Monday, April 27, 2009

Political pluralism is the only answer

by Htet Win

(Mizzima) - Addressing domestic issues is by far the most crucial need in delivering Burma from the vicious circle of political impasse and economic hardship, which has for several decades disgraced the country and its over 50 million citizens.

While most countries around the world work to balance their bargaining position in the international theater by playing to their economic strengths and addressing the needs of their people, Burma’s generals continue to hoard the country’s resources not only from political opposition groups, but from the entire population of the country.

It might be hard, initially, for the military government to commence dialogue with mainstream political opposition such as the National League for Democracy and its iconic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. If, however, the situation were to transpire, then the attitude of Burma’s top generals toward Aung San Suu Kyi – presently highly personalized and negative – would have to change. Without this, the country will remain in a state of political paralysis.

The presence of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union on the country is only a poor excuse used by the military for the state of the country. Whereas, in actuality, the regime has had since the mid-1990’s to improve several aspects of the country, but has instead failed to take up reforms, driving would-be investors away with policies of mismanagement.

In short, Burma's failures in development have not resulted from actions of the international community; just look at fellow ASEAN member Vietnam. The latter has advanced significantly over a shorter period of time in its relations with the World Trade Organization than has Burma. The main difference is Burma's failure to initiate institutional restructuring.

Burma, in addition to political pluralism, needs reform in the areas of tax, trade, customs and administration – to name but a few underachieving sectors of society.

The junta's ongoing roadmap has not led to reform in the country's politics. Real political reform, through dialogue, has not been realized and has thus stymied the potential for much needed international assistance.

It is unfortunate the military cannot appreciate the positive role that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi could play in addressing the country’s ills. A larger than life figure, she is a real political tool that could be used to effectively deal with almost all quarters of society, and specifically with issues related to international lending agencies and ethnic minorities.

"The problem is, they are making the democratic leader a liability instead of an asset," related one long-time Rangoon-based observer.

"In design or not, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi becomes the manifestation of the people's will," the observer said, adding that all problems could be solved if the regime would be bold enough to make a deal with her.

The post-2010 era, despite the existence of a new constitution adopted last year, still fails to address the relevant issues, instead enshrining the military's leading role in politics.

"To be honest, the entire executive branch and bureaucracy would again be in the hands of the military after 2010," the observer noted.

This is because the new, post-2010, leadership will merely be composed of present ministers and some members from business circles, who in turn have close connections with the current government.

In order to benefit the entire population, the handpicked civilians would need to be granted significant autonomy – though it is dubious whether a few top ranking military players could bear to see this actually happen.

“My opinion is to try to get as much compromise as possible before proceeding with the next stage; a new plan can then be made for 2010, 2011 and so on,” the observer analyzed.

However, it is likely no attempted repairs to the existing roadmap will prove sufficient. What is instead needed is drastic overhaul.

Overhaul in turn demands tangible and sizable international assistance such as ASEAN member Cambodia received in the mid-1990s. This holds true even though it is acknowledged that a small pool of Phnom Penh elites benefitted most from this approach.

Still, this approach toward transition is needed in Burma, where a new generation is coming of age having experienced nothing but autocracy and a systematic failure in quality of education.

Yet, the observer pointed out, “Political liberalization and ethnic issues should not be left out. It could be the country’s nemesis even if there is a democratically elected government.”

In a cautious, if not pessimistic approach, the democratization process is to be first carried through locally, and gradually expanded to meet internationally accepted norms.

And let us not forget that there is a history of political pluralism in Burma. Even under the British in the 1930s, there existed many civic organizations, media outlets and political parties. Put bluntly, the British were much more liberal than the current military regime, which itself benefits in the art of suppression by looking at and learning from the history of Britain’s colonial rule.

In the end, an exit strategy for Burma’s generals and relief from the country’s myriad of ills cannot be tangible and positive as long as the regime rejects political pluralism.

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