Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thinking outside the box

by Bo Kyaw Nyein

(Mizzima) - Although many Burmese do not want to admit it, the situation inside Burma is at a stalemate and, frankly speaking, no one has a good workable solution or strategy to overcome the current status quo. By silencing the voice of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the beloved national leader and democratic icon, the ruling Burmese military junta has been able to squash the momentum and hope for democracy in Burma.

Refining proven techniques used during the previous rule of General Ne Win, current junta Supremo General Than Shwe uses poverty, time and space as tools of suppression concerning the general public. When people are struggling for their own survival they do not have the time or means to finance political opposition, while the junta all the meanwhile slowly and methodically squeezes the “political space” available to the opposition. As time passes on, the opposition becomes depressed and hopeless.

The military has even created a think-tank, the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), to formulate and implement strategies to counter Western economic sanctions. The wooing of the triumvirate of China, India and ASEAN as well as promotion of the policies of constructive engagement and the so-called 7-step roadmap are all OSS products.

It is the failure of the opposition, especially those in exile, not to have created a think-tank to study military thinking and formulate strategies and policies to counter political offenses initiated by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the official name of today's Burmese military junta. The result of this critical shortcoming is obvious – the opposition still clings to an outdated strategy of pressuring the SPDC to come to the negotiating table via Western economic sanctions and the threat of UN Security Council action.

However, the SPDC has insulated itself from such threats by securing the Chinese veto at the UN Security Council and has now even secured a Russian veto too as a means of providing insurance. While targeted sanctions are somewhat effective, the SPDC is using Singapore bank accounts under borrowed names to bypass American initiated banking restrictions. Further, they have somehow also managed to bypass Western visa restrictions, as evidenced by the presence of their family members visiting or residing in the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, the SPDC continues to reap the profits from the sale of natural gas to an energy hungry world.

The United States, truthfully speaking, has no national interest in Burma and thus its support is reduced to rhetoric and a feel-good policy of supporting the opposition on moral grounds. The opposition does not seem to understand the reality that diplomacy has its limits in forcing an agreeable solution to Burma's political impasse. It has become clear to this author that the Burmese opposition does not have a winning “strategy” and the Americans do not have a “Burma Policy”.

On the other hand, China, sharing a long border with Burma, definitely has a national interest in Burma. Burma has become a client, if not yet a vassal, state of China. The Chinese do not care who governs Burma as long as it serves China's interests. For both China and the SPDC, the status quo is deemed satisfactory and beneficial.

With America preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and struggling to survive a global recession, the United States is in no position to extend much effective help to countries associated with minimal national interest. Taking advantage of the reduced American power projection, the Russians and Chinese are cementing their military relationship through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. While American prestige has been declining, China’s economic and military power has been on the rise, with China's gross domestic product set to overtake America's in the near future. These global developments must boost the confidence of the military rulers in Burma.

Thinking they have the upper hand against the opposition, the SPDC announced last year a forthcoming general election for 2010. Since this announcement, it has been a dilemma for the NLD in deciding whether to join or boycott the election. The key variable in the equation is “legitimacy”.

The NLD was the winner of the 1990 election and can claim to have the mandate of the people and thus…legitimacy. The 2010 election is a clear attempt to erase the NLD's political legitimacy through another election. Knowing this intention, most Burmese are against the NLD joining the election, and those that think otherwise are commonly labeled as traitors. The problem is that there is no alternative solution but to stick to this "legitimacy" banner in opposing the military junta. The danger is that the SPDC will somehow successfully manipulate the results and as time progresses and future electoral cycles come to pass, the legitimacy and existence of the NLD will slowly fade into history.

Not knowing how to tackle this election dilemma, the NLD has instead asked the SPDC to change the proposed constitution in an attempt to buy further time. Confident and arrogant, the SPDC has not even bothered to respond. The thinking among some NLD supporters is that the military government definitely desires legitimacy for the 2010 election and without NLD participation it will be hard for the global community to endorse the election results – relying on China to pressure the generals into some form of compromise.

The common wisdom thus gravitates towards the NLD sitting out the 2010 election. Seeing no solution in sight, this author was previously of a similar position. But, after observing the recent developments in the Iranian election, the strategic thinking in pursuit of a democratic Burma has changed dramatically.

First, it is doubtful if the SPDC really wants the NLD to join the 2010 election. This author believes that because the ruling dictators are military men, they think like soldiers. Every military must have a “battle plan” before every battle. The SPDC considers every situation as a “battle”. General Than Shwe is trained in psychological warfare and it is clear no one really comprehensively knows the plans for the 2010 election, except the military honcho himself.

There are reasons to believe that General Khin Nyunt did want the NLD to join the election when he announced the 7-step roadmap soon after he was appointed Prime Minister. It was his OSS plan and he was the key architect – his credibility was on the line. But General Than Shwe’s thinking is very different from that of General Khin Nyunt’s.

The SPDC knows the NLD's dilemma and it is possible that the SPDC attempted to set a trap for the opposition with the release of veteran NLD leader U Win Tin after nearly 20 years imprisonment. Was it a ploy to influence the NLD to stay out of the 2010 election? Everyone knows the hard-line stance of U Win Tin.

Even if the SPDC can successfully manipulate the 2010 election, the legitimacy of the 1990 election is still valid by claiming the 2010 election rigged. But, if that is true, then why join the 2010 election at all?

There are two main reasons why the SPDC has been able to suppress the opposition:

(1) The SPDC has been able to silence the voice of Daw Suu thru long term detention and isolation.

(2) The NLD inside the country and NCGUB in exile cannot build the necessary political infrastructure and initiate the needed political “ACTIONS” to keep the burning desire and momentum for freedom alive.

If the NLD decided to join the 2010 election, the NLD should make two simple requests in line with the necessary requirements for participation in any election:

(1) The NLD should be given political space and permission to campaign for the election.

(2) Foreign observers, particularly from ASEAN, the EU and China should be invited to ensure a free and fair election. America should be left out of the equation for obvious reasons.

If we observe the 2009 Iranian election, the crowd gets bigger and bigger and the momentum gets stronger and stronger as the campaign gets closer and closer to election day because Iranian voters, especially the young and women, started to see and feel the chance and hope for change.

With election results announced only 12 hours after voting booths closed, young people became convinced the polling must have been rigged. As a result, they are now protesting even as the crackdown has already begun. If the hard line Iranian government gets tough and mishandles the crisis, it could easily anger and irritate the people – eventually reaching its apex with the realization of another "color" revolution.

However, there is one major significant difference between Burma and Iran. While there is a certain section of the Iranian population, especially among the rural poor and relatively uneducated, who disproportionately support President Ahmadinejad, the overwhelming majority of the Burmese population dislikes, if not outright despises, the Burmese generals. Even some members of the armed forces are against the generals.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still the iconic figure. She is still the symbol of defiance, change and hope.

This author can say with certainty that if NLD participates in the 2010 election, the people will vote again for the NLD, if not because of Daw Suu simply because people will vote against the ruling junta. General Than Shwe realizes this and this is the reason he does not want the NLD's participation. If the NLD correctly reads the ground situation and enters the 2010 election, the whole game plan will be changed for the SPDC – they will be forced to cheat, further angering the people.

Meanwhile, continuing to pursue such a scenario, the global community can then shame election observers from ASEAN and China. And if the SPDC still stubbornly refuses to listen to the international community's advice as usual, a split could occur between SPDC and its sponsers.

However, if the NLD does not participate in the election they lose by default.

There is yet another sensitive issue to be considered. One of the key concerns for China is “stability” on its southern border. China wields enormous power over most of the ethnic leaders in northern Burma, especially the Wa.

The Wa possess the largest non-state army within Burma and are armed with modern weaponry supplied by the Chinese. One of the SPDC's plans for the 2010 election is to integrate the armies of ceasefire groups into border guards. Wa leadership is rumored to be resisting this push. If the Wa succeed in resisting this SPDC plan, others such as the Kachin will also surely resist. Then, it will be back to square one and the renewal of another round of armed conflict cannot be ruled out.

If the opposition is able to add more instability to the mix with mass demonstrations, it will certainly hurt China’s interest. China does not want refugees pouring in and the UN setting up refugee camps inside China. As a result, there could arise a tipping point where China and ASEAN leaders come to their senses and say enough is enough.

If China opts not to exercise its UN Security Council veto and if Singapore ceases its economic support and banking facilities, the SPDC will definitely be left in a very difficult position. Concurrently, if opposition leaders are smart enough to organize efficient demonstrations (not an easy task) and create another "color" revolution, we can shoot for the stars and go for complete regime change. If not, the crisis can create an environment for negotiations.

Like it or not, the reality is that the opposition is presently dead in the water with no proper infrastructure, organization or strategy at its disposal. It is time to smell the coffee, take a risk, and change the plan.

Do we want to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the 21st century's Mandela or another Dalai Lama.

For starters, the NCGUB should wisely allocate their resources by trying to send young freedom fighters from inside the country to Iran to go and observe and learn from the latest street fighting, instead of wasting resources on NGOs writing useless transition plans rejected by almost every member of the Burmese opposition.

Every Burmese freedom fighter who is interested and who can afford it should go to Iran and learn. Much has changed since the 8888 uprising. We should learn how Iran youth who are fighting on the streets and in cyber space, shutting down propaganda machines and government websites alike.

It is time to move from passive non-violence to active non-violence, and fight to win. Otherwise, history will condemn our generation.

(Bo Kyaw Nyein is the youngest son of U Kyaw Nyein, one of the leaders during the Independence movement and a member of Aung San’s cabinet, later becoming Deputy Prime Minister during the government of U Nu. Bo Kyaw was in turn one of the leaders during the U Thant uprising, subsequently spending five years in prison. He is an independent writer and observer working for democracy in Burma and writing for Mizzima as well as American online media. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .)

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