The Evil Genius, Than Shwe and the Current Reforms
On Feb 3rd next year, the sullen, bull dog face General Than Shwe, one of the five worst dictators of Asia, will be an Octogenarian. But unlike his predecessor Ne Win, he was a wily political manipulator and took great care that he and his family will not be in disgrace after his demise.
By 2010 he knew that with the conditions prevailing then, he foresaw that Burma somewhat like a Ceausescu-style uprising in the wake of the Arab Spring. After half a century of running the country, he realised that the army is fatigue, couple with its damaged pride and embarrassment in falling far behind its neighbors. Besides being a pariah state in the community of nations, the army tarnished image of brutally repressing, the students, workers and the entire people of Burma, even including the Buddhist monk is beyond redemption and knew very well that he could not rely on the guns any more.
Besides China’s increasingly dominant role in the country’s economy was a key factor in prompting the reforms to allow the government to court closer relations with the United States, Europe, and Japan. Hence to safeguard his inner circle’s perquisites once safely in retirement, he needed a graceful exit and diffuse the power. This is the sole raison d’être for relinquishing power even though he is still very healthy and is the power behind the throne.
Smart from the Bengali/Rohingya crises where he master minded in mechanizing the sectarian strife, in order to get the support of the entire people of Burma including the 8888 generation, he sees to it that the army came out with flying colours while the Burmese Diaspora leaders flocking back to the country painting the picture that reforms are working well. The Generals have effectively preyed on this ethno-religious conservatism of the public at large, most specifically in times of political and legitimating crises.
Burmese officials frequently cited the Indonesia model where the military gradually gave up the protected seats it had in the Parliament following the 1998 toppling of President Suharto, and it is expected the military planned to gradually cede its grip on 25 percent of the seats in Parliament as is now mandated in the Nargis Constitution. As a matter of fact members of Parliament do not always vote as a bloc and end up sometimes supporting the opposition as many did on a recent proposal e.g. requiring that parliamentarians should declare their assets
The reforms are being driven by President U Thein Sein with strong support from a small core of reform-minded colleagues. Several officials opposing reforms or seen as foot dragging have lost their jobs in recent months. Thein Sein was uniquely courageous and bold in driving the reform agenda, but whether the broader political elite serves as a silent reservoir of support for the handful of committed reformers or is simply sitting on the fence is still to be seen.
No doubt, the next big opportunity to promote reform will be in national elections in 2015 and the important time to build support for reform and institutionalize the changes is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD is endeavouring to build confidence within the military to allow amendments to address the limits on democracy in the constitution and not to panic, if the opposition wins the majority in Parliament. The pro democracy group stressed the need to build confidence rather than seek retribution against their former jailers. Even if the NLD won all the seats in the 2015 election Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can never become the President because Than Shwe has carefully crafted the constitution that bars her from embracing the presidency because her two sons hold British citizenship.
The latest Constitutional Court resignations amid constitutional crisis will be a barometer of how the military respond to the judges’ resignation and the calls for amendments to the 2008 Nargis Constitution, will be but an important test of the country’s nascent political reform process. So far most of the reforms have focused more on the political system than the economy, although officials recognize that popular expectations are running high and that economic development is critical to maintain political and popular momentum for the country’s political transition, and that is why they are so eager for foreign investment and other economic assistance. Meeting these high expectations will involve improving the lives of the estimated 26% of the country’s population that live below the poverty line, improving access to health and education services, upgrading the supply of electricity, and ending the state’s monopoly on telecommunications and huge economic undertakings.
Business cutthroat from Europe, Japan, and the United States are packing airplanes into Burma doing a hefty business that have violated human rights or hindered political reform or the peace process with ethnics. But does it herald for the prospects for real change, the rule of law, the expansion and consolidation of human rights, and the quality of public life? It must be remembered that the country still lacks basic infrastructure, including reliable electricity and ports, rule of law, an educated and trained workforce and strong property rights.
But the most crucial aspect is its policy of engaging the ethnic nationalities on individual or group-wise basis, a sly “divide and rule policy”, to lessen their collective bargaining position, which is the central demand of the ethnic nationalities. And to top is the rejection of the Panglong Agreement of 1947, that is taken as a core treaty between the Myanmar and the non-Myanmar to form theGenuine Union of Burma. This is clearly a Myanmarnization policy that the country was a monolithic whole with the Myanmar lording over the non Myanmar since time immemorial, save during the British colonial period and not what Bogyoke Aung San, the founder of the modern Union of Burma, has envisage that it was born out of the concordat of the Panglong Conference of 1947 where different nations belonging to the ethnic nationalities willingly join the Union on equal basis with the more numerous Myanmar.
Thein Sein insistence that negotiation process would take place only on the basis of 2008 Nargis Constitution, which is designed to give the military a near complete monopoly in the political decision-making process has crushed all hope of a peaceful and amicable political solution. Hence, the international community, especially the US,EU and Japan should took note that if they really want to help Burma on the road to democracy and development the Myanmar must treat the non Myanmar (ethnic nationalities) on equal terms.
The UNFC (United Nationalities Federal Council) formed in Feb. 2011, will be meeting in Chiang Mai today where it can be construed that, that the successive military regimes, including the quasi military regime is still untrustworthy and lack of historical responsibility to right all the wrongs that have accumulated all these years. The ethnic nationalities are ready to be part of the federal union, if their rights of self-determination, equality and democracy aspirations could be fulfilled. But they don’t see any hope in the 2008 Nargis Constitution and if the regime did not respect Panglong Agreement, which has been the sole legal bond between the Myanmar and the non Myanmar, they might as well continue to fight. They saw signs that there is a tendency that the regime would insist that the ethnic nationalities to forget the Panglong Agreement and should be satisfied with some piecemeal handout, under the rubric Nargis Constitution. This explicitly would mean the total capitulation of all the ethnic nationalities, forsaking their national identities and sovereignties accorded to them by their forefathers and they construe that instead of this Balkanization will be a better option.
If the quasi military administration genuinely wants a better change or reconciliation and not reconsolidation, it needs to release all ethnic political prisoners, immediate ceasefire with the Kachin and make a comprehensive peace call to all armed and unarmed political oppositions. It won’t do the regime any good by just clinging to its fraud ridden and manipulated, Nargis Constitution, as if it is being carved into the stones, which all have to abide without question. After all, Burma has come across 1948 and 1974 Socialist Constitutions and this Nargis Constitution won’t be the last one either.
There is also a growing anxiety that the status of non-Myanmar peoples could be undermined before the 2015 general election by a national census of how nationality and ethnic identity will be dealt with in National Registration Cards. A sense is thus developing of an expanding outreach by a centralised, Myanmar-majority state before ethnic rights have been effectively guaranteed in the new political system. Such concerns are compounded by government officials and Tatmadaw commanders wielding personal power in the states and regions, while the first-past-the post electoral system means that Myanmar majority parties are likely to remain dominant in national politics after the 2015 general election without countrywide unanimity for such control. Support is therefore growing for an electoral system based on proportional representation. How such changes might be brought about, however, is not clear.
In the meantime major economic projects are under way, including the oil and gas pipelines to China, the Kaledan Gateway project with India and the Dawei Development project with Thailand. But this is only the beginning: China wants to open up the country to the sub-Asian region via a north-south corridor,(Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress has arrived in Naypyidaw ) while Japan is interested in another from east to west. Special economic zones, too, are being mooted that are expected to lead to more land expropriation, and this is deepening concerns about the future of the many displaced persons, refugees and migrant workers in the ethnic borderlands. Huge economic and humanitarian challenges remain and how these issues which will be all detrimental to the ethnic nationalities will be resolved is not spell out yet.
In summary, Burma is now at a sensitive stage in its political transition. Encouraging prospects for the future have undoubtedly emerged. But reform is still at a very early stage, and there should be no underestimation of the difficult challenges that lie ahead. Myanmar and non Myanmar conflict is the key to solving Burma’s problem. The biggest losers from the “New Burma” are the victims of the Tatmadaw comprising all of the people who have been raped, assaulted, murdered, robbed, extorted, forced to labor, imprisoned, and tortured. Almost everyone in Burma is a victim of the regime directly or through immediate family members as well as in others, including through having had to suffer enforced relocation, poverty, malnutrition, inadequate medical care, and the denial of education. In this sense then the entire country has lost through being refused justice. In recent years, though, the bulk of the regime’s victims who have suffered the worst forms of abuse have been members of the country’s ethnic nationalities.
Their victimhood is now compounded, because in the New Burma there is no chance that they (or their families) will ever receive justice. Has Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD made a political calculation that justice must be sacrificed, that there should not be an international investigation into the regime’s crimes against humanity, or a tribunal for them, much less the ability to bring a case to a local court? The NLD talks about establishing the rule of law in Burma, but since it will take years to address the problems with the Nargis Constitution, which grants the generals and their foot soldiers immunity from prosecution, any possible investigations are probably at least a decade if not two decades away, one can ask where is the NLD justice?
She often ignored the ethnic nationality plight for years as she focused almost exclusively on the nation’s political prisoners. Not that she didn’t know how bad the Tatmadaw was treating the ethnic groups or she was afraid to talk about the subject, fearing a reaction from the regime, so she censored herself; perhaps she may construe that the ethnic nationalities have are their own fault as many Myanmar believe, she doesn’t want to upset her supporters who harbour the Mahar Myanmar mentality
But it is to be admitted that the Myanmar ethnic as a whole remains illiberal as the Bengali/Rohingya crisis demonstrates and potently ethno-nationalist and deeply troubling is how popular, everyday forms of racism and the state’s fascism seem to be mutually reinforcing. This serves the generals’ interest very well. They have fully grasped the atavistic fears and instincts that drive great fault lines into the heart of society and politics. The dominant Myanmar worldview continues to rest on an enervating combination of pre-colonial feudalism, religious mysticism, belief in racial purity and statist militarism, which a potent and poisonous combination.
The next week visits to the United States by President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be an important test of whether Washington is prepared to be the partner that Burma needs right now to pull itself out of the morass of its past. But Washington’s balancing act should not be confined to even-handed treatment of Burma’s two most important leading figures, it should ensure the plight of the persecuted and the marginalized ethnic nationalities of Burma in line with the International values. Its commercial interests should not outweigh its commitment to the marginalized ethnic nationalities, just like what China has done to the Kachin refugees, driving them into the arms of Burmese army only because she wants economic development, (oil pipe line and railway) did not augurs well.
President Obama has already demonstrated that he is capable of managing a careful, nuanced approach to Burma, a country that has long resisted international efforts to address rampant rights abuses and other symptoms of dysfunctional rule. It should take more proactive role in efforts to address the contentious issue of equal rights between Myanmar and non Myanmar in Burma, perhaps by steering Burma towards a political model that better accommodates the country’s cultural diversity.
Burmese Generals are strongly focused on sustaining their nation’s territorial integrity and have relied on the military as the institution to hold the country together. That situation must change for reform and reconciliation to take place. Ethnic groups want respect, autonomy, and the ability to make decisions locally, while deferring to the national government on issues such as foreign policy and national security. Two years ago, the notion of “federalism” was anathema and considered a dirty word. But as of today government officials have begun to talk openly about the concept, although they leave it undefined. Land-grabbing, failure to compensate locals for land and resources, and similar abuses continue to be reported in the non Myanmar ethnic areas who lives in the country’s oil and gas, mineral, and forestry wealth are located. Failure to address resource sharing would likely derail efforts to move from ceasefires to political settlement. This is important because economic growth—namely, creating jobs and opportunities—is a key factor for sustained peace and stability in areas controlled by ethnic non-Myanmar.
We will have to recollect that Burma is the second largest country in terms of land mass in Southeast Asia. It is the fifth most populous with a population of roughly 55 million and is located at the crossroads of China, India, and Southeast Asia. It is also one of the poorest countries on the planet situated in the midst of a vibrant Southeast Asian region, has an opportunity to develop quickly through implementing basic reforms and trading and integrating with its neighbors and the global economy. The government’s recent political and social reforms, if they prove to be sustainable and successful, could potentially make the country a model for other nations in the transition to democracy. But economic growth depends on political stability. And this stability in coming to terms with the ethnic nationalities. If stability is enhanced by comprehensive political reform and the implementing of basic economic reforms, its gross domestic product could expand by more than 10 percent next year. The most important barriers to growth include political instability, corruption, and the lack of transparency, lack of education, a dearth of training, and poor infrastructure.
The United States should be aware that there are important, perhaps even historic, opportunities to promote and support reform. It needs also to be aware of substantial threats to reform and transparency. Developing a policy to navigate through these opportunities and challenges will require thoughtful consideration and intense focus.
If the Tatmadaw continues to support the transition to civilian rule and really adhere to ceasefires in ethnic dominated areas,(skirmishes with the cease fire groups Shan, Karen has often broken out) the United States should consider Burma to join the annual Cobra gold joint military exercises. More immediately, the United States and ASEAN should engage the Tatmadaw in such forums as the annual Shangri-la Dialogue and the biannual ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus.
Now with the coming of two prominent Burmese to America, the crafty Senior General Than Shwe would be laughing in his sleeves as he relax and enjoy his Asian-style elderly dictator retirement for President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Daw Suu , the 8888 generations and the vociferous Burmese Diaspora are all falling nicely into his jigsaw puzzles. There is not fear of being overthrown, or tried at the International Criminal Court. His family is protected. All is well. Tatmadaw commanders and soldiers, are now off the hook. The generals and officers, whether they retain their uniforms or not, will also cement their position as the new upper-class elite of Burma a noveau riche, as they become the part-owners and signatories to the new development deals. Not only will they not be charged for their crimes, they are being given preferred positions as the Gold Rush, otherwise known as the initial stage of astronomical corruption for the country, commences. To them we can also add all the regime cronies and fixers, such as Tayza, Myanmar Egress, etc., Burmese and international consultants, and corrupt ethnic leaders and “pro-democracy” politicians, who are also well-positioned for the start of the nation’s new road to peoples degradation.
- Asian Tribune -