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.