Monday, January 5, 2009

The Drama of 2008

The Irrawaddy Editorial
DECEMBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.12

Kyaw Zwa Moe

EVENTS in Burma during 2008 added up to a drama packed with mixed emotions. They began with an appalling disaster, arousing sympathy and anger, and ended with frustration as the year approached its end. Out of the drama, however, lessons can be learnt for the year ahead by all those involved, from the average Burmese citizen to national and international leaders, by organizations of all kinds, global and local alike.

The year 2008 was scarcely four months old when immense misfortune hit this beautiful but economically battered and politically stalled country. Cyclone Nargis swept in from the Bay of Bengal, killing about 140,000 people and leaving some two million homeless and bereft of their livelihoods. The world watched with horror—but this was just the first act of the drama.

The international community responded with immediate offers of assistance, but governments and relief agencies hadn’t reckoned with the callousness of a suspicious regime, which at first barred aid organizations and workers from entering the country before eventually allowing them in under tight restrictions.

An angry but impotent world watched helplessly as the cyclone victims struggled to survive, neglected by their own government. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke for many world leaders when he said: “The Burmese regime is behaving appallingly.”

Even when US, British and French ships loaded with thousands of tons of relief supplies sailed to the region, the Burmese government banned them from landing emergency aid that would have saved an unknown number of lives. Frustration grew as helicopters sat on ships’ decks just half an hour flight from starving communities, and some foreign government members, led by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, called for the employment of a little-known UN principle, the “responsibility to protect” (known as “R2P”), allowing outside intervention in situations where a national government is unable or unwilling to protect its people.

While the world dithered, cyclone victims suffered and died, and finally the fleet of foreign relief ships withdrew and the regime was able to report that all had returned to “normalcy.” Faced with growing international pressure, the regime did, however, agree to allow relief flights to land, although tight restrictions were still imposed.

Much more important for the regime than the cyclone crisis was the smooth execution of its pet project—the national referendum on the draft constitution that had taken a convention of hand-picked delegates 14 years to draw up and which not even the worst natural disaster to hit the country in living memory was allowed to delay.

A UN demand for a review of the draft constitution by a special committee, to make sure it provided for an all-inclusive political process, was rejected by the regime. The result of the referendum was no surprise, and the outside world was asked to accept the absurd fiction that the draft constitution had been approved by more than 90 percent of the electorate.

Some consoled themselves with the belief that “something is better than nothing.” Burma has lacked a constitution for the past 20 years, after its second post-independence charter was revoked at the time of the 1988 national uprising, and it was certainly time for a new one.

Like it or not, the people of Burma will have to live for now with this constitution, which won’t be easy to review or amend. Its salient features are:

• The perpetuation of a leading political role for the military, with the commander in chief of the armed forces, currently the junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe, entitled to fill 110 seats in the 440-seat parliament with appointees from the ranks of the armed forces. The commander in chief will occupy a political position on the same level as that of the two vice presidents. In the event of a “state of emergency,” which the military can declare at any time, the commander in chief will assume full legislative, executive and judicial powers.

• No role for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and limited participation by other veteran politicians and activists. Suu Kyi’s exclusion is determined by a clause reading: “The President of the Union shall be a person who has been residing continuously in the country for at least 20 years up to the time of the election and the President of the Union himself, parents, spouse, children and their spouses shall not owe allegiance to a foreign power, shall not be a subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country. They shall not be persons entitled to the rights and privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign country.” As the widow of a British scholar and mother of two sons who are not Burmese citizens, Suu Kyi is, therefore, barred from any leadership role. The same applies to political exiles who have lived outside the country since 1988.

• The inviolability of the constitution is guaranteed by its Chapter 12 which states that any amendment requires the approval of more than 75 percent of all members of parliament. Since 25 percent of the parliament will be made up of military appointees, the constitution is as good as cast in stone.

Under these conditions, only a massive uprising on the scale of the 1988 turmoil could lead to changes in the constitution. With the country now in the grip of a regime determined to eliminate all opposition to its rule, this is highly unlikely to happen.

Frustration with military rule is still very evident, however. Suu Kyi’s unprecedented refusal to meet UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari during his last trip to Burma in August was evidence of this.

The failure of Gambari’s repeated missions to Burma should lead the UN to do some serious soul-searching. It should at least ensure that its envoys aren’t exploited by the regime or even negotiate with the generals without the promise of some tangible result.

The UN’s future role in the Burma question will amount to nothing as long as it lacks the capability to convince all key players to play their roles effectively. That means the Burmese government and opposition groups, regional players such as China, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and—on the wider international stage—the US, EU and the UN Security Council (UNSC). It won’t be an easy task. But nothing is impossible.

World politics have had a big impact on the Burma issue.

The UNSC issued its first presidential statement on Burma in October 2007 in an attempt to pressure the Burmese generals to enter a dialogue with the opposition.

In May this year, the UNSC issued another presidential statement, toned down because of opposition by China and Russia to some of the wording. The three authors of the resolution—the US, France and Britain—not only had to water down their original draft but they also had to delete a demand for the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. In an attempt to persuade the 15-member council to approve the presidential statement, the three Western powers were also forced to scrap the portion which urged the junta to take tangible and timely steps towards a genuine dialogue.

Chinese and Russian support within the UNSC also ensured that Burma avoided total isolation in the world community.

In October, Foreign Minister Nyan Win visited North Korea and met his counterpart, Pak Ui Chun, in Pyongyang, a significant encounter following the resumption of diplomatic ties ruptured in 1983 when North Korean agents plotted to assassinate the then South Korean president in Rangoon.

The world’s divided approach to Burma has emboldened the regime to resist international demands for political change and to challenge the Western powers, including the US. The question is how much those powers are interested in getting directly involved in the issue.

In November, outgoing US President George W Bush appointed Michael J Green as the special representative and policy coordinator for Burma with rank of ambassador. Since the junta’s brutal crackdown against the uprising in 1988, the US has lowered its official representation in Rangoon to the rank of chargé d’affaires.

Although the US is the world’s staunchest supporter of Burma’s pro-democracy movement and the strongest critic of the regime, the Burmese people realize that world politics don’t favor drastic US action against their country’s leaders. But, like a drowning man clutching at a straw, most Burmese still hope for a real change-oriented policy by the international community led by the US.

They ask whether the “change” promised by US President-elect Barack Obama means anything for the Burmese people. Will a “changed” foreign policy mean more than remaining a staunch supporter of the pro-democracy movement and the strongest critic of the regime?

The Burmese appreciate the US stand, but many realize that they can expect little more. They haven’t lost all hope, however, and feel a resolution of the political stalemate could yet come. The resolution could materialize from a greater engagement by the US and other Western powers alongside China, India and Asean.

Burma signed an Asean human rights charter in July, but already the regime has blatantly breached it by hauling more than 150 activists—including monks, journalists, lawyers and volunteer relief workers—before kangaroo courts, which have been handing out sentences of unbelievable severity—up to 65 years imprisonment for leaders of the 88 Students Generation group.

Asean’s political culture and deeply-rooted non-interference policy appeared to combine to allow these monstrous acts by a member state.

Despite Asean’s stand on non-interference, differences between East and West or between governments which advocate sanctions and those which favor engagement must be bridged. The differences can only serve to maintain Burma’s status quo, and nobody benefits except the country’s rulers.

The US, other Western nations, the EU, China, India and Asean must take a united approach, based on one common strategy, including the appointment of an ambassador to Burma possessing a powerful mandate from the whole international community.

The aim will not be to remove the regime, but to get it to work together with all opposition parties, ethnic groups and the international community in a combined effort to break the deadlock.

Burma’s opposition groups are not talking about regime change. They are calling for reconciliation. Pragmatists recognize that the role of the military will have to be accepted in the future political structure of the country—although it will have to be different from what is envisaged in the constitution.

History has shown that Burma’s military leaders possess no will for reconciliation or collaboration with the outside world. Rewards and punishment will have to be employed to bring them to their senses.

There must be a will for national reconciliation, the relief of the economic and political suffering inflicting the Burmese people and the release of all political prisoners.

The achievement of this dream belongs in the hands of a new united front of all domestic and international parties. With a combined policy of a united world, this mission can be accomplished. It will be much more than just difficult—but nothing is impossible.

Burma’s drama has by no means ended, and it’s still uncertain whether its finale will be tragic or happy.

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