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Thein Sein

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Democracy Stalls in Burma

There was supposed to be a referendum in Burma this month. It would have addressed all the cynical clauses that the military regime wrote into the 2008 constitution to safeguard its own hold on power. But that isn’t going to happen: not now, and probably not before the national election that is due in October or November of this year. There are even people in Burma who wonder whether the election itself will be held on time.

“I would just like to remind you,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, for almost thirty years the leader of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, “that I have been saying since 2012 that a bit of healthy scepticism (about the army’s real intentions) would be very, very good.” Speaking to The Guardian newspaper last month, she warned that “too many of our Western friends are too optimistic about the democratisation process.”

She certainly got that right. Since Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, her supporters abroad (who include most leaders of democratic countries) have assumed that democratic reforms were well underway. So they ended the sanctions against the military regime, and their citizens swarmed into Burma to invest in an almost completely undeveloped economy.

China and other non-democratic countries piled in too, of course, and an enormous economic boom is transforming Burma. Foreign investors have profited mightily, and ex-generals and other people with close ties to the military have benefited even more. There is even a more or less free press. But democracy? Not so much.

Former general Thein Sein is still president, and a parliament controlled by military officers and regime supporters remains in place. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will doubtless win most of the seats if the election is actually held next autumn, but the constitution written by the military bars her from the presidency on the ludicrous ground that her two sons are foreign citizens. (Her late husband was British.)

That is one of the reasons why changing the constitution has become a key issue. Another is the provision that gives unelected military officers one-quarter of the seats in parliament, which gives them a veto on any changes to the constitution. The regime did not really decide to hand power over to the civilians; it made just enough cosmetic changes to convince foreigners that it was now acceptable to invest in Burma.

A large majority of ordinary Burmese revere Aung San Suu Kyi (she is the daughter of independence hero Aung San), and five million of them signed a petition asking for an end to the constitutional ban on her being chosen as president. The regime simply ignored it, and it looks like it is getting away with it. The foreign investment just keeps coming.

The referendum on constitutional changes is in the hands of the current parliament, which is packed with regime supporters who were elected in a vote boycotted by the NLD. It was originally promised for this month, but no date has yet been announced. Neither has anybody revealed exactly which of the 201 sections of the constitution where changes were proposed will actually be put to a vote.

Which of the eight versions of a new clause about Suu Kyi’s eligibility for the presidency will be in the referendum, if it actually happens? Nobody knows, and it is basically the regime that will choose. Maybe none of them will. And it is now practically certain that the autumn election will be held under the old constitution.

It is possible that Thein Sein, the current president, is really trying to get his more recalcitrant military colleagues to accept democratic reforms and is just meeting a lot of resistance. The military have had absolute control of Burma for the past fifty-three years, after all, and a lot of them have got very rich out of it. But Thein Sein actually doesn’t sound like he’s very eager for full democracy himself.

In an interview with the BBC in March, he insisted that the army must remain active in politics – “Serving the interests of the people means being involved in national politics” – and that the role of the military would only change gradually “as the political parties mature in their political norms and practice.” In other words, the army itself will decide if and when to stop running the whole show.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the military will cling to power for as long as possible, but it is remarkable how the foreign supporters of democracy in Burma have gone along with the pretense. US President Barack Obama, for example, has visited Burma twice since 2012, but the harshest thing he had to say was that “I don’t understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are.”

It’s probably too late to reinstate sanctions now, so the Burmese are effectively on their own. The only recourse that might work is massive non-violent protests of the sort that happened in 1988 and several times since. The trouble with that is that the Burmese army has never been reluctant to shoot its own fellow citizens.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 9 and 12. (“A large…coming”; “Which…constitution”; and “Perhaps…are”)

Bad Days in Burma

29 July 2012

Bad Days in Burma

By Gwynne Dyer

At last somebody in an official position has said something. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for an independent investigation into claims that Burmese security forces are systematically targeting the Rohingya, a Muslim minority community living in the Arakan region. Even the Burmese government says at least 78 Rohingya were murdered; their own community leaders say 650 have been killed.

Nobody disputes the fact that about 100,000 Rohingyas (out of a population of 800,000) are now internal refugees in Burma, while others have fled across the border into Bangladesh. As you would expect, the Buddhist monks of Burma have stood up to be counted. Unfortunately, this time they are standing on the wrong side.

This is perplexing. When the Pope lectures the world about morality, few non-Catholics pay attention. When Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran instructs the world about good and evil, most people who aren’t Shia Muslims just shrug. But Buddhist leaders are given more respect, because most people think that Buddhism really is a religion of tolerance and peace.

When the Dalai Lama speaks out about injustice, people listen. Most of them don’t share his beliefs, and they probably won’t act on his words, but they listen with respect. But he hasn’t said anything at all about what is happening to the Rohingyas – and neither has any other Buddhist leader of note.

To be fair, the Dalai Lama is Tibetan, not Burmese, but he is not usually so reserved in his judgements. As for Burma’s own Buddhist monks, they have been heroes in that nation’s long struggle against tyranny – so it’s disorienting to see them behaving like oppressors themselves.

Buddhist monks are standing outside the refugee camps in Arakan, turning away people who are trying to bring food and other aid to the Rohingya. Two important Buddhist organisations in the region, the Young Monks’ Association of Sittwe and the Mrauk U Monks’ Association, have urged locals to have no dealings with them. One pamphlet distributed by the monks says the Rohingya are “cruel by nature”.

And Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the woman who spent two decades under house arrest for defying the generals – the woman who may one day be Burma’s first democratically elected prime minister – has declined to offer any support or comfort to the Rohingyas either.

Recently a foreign journalist asked her whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know,” she prevaricated. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.”

If she were honest, she would have replied: “Of course the Rohingya are citizens, but I dare not say so. The military are finally giving up power, and I want to win the 2015 election. I won’t win any votes by defending the rights of Burmese Muslims.”

Nelson Mandela, with whom she is often compared, would never have said anything like that, but it’s a failure of courage on her part that has nothing to do with her religion. Religious belief and moral behaviour don’t automatically go together, and nationalism often trumps both of them. So let’s stop being astonished that Buddhists behave badly and just consider what’s really happening in Burma.

The ancestors of the Rohingya settled in the Arakan region between the 14th and 18th centuries, long before the main wave of Indian immigrants arrived in Burma after it was conquered by the British empire during the 19th century. By the 1930s the new Indian arrivals were a majority in most big Burmese cities, and dominated the commercial sector of the economy. Burmese resentment, naturally, was intense.

The Japanese invasion of Burma during the Second World War drove out most of those Indian immigrants, but the Burmese fear and hatred of “foreigners” in their midst remained, and it then turned against the Rohingya. They were targeted mainly because they were perceived as “foreigners”, but the fact that they were Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country made them seem even more alien.

The Rohingya of Arakan were poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. However, the army attacked the Rohingya and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh in 1978, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques.

The military dictator of the day, Ne Win, revoked the citizenship of all Rohingyas in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. And now this.

On Sunday former general Thein Sein, the transitional president of Burma, replied to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay: “We will take responsibilities for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas who are not our ethnicity.” Some other country must take them all, he said.

But the Rohingya did not “enter illegally”, and there are a dozen “ethnicities” in Burma. What drives this policy is fear, greed and ignorance – exploited, as usual, by politicians pandering to nationalist passions and religious prejudice. Being Buddhist, it turns out, doesn’t stop you from falling for all that. Surprise.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4, and 5. (“At last…themselves”)



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.


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.