Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Burma needs a pragmatic solution

by Moe Thu and Htet Win
Mizzima News
24 November 2008

Since 1962, not a single military-dominated government in Burma has been able to improve the country's economy. This, as the Burmese economy is poised to suffer even more in the upcoming months, and possibly years, due to the pervading global economic crisis.

The country's economy has already suffered a lot during the past two decades, a period when the military regime has continued to pursue its stranglehold on political power, dragging the economy into the doldrums along the way.

"The Burmese army's philosophy is to keep its own ass safe to the detriment of others, so we will go around in circles until the present structure is forced to change," said one Rangoon-based observer.

The country is moribund in a Catch-22 situation, in which one "solution" inevitably leads to but another problem.

"I have no hope the country will be back on the right track soon after the 2010 general election, which it is highly possible will lead to but another crisis," he said. "That's because of those military officers who have been indoctrinated with a superiority complex for generations.

The Revolutionary Council, which was installed in 1962 and headed by General Ne Win and later transformed into the Burma Socialist Program Party through the 1974 constitution, started this unhealthy mix of civilians and military personnel in public administration.

Ne Win's military government of xenophobia, combined with the mismanagement of the economy, assured that the country descended to the status of a least developed nation, the effects of which eventually erupted into the mass anti-government uprising that was put down by the Army through bloodshed in 1988.

Following 1988, the then State Law and Order Restoration Council – and present day State Peace and Development Council – assumed power and continued to rule the country, without any constitutional mandate and consumed by paranoia, as has happened throughout Burma's martial history.

What could be the remedy for the Southeast Asian nation, rich in natural resources like timber, minerals and natural gas? As long as the country forges ahead with the new constitution, which solely favors the role of the military in the public administration, it will be but old wine in a new bottle.

"We are desperately in need of 'agents' like liberal minded general David O. Abel, both in the military and civilian circles," commented an observer who wished to remain anonymous. Almost all liberal minded civilians are in exile or in prison.

In 1999, a newspaper quoted the military government as saying that the National Convention would go forward without the National League for Democracy (NLD) – who had earlier walked-out of the proceedings under protest in 1996. Burma, the official added, was going to be a democracy in its own way.

The international community has since continuously recognized the NLD's commitment to democracy. Yet, such recognition has not translated into productive "action."

It might be possible that Burma could first improve its economy within a framework of a slightly altered political forum. Under such a scenario, some liberal figures would be allowed to play a role, and changes in an improved economy would assist in fomenting pluralism in the political environment.

"In the future government of Burma after 2010, we do not need opportunist civilian politicians who would just sit back and seek personal gains from the status quo, but those who really dare to come out of their comfort zone and speak up to military officers on economic and social issues," added the observer. He also questioned the democratic credentials and self-complacency of some domestic elitist groups, mainly Burman in ethnicity, who seek to present themselves as the only viable alternatives to military officers.

However, the trick in Burma is that if the leadership was practically enlightened as in China and Vietnam, political pluralism can be kept waiting. But, Burma to date has lacked such political leadership.

In the present stock, only dogmatists are dominant. So are we going to see liberal -- not even fully, but partially -- elements in the government under the new constitution? Hope very marginally, because it is not in the nature of the military.

"Those 25 percent of seats in the future parliament, which the military reserves in both houses, will always vote as a bloc," the observer continued.

Even if Burma is fortunate enough, after the multi-party election is carried through, the key phrase in the coming years will be "economic rationality."

However, for that, can we be so optimistic about the already corrupted military reinventing itself in our country's future? Officials of the regime are already corrupt themselves in their morals, and they corrupt others along with them.

"Even if and when Burma is a liberal economy, rent-seeking will be really great and widespread," he said, adding that most resources would go into private pockets.

Still now, there are elements who are promoting the concept of "regime security," while the security of 53 million Burmese has been starkly neglected. And they try to expose themselves as an opposition or counterbalance to the military in a future so-called civilian government, if elected.

As generally expected, some businessmen are preparing to contest the 2010 election.

Most of these people will likely come from regime-friendly media and business circles. However, it remains to be seen whether there may be an altered scenario following the announcement of the electoral laws, which are anticipated in a few months time.

Many of these prominent elements are currently active, taking leading roles with the civic organization.

However, an even larger question still looms: Will any civilian government really be able to influence the direction of the country to become a free country broadly accepted by both Burmese and the international community?

Burma's history since 1962 has been filled with failure stories of "insider" civilian politicians who achieved little or nothing to change the mindset of the ruling military caste. Yale-trained Dr. Maung Maung who was President of Burma during the 1988 uprising is a telling example.

Veteran analysts therefore have cautioned that the possibility for reform within the proposed constitutional framework will be extremely limited. Hopes are slim because many of the older generation Burmese elites, educated in the West and employed in public administration, just gave their nod to all that the Army wanted at the National Convention.

Meanwhile, Burma's military has already suffered its own generation gaps, resulting in a very limited number of fresh, liberal conscious, new officers, mainly because potential successors have poor exposure to alternative ideas – reflective of a nation that is educationally handicapped.

Imagine it the other way around, liberally trained Burmese soldiers could create a competition among elites, which might lead to a radical solution if competing military personnel claim that they are the ones who most love Burma and care for its future.

Without a reliable new generation produced professionally, no segments of society,
including the Burma defense services, could survive. The Burmese military is already facing such problem.

Recently, Home Affairs Minister Major General Maung Oo said the next one-and-a-half-years would be important for the NLD's survival. So the NLD must be creative, seeking ways and means to be able to play a role in future political developments; this is why some political forces have come out to encourage the NLD to find a new way to integrate itself into the future processes.

The results of the 1990 election, decisively won by the NLD, could be a tool which it could utilize in order to gain a foothold in forward developments. Perhaps, the NLD should endorse a new political party, in low profile, to remain relevant and to continue to involve itself in the future political process.

Opposition forces are already weak, being unable to adequately oppose the new constitution. But they can still weaken the effectiveness of the implementation of the new constitution.

Politics is about aspiring to nominal things such as freedom, democracy and rights. The new constitution falls short of those basic things for the time being. No rational person is satisfied.

As long as there are accusations of violations of ethnic minority and political rights, then external forces such as the UN and some Western countries' encouragement for democracy in Burma will be reluctant to openly deal with the Burmese government, regardless of it being called civilian or military.

However, the truth remains that Burma is a low priority in the eyes of most Western countries. For example, the United States has more than enough allies in the region to offset China. Adding Burma to the list will not make a meaningful difference.

The junta understands this, and is thus proceeding apace with its own political process, designed to ensure that it reaps the vast majority of the political spoils. Despite repeated calls from opposition parties and the masses for a process of dialogue to address persisting differences and divides within Burma's political spectrum, the junta and its supporters look to be preparing to push ahead with the 2010 general election at all costs.

So, what is to be expected in the short and mid-terms? As elections draw near, the world community must make sure that it is endorsing a real opposition in Burma, with reliable democratic credentials, and not a sham opposition of seasoned politicians who entered politics for personal gain.

Some leading pundits and opinion leaders fear that Burma, after 2010, will withdraw into isolation if the ruling class does not get their way. Nevertheless, there is little chance that this worst case scenario will happen, because authoritarian regimes realize the costs of isolation in an increasingly globalized world. They will at least open up some space for their own elites. In Burma's case, most probably sanctions will also become irrelevant with the arrival of a new government.

International policy circles, therefore, should be prepared and start to think about how to respond to continued political repression and human rights abuses in Burma, while encouraging economic reforms after 2010. They must not forget there are over 2,100 prisoners of conscience in Burma's gulags and Burma's future parliament is the fruit of their sacrifice. Revolutions are rare in history, but we should not downplay the role of social movements.

In summary, Burma is possibly headed for a change in direction, where barriers to democracy are cautiously lowered. But, even though this might be – many new challenges will remain.

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