Burma: sources of political change

Joakim Kreutz
1 September 2008

The twentieth anniversary of the Burma uprising of 8 August 1988 was marked with a degree of attention around the world, but far less than might have been expected thanks to the coincidence of the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing. In Burma itself, the intimidating power of the military regime that suppressed the emerging democracy movement on 18 September 1988 prevented any public commemoration of the events of the time, in which around 3,000 people were killed.
Joakim Kreutz teaches political science at Uppsala University, Sweden.

His research Interests include dynamics of conflict, political violence and diplomatic mediation in contexts which include Colombia, the Horn of Africa and Burma

Also by Joakim Kreutz in openDemocracy:

"Burma: protest, crackdown - and now?" (3 October 2007)
The fact that six weeks passed between the outpouring of protest in the then-capital Rangoon and the bloody clampdown is a useful reminder that what happened in Burma in 1988 was indeed part of a continuing process. For example, after the August-September events the junta scheduled multi-party general elections to be held by mid-December 1988; these were eventually held in May 1990, though the clear victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) was subsequently ignored by the junta.

Those in Burma and abroad who today remember and seek to learn from the events of twenty years ago - and equally from the monks-led uprising of August-September 2007 - thus have many and not just one reference-point. As the anniversaries continue, so do the continuities; this time round, for example, the draft constitution drafted by the junta stipulates general elections in 2010. But the effect of these two decades in Burma also poses new challenges, of which one of the most essential is to ask: what are the real possibilities for political change, and where can that change come from?

The military in power

If anything, all signs suggest that the army remains more firmly in control over governance in Burma than ever before. One of the first policies of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) after it took power in 1988 was to oversee a massive expansion of the armed forces - from around 200,000 troops in 1988 to the present strength of some 400,000. In addition, the military has been modernised through purchases of modern weapons from China and India (and, allegedly, North Korea).

Even more important has been the restructuring that has taken place within the state forces, which started with the expansion of senior ranks and the creation of "civilian" organisations such as the Union Solidarity and Development Assocation (USDA) and the Pyithu Swan Arr Shin (People's Power Group / PSAS). Such organisations can be seen as descendants of the Burmese practice of tat: that is, the maintaining by political leaders of personal armies, which contributed to much of the violence at the time of independence in the late 1940s.

Also in openDemocracy on Burma:

Kyi May Kaung, "Burma's struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi's role" (8 August 2006)

Kyi May Kaung, "A reality-check in Burma" (10 November 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Burma and the ICRC: a people at risk" (15 December 2006)

Aung Zaw, "Burma's question" (12 September 2007)

Robert Semeniuk, "A chronic emergency: on the Burma-Thailand border" (10 October 2007)

Aung Zaw, "Burma: the cyclone and the referendum" (6 May 2008)

Wylie Bradford, "Burma: cyclone, aid and sanctions" (27 May 2008)

Henry Brown, "Burma's rage" (8 August 2008)

Kyi May Kaung, "Burma: waiting for the dawn" (8 August 2008) The development of these militias open up the possibility that the formal military could retreat from political life while the tat forces secure the position of the generals in controlling the government. To secure the central role of the generals in the future Burma, the military have also become increasingly involved in the economic sector of the country. It should be noted that the first military businesses were established by Ne Win as part of the Defence Services Institute (DSI) as early as 1951, but the generals and their families are presently involved in basically all sectors of the Burmese economy.

The regime's internal politics

The calls for democracy in 1988 came in the aftermath of - and were to a degree encouraged by - the apparent resignation of Ne Win in July of that year. Few members of the public believed that his retirement was genuine, and - even though Ne Win held no formal position in the new junta - it quickly became clear that he remained influential behind the scenes.

It was, for example, Ne Win's allegations of corruption that led to the revamp of the junta in 1997, which gave the SLORC a new name: the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Since then, power-struggles among the ruling generals have become increasingly common. They included one involving Ne Win's daughter in 2002, just a few months before Ne Win died; one which took the most high-profile victim so far, then-prime minister Khin Nyunt in 2004; and one that led to a reshuffle of the junta's members in June 2008.

It is clear that some members of the army leadership do not support recent decisions such as the use of force against the monks-led demonstrations in August-September 2007 or the reluctance to allow foreign-aid workers access to the victims of cyclone Nargis in May 2008. However, the main internal faction-fight will start after the deaths of the aging senior-generals Than Shwe and Maung Aye.

The internal opposition

After the crackdown on the democracy movement in 1988, thousands of activists fled the cities towards the border areas. Many of these, as well as many that had been arrested in 1988, were willing to contribute to the grassroots mobilisation needed by the National League for Democracy if it was to compete in the 1990 elections. The NLD activists had withstood constant harassment throughout the 1980s, and the very existence of such organised pro-democracy activists willing to participate in protests was then and is now a threat to the government. The reluctance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to accept exile and her symbolic importance for these activists and the people of Burma cannot be underestimated.

The violent suppression of the protests and the mismanagement of the victims of cyclone Nargis help to ensure that public opinion in Burma continues to be firmly opposed to the military government. But what is this public opinion in favour of? For if at present the unifying sentiment for Burma's people is aversion to the regime, it is less clear what or who they want to replace them.

There are some worrying indications that popular opinion among the ethnic Burman population include communal and religious sentiments that tend to characterise other ethnic groups in terms of their complicity in the policies of the regime. An example is the circulation of statements that the soldiers who suppressed the Rangoon protests in 2007 were ethnic Kachin who only knew one word of the Burmese language: "shoot". Regardless of the truth or otherwise of such claims, the fact that the ethnic identity of the solders was considered an important factor may augur eventual divisions within the internal opposition.

The external opposition

The exiled opposition to the government, such as the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) and the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), has developed in cooperation between ethnic minorities and Burman activists. These, and a multitude of other groups, have contributed to making the opposition to the Burmese junta a global phenomenon.

Many of these groups have produced plans outlining how a transition to democracy could occur. If reforms were introduced in Burma, however, it is difficult to know to what extent the opposition now based outside Burma would be able to influence events. There is a risk that public opinion inside the country would consider the exiles as too concerned with principles, out of touch with the suffering of the population, and unfamiliar with the need for economic (rather than political, or primarily political) improvements in their lives.

The armed opposition

Since the junta's internecine struggles in 2004 ousted Khin Nyunt and closed down the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB), there have been no attempts at face-to-face negotiations with the remaining active insurgents. The last few years have instead seen military offensives accompanied by attempts to convince low-level commanders to defect and their groups to accept ceasefires with the government. Such tactics helped create yet another split within the Karen National Union (KNU) in 2007, leading to the formation of the so-called KNU-Peace Council.

It is worth noting that even when a ceasefire has been concluded with any armed opposition group, this has hardly ever been accompanied either by any settlement of the underlying political grievances or even a demobilisation of combatants. The groups that remain in open armed opposition - in particular the KNU and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) command - do not have the strength to defeat the regime, but nevertheless seem able indefinitely to continue with guerrilla attacks. The long history of these insurgencies and the governments' strategy of deliberate targeting of civilians meant that it is unlikely that these groups would be willing to accept any peace offer unless all government forces were withdrawn from their territories.

The ceasefire groups

The former armed insurgents that have concluded ceasefires with the government may be the key actors to watch in the coming years. Many of these groups sent representatives to the consultative work on the new national constitution, though most professed disapproval at the draft presented in 2007. These groups now need to decide whether they will compete in the scheduled elections - in a context where discontent with some of their leaderships (notably in Kachin state, where the Kachin Independence Organisation [KIO] is frequently accused of responsibility for the economic backwardness of the Kachin people).

If they do seek to participate - and if they are allowed to - then it will be interesting to see what policies they will promote as well as how many votes they will get. The junta's attempts to disarm ceasefire groups have been fairly unsuccessful; some groups have resumed their armed struggle, while the most militarily potent such group actually managed to force a political concession into the new constitution. This was the United Wa State Party (UWSP), which has refused to disarm and has continued occasionally to clash with the government; yet the territory controlled by the organization was designated an autonomous Wa area in the new constitution. The message seems clear to both ceasefire groups and the remaining armed opposition groups: and it is one that does not promote negotiated compromises.

The world beyond Burma

Burma in 1988 was a country that had lived in a self-imposed exile from the international community ever since the military coup in 1962. As a consequence, almost all external trade occurred on the black market, mainly controlled by different armed insurgents and criminal groups.

Since then, the government has promoted an increase in trade with (among other countries) countries such as Thailand, China, India, Singapore, and Russia. This trade has limited the effect of sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. For Burma's people, however, the effects of these growing links to the outside world have been marginal. Even before cyclone Nargis hit Burma on 2 May 2008, the World Food Programme estimated that nearly 5 million Burmese (almost 10% of the population) were suffering from food insecurity.

However, the awareness of the situation in Burma of the rest of the world is an important factor in any future scenarios. The sanctions regime could be more efficient, but the diplomatic pressures are arguably more important than the economic effects. Indeed, the junta responded with less wholesale violence against the 2007 protests than it had in 1988 not on moral grounds, but because the world was watching; and - most probably - following the advice of China. Thus, the international community has an opportunity to influence the future of Burma by promoting political change and maintaining its interest in the development of the country.

The prospects for change

The twenty years of rule by the SLORC or SPDC junta in Burma have caused the tragic deaths of thousands of Burmese, either directly through the use of armed force or indirectly as a result of the junta's policies. In many ways, the situation in Burma today can be seen as worse than it was before the protests in 1988. For Burma can be said to be suffering from three different types of humanitarian emergencies that are somewhat interlinked, but where actions aimed at improving one situation may complicate the others:

* the need to help the survivors of cyclone Nargis rebuild their lives and prevent the further spread of disease and starvation

* the need to distribute food and medicines to the impoverished population throughout the country

* the need to replace the current regime with a democratic government able to develop the country and settle the political issues that have remained unsolved since independence in January 1948.

However, five positive developments also suggest that there may be more prospects for change at present than in many years.

First, the situation in Burma is a high-profile issue internationally, and the continuous pressure on the junta is creating a situation where at least part of the Burmese military is considering compromise.

Second, the present senior leadership in Burma has nothing to lose by continuing present policies and nothing to gain by initiating change - but this is not true of younger members of the military. Some of these have hinted that they would be willing to cooperate in a process of change if they are provided with enough incentives in the form of economic benefits for themselves as well as for the population.

Third, the debates among exiled opposition leaders have created awareness of the need for compromise to settle all problems in Burma, including the status and rights of ethnic minorities in a future democratic state.

Fourth, ceasefire groups still hope that cooperation with the government will both reinforce their claim to back Burma's democratisation while winning more political and economic concessions. Most of these organisations would support a new regime and could offer to guarantee the stability needed while much of the army is peacefully demobilised. A similar role can be envisaged for the remaining armed opposition groups, in a way that could encourage the legal development of the resource-rich border areas.

Fifth, the most important factor for regime-change in Burma is the role of the Burmese people and the resistance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The people rejected military rule in 1990, and the junta has hardly become more popular in the eighteen years that has passed. If the democracy movement and other opposition organisations in Burma as well as in exile continue to show that there is an alternative to military rule, the people can help convince the armed forces the need for political reform.

It is unrealistic to believe that Burma will be able to change without cooperating with the moderates within the military leadership. There seem to be some opportunities for such a development to occur. The international community can contribute by encouraging dialogue and be willing to commit resources that could help develop a future democratic Union of Burma.




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