up power eventually, she cannot know if they will keep their promises. Probably the generals themselves don’t know yet.

But she has decided to take the risk, and her supporters just have to trust her judgment.

 

 

The Lady Is Still in Jail

26 June 2003

The Lady Is Still in Jail

By Gwynne Dyer

“The military regime is very worried that they are facing a Cory Aquino-type of people-power movement, and basically, they’ve panicked,” explained a foreign diplomat in Rangoon shortly after a mob of government-sponsored thugs attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade at Dipeyin, north-east of Mandalay, on 30 May. Around seventy of her supporters were killed, she was beaten up — and she and nineteen members of the National League for Democracy who were travelling with her were taken into temporary protective custody’. A month later, the Lady’ — as everyone in Burma calls her — is still in Insein prison in Rangoon.

She has been under some form of restraint, mostly house arrest, for almost all of the past thirteen years, as her children grew up without her and her husband died without even being allowed a farewell visit to Burma, but it has never been as bad as this. The military regime has realised that all its wealth and power are on the line right now, and the gloves have come off. But alone in her cell, still wearing the same blouse and skirt she was arrested in a month ago, she remains the most influential person in Burma. The generals have the guns and the money, but she has the legitimacy.

She has earned it by her patience and self-sacrifice — but also through the regime’s blunder thirteen years ago in allowing free elections in Burma. The generals calculated that they could bribe or bully a majority of Burma’s 45 million people into voting for their candidates, but when the counting was over in 1990 Suu Kyi and the NLD had won by a landslide: 82 percent of the votes. The army immediately cancelled’ the results and arrested all of the NLD’s leaders, but it never got over the effects of that mistake. And now it has made the same mistake again.

The confrontation between Suu Kyi and the generals began fifteen years ago, when the original tyrant, the half-crazed Ne Win, precipitated a crisis by resigning after more than two decades in power. His bizarre and isolationist version of socialism’ had reduced the once-prosperous country to penury, and his aim was to transfer formal power to a more respectable elected government while retaining real control. But Aung San Suu Kyi happened to be in Burma in 1988, home from her quiet life as an academic and mother in England to nurse her dying mother.

She had lived most of her life abroad, the inevitable consequence of being the only daughter of Burma’s great independence hero Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only two. But in 1988 South-East Asia was in political ferment: the example of the non-violent democratic revolution led by Cory Aquino in the Philippines in 1986 had already spread to Thailand and Bangladesh, toppling long-ruling military regimes, and now threatened the control of the Burmese military as well. Suu Kyi’s name made her invaluable to the pro-democracy campaigners, and she quickly became the symbol of the whole movement.

After three months the generals, realising that events were spinning out of control, took back power and authorised the massacre of thousands of students and other citizens in the streets of Rangoon. Then in 1990 the regime held a carefully stage-managed election’ to gain some international respectability — but the NLD won by a landslide, the regime refused to recognise its victory, and Burma has been in deadlock ever since. So last year a new generation of generals tried to square the circle again: they released Suu Kyi from house arrest in the hope that they could end all the foreign boycotts and rejoin the world without actually giving up power.

It never seemed like a good idea to General Than Shwe, the current head of the junta (who virtually froths at the mouth whenever the Lady’s name is mentioned), but he was talked into it by other senior generals led by Khin Nyunt, the influential head of intelligence. Thirteen months after she was released from house arrest, however, it turns out that Than Shwe was right: neither Suu Kyi nor the Burmese people were satisfied with tokenism, and the regime’s power and privileges really were at risk.

The NLD tiptoed through the first months after Aung San’s release, anxious not to derail the process of democratisation by too much open campaigning, but as it became clear that the generals were just looking for political cover it changed its style. In the last six months Aung San has been making open anti-regime speeches up and down the country, and every month the crowds have got bigger. The regime had to stop her or it was toast, so a month ago the thugs were unleashed to stage a massacre that would provide a pretext for the Lady’s arrest.

That has stopped the protests for the moment, but the regime is back where it was, loathed by foreigners and Burmese alike. How long can it hold out against the united disapproval of practically everyone? Quite a long time, if the past is any guide — and one should not expect a split between the top generals over this bungle. They know that they must hang together or else they will hang separately (probably literally, in some cases, for some of them have much Burmese blood on their hands).

Aung San Suu Kyi will need all of her patience.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“She has…again”; and “It never…at risk”)

NOTE: The renaming of Burma as Myanmar’ and of Rangoon as Yangon’ in 1989 was a cynical ploy by the military regime intended to win the support of Burmese nationalists, and is not recognised by the democratic opposition.

Burma: Free At Last?

9 December 2002

Burma: Free At Last?

By Gwynne Dyer

One should not speak ill of the dead, but an exception is justified in the case of Burma’s late dictator Ne Win. He was responsible for almost forty years of tyranny and poverty in his country, and most Burmese would gladly dance on his ashes if it were allowed. By the time he died at 91 on 5 December, however, the process of undoing his malignant legacy was well underway.

Last May, Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who is as much the symbol of democracy in Burma as Nelson Mandela was in apartheid South Africa, was freed from house arrest by the generals who are Ne Win’s successors. “My release should not be looked on as a major breakthrough for democracy,” Suu Kyi warned — but she added: “I would cautiously say that where we are is better than where we have ever been.”

Even as he neared death, Ne Win tried to kill the hope for democracy in Burma: his son-in-law and three grandsons were arrested last March while trying to organise a coup that would have unseated his successors and aborted the talks for Suu Kyi’s freedom. They were sentenced to be hanged, and Ne Win died a lonely and unhonoured death this month under house arrest at his home on a lake in central Rangoon — just across the lake, in fact, from the house where Suu Kyi had been confined for so long. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Other South-East-Asian countries also had liberation heroes who turned into monsters and blighted their people’s lives — Indonesia’s Sukarno and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh spring to mind — but none lasted so long or did as much damage as General Ne Win. One of the legendary ‘Thirty Comrades’ who began Burma’s war for freedom from Britain, he overthrew the country’s shaky democracy in 1962 and ruled with an iron hand for the next 28 years.

Ne Win was so superstitious that he once replaced the country’s existing paper currency with 45-kyat and 90-kyat notes because nine was his lucky number. He was so suspicious of foreigners that he walled Burma off from almost all outside contact, imposing an erratic ‘Burmese Road to Socialism’ that turned the region’s richest country into its poorest in only three decades. And then, when popular protests broke out in 1988, he abruptly resigned.

A new kind of non-violent democratic revolution was toppling dictators all across Asia in the late 80s — in the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, South Korea — and Burma was swept along. So was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s greatest independence hero Aung San.

Long settled in Britain with her English husband and their two sons, Suu Kyi just happened to go home that year to nurse her dying mother. To most Burmese her father, who had been assassinated when she was just two, was still the most powerful symbol of the future that had been betrayed, and so she suddenly found herself leading a democratic revolution. Then the frightened generals massacred thousands of citizens in the streets of Rangoon to save their power, Ne Win came back to power in another coup, and Suu Kyi discovered her destiny.

Ne Win’s new junta opened the country to foreign investment in an attempt to revive the devastated economy, and so much oil and timber money poured in that the regime was emboldened to hold an election in 1990. But the brief burst of prosperity changed nobody’s mind: 82 percent of the voters backed Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy against the generals. So Ne Win simply refused to accept the election’s outcome, jailed most of the NLD’s elected members, and embarked on a long duel with Suu Kyi (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) over the future of Burma.

Knowing she would never be allowed back into Burma if she left, she remained in Rangoon, mostly under house arrest, while her children grew up without her. Her husband eventually died of cancer without even being allowed a visit to say goodbye. The military regime’s propaganda called her a “foreign stooge” and a “genocidal prostitute”, but most ordinary Burmese know her simply as ‘The Lady’, and trust her completely.

The ageing Ne Win eventually withdrew from power, leaving three lesser generals to carry on the struggle against democracy. But Burma’s economic plight grew ever worse as a trade embargo by democratic countries tightened during the later 90s, and early this year the junta decided to seek a deal with Suu Kyi. Ne Win, in character to the end, tried one last coup to stop it, but Suu Kyi was released seven months ago, and Burma began to emerge from the long darkness.

What is going on now is a delicate and secretive process in which the repressive regime negotiates a safe exit from power and an indemnity for its past crimes — rather like the first year after Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa. As General Khin Nyunt put it in August, “The democracy that we seek to build…will surely be based on universal principles of liberty, justice and equality…(but) such a transition cannot be done in haste and in a haphazard manner.”

Aung San Suu Kyi concedes that after all this time it cannot simply be a matter of handing power over to the NLD government that was legally elected in 1990. But, she adds, “who’s to say we won’t get a bigger majority this time?”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Knowing…darkness”)

NOTE that the country’s proper name in English is Burma. ‘Myanmar’ was imposed by the military junta in an attempt to wrap themselves in the flag, and is shunned by the democratic opposition.