Burma: protest, crackdown - and now?

Joakim Kreutz
12 October 2007

For a short moment in September 2007, the streets of Burma's former capital Rangoon were filled with demonstrators willing and able to protest against the inadequacies of the their military government. After a few days of hope that the tide of change was with them, a violent crackdown ensued that echoed the crushing of the Burmese people's earlier wave of popular protest in 1988.

Thus, the events in 1988 and 2007 have followed a similar script - even though the casualties this time round (unless and until reports of a far higher toll that matches or exceeds the 3,000 killed in 1988 are validated) are so far being counted in the hundreds rather than thousands.

The latest contest for the future of Burma (Myanmar in its rulers' official designation) has not yet been resolved: both repression and sporadic protest continue, amid the rare attention of the world's media. So too do diplomatic discussions involving both the United Nations - whose special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, visited the country on 29 September-2 October - and countries in the region and beyond.

Joakim Kreutz works in the department of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden. His research work is concentrated in the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme (UCDP)

In a still fluid situation, the predominant view in the international community seems to be that a dialogue between Burma's military and its opposition represents the best way to aid Burma's people and facilitate a process of peaceful change. But is such an option feasible, and would it be enough to open the way to long-term political progress in the country? What indeed are the ingredients of a process that can enable the Burmese people to realise the aspirations - for livelihood, security, freedom from fear, and democracy - that impelled them to take to the streets in their thousands? Amid Burma's unfolding drama, this article attempts a provisional answer to these questions.

Three areas of conflict

Since the surge of popular protest in 1988 and the victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the elections of 1990, the international debate on Burma has focused almost exclusively on the conflict between the government and the non-violent democracy movement symbolised by its imprisoned heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi. But in order to chart a path towards change in Burma two decades on, it is necessary to take a more comprehensive approach: one that takes account of the problems facing the country today and considers the range of actors that need to be part of any solution.

The problems generally concern the political structure of Burma and control over its economy. But these issues must be considered in a wide context, in relation to the three current, dominant conflict-settings in the country:

* between the government and the democratic opposition

* between the different elements in the military

* between the government and the armed insurgents.

An opposition dynamic

The first conflict that needs to be addressed in order to promote change in Burma is the relationship between the military regime and the democratic opposition (which is composed of a variety of groups and perspectives, including among the Burmese diaspora, but which still can be considered as a single entity).

At present, when film of the junta's goons smashing the heads of scattered protestors in Rangoon is circulating around the world (as in this CNN video), even the suggestion of any "relationship" seems chimerical. Yet for change to happen, this opposition must be willing both to negotiate with parts of the military (as well as with the armed insurgencies in Burma's border areas) and to accept an outcome which does not consist of an outright surrender by the junta. The military government, regardless of whether or not it is led by current senior general Than Shwe, is not likely to enter negotiations without the possibility of gaining something from the talks. As long as the question of Burma's democracy is treated as a zero-sum game, the military junta will only try to hold on to its power and privileges.

The monk leaders, representatives of the sangha community who played a leading part in the 2007 protests, could be a vital element in a process that brings together the military and the opposition. This point is reinforced by the repeated attempts of Burma's military government to increase its popular support in the last decade, which have included construction of pagodas across the country and the employment of tough Buddhist-nationalist rhetoric.

When the fuel-price increase in August provoked the first protests of the latest wave, government officials in Burma approached senior monks and warned them against participating in the movement. But younger monks came to take a prominent role in the escalating demonstrations - in many cases against the will of their seniors - in what was in effect a humiliating repudiation of the government's religious and patriotic propaganda. The resulting empowerment and increased status of the monks following the demonstrations could be used as a strengthening factor for political change, and their participation in a process of dialogue could help encourage the public to be patient over the implementation of such a process.

A military argument

The second important conflict that needs to be considered - albeit it is one whose core components are less easy to identify - is that taking place inside the Burmese military.

A key moment in the evolution of this conflict - one which was intimately linked to the ceasefire agreements with a number of ethnic-rebel groups in the years since 1988 - was the arrest of then prime minister Khin Nyunt on corruption charges in October 2004. Khin Nyunt had been in charge of military intelligence, and was removed in a power struggle between different institutions within the military for control of economic resources; he had also been part of the talks leading up to most of the ceasefires, and many former rebels saw this involvement as a guarantee that the agreements would be honoured. From the moment of his fall, it can be argued, the relationship between the government and the ethnic groups on ceasefire started to deteriorate.

Also in openDemocracy on Burma:

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

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

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

Karen Connolly, "The Lizard Cage" (22 February 2007)

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

The principal junta leaders, senior general Than Shwe and vice-senior-general Maung Aye, remained in the top two positions in the army until 2006. When they transferred their roles, the move was widely seen as preparation for Than Shwe to become a future "civilian" president of the country. More recently, there have been suggestions that Than Shwe and Maung Aye are involved in a power-struggle over the latter's supposed advocacy of reform of the armed forces. As long as this contest remains unresolved, any concessions over the sharing of political or economic power are unlikely. Instead, it is important to identify younger generals willing to participate in constructive talks with the opposition, possible motivated by future business opportunities provided they retire from the military.

The armed forces will have to remain a integral part of a possible transition in Burma. This is an uncomfortable conclusion in a context where each member of the present military elite has built his career on loyalty towards the senior generals, and been involved in crushing democratic protests and conducting so-called military campaigns whose primary target has been civilians in remote mountain areas. Yet Burma's chances of moving towards democracy may depend in part on whether corrupt and undemocratic human-rights abusers in the military are prepared to turn on their superiors.

Even if the Than Shwe-Maung Aye rumours prove untrue, or if the tensions of this moment do not produce active discontent within the army, the declining health of Burma's ageing military leaders in coming years is almost certain to be the occasion of a power-struggle over the succession. More immediately, it is possible that the orders to attack monks in the recent protests could have created factions within the army that are willing to compromise with the opposition. Another factor that could lead to dissent among younger commanders within the army is the excessive lifestyles of the top generals and their families, which have already provoked widespread popular resentment.

An ethnic dimension

The third conflict that must be included in any overall assessment of the prospects for change is that between the central government and the insurgents among several of Burma's most numerous and disaffected ethnic groups.

When the mass popular movement of 1988 arose, insurgent groups in Burma still controlled substantial territory and much cross-border trade. Today their situation is very different: none of the currently active groups pose a serious military threat to the government. The Karen National Union (KNU) has been subject to sustained offensives by the government since exploratory peace- talks ended in 2004, and forced repeatedly to withdraw. The organisation suffered another blow when influential leader Bo Mya died in December 2006; this was followed by a split in early 2007 when a faction calling itself the KNU Peace Council signed a ceasefire with the government.

This leaves the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) as the currently strongest armed opposition group. It has increased its activities in recent years and developed close connections with several smaller ethnic-rebel armies. Several other minor armed groups are active, and the occasional guerrilla attacks of these various forces continue to pose serious problems for Burma's government in its plans for extracting natural resources in the hills.

More significant, however, are recent developments among the armed groups which have signed ceasefire agreements with the government since 1988. These groups were allowed to retain their weapons and semi-autonomy with regard to economic transactions in "their" territories, and thus would in principle easily be able to mobilise their forces again. Only some of the ceasefire groups agreed to participate in the government-organised national convention to write a new constitution for Burma, but it was clear that all were monitoring the process to see what would emerge from it. As the convention meetings developed, several of these groups expressed growing frustration over the lack of visible input from ethnic minorities in the constitution's content, and threatened to resume the armed struggle.

In 2005, the government started to pressure ceasefire groups to relocate and surrender their weapons. The Shan State National Army (SSNA) quickly claimed they had lost faith in the peace process, and joined forces with the SSA-S. In summer 2007, there has been a flurry of activity. The Shan State Nationalities People's Liberation Organisation (SSNPLO) withdrew from its ceasefire in June; and following the final session of the national convention on 3 September 2007, there are indications that several other ceasefire groups along the Burma-China border have started to train new recruits.

By mid-August, tension was also reported between the government and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is by far the most militarily capable ceasefire group. During a brief period of fighting in 1997, UWSA defeated the government troops in its area before agreeing to renew its ceasefire.

In order to develop Burma, there is a need to address the political as well as economic concerns of both the currently active insurgents and the ceasefire groups.

A political process

In light of these three areas of conflict, is it viable to hope for change in Burma? A first step towards progress would be to adjust expectations. It is not feasible to expect that the country immediately will transform into a free western-style democracy. The scenario to strive for, rather, consists of gradual steps towards political development, accompanied by improvement in the living conditions for the population. If the initial reforms prove successful, key actors within and outside the country may be encouraged to support further moves in the direction of democracy.

The primary aim of such a careful process, then, is not a sudden transition to democracy; but, partly for that reason, it may have a greater chance both of being implemented and of saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Burmese currently suffering from malnourishment, HIV/Aids, and constant human-rights violations. In addition, a process that ensures the participation of a wide array of Burmese actors will make it easier to get the necessary support from external actors (such as China, Thailand, India, and Russia), as it will guarantee that the security of their long-term economic interests in Burma is protected.

This strategic perspective on the contours of change is presented at a moment when the military remains in control of most resources in the country, and has not shown any signs of willingness to compromise. There are, however, two key factors that distinguishes the 2007 moment from the epic events of 1988.

The first is information, and the regime's inability today to control its flow. After the 1988 uprising, thousands of democracy activists managed to escape the security crackdown and fled into the jungles and mountains, expecting to join the well-equipped rebel armies that the regime's military propaganda had warned them about. They encountered another world, where the nature of struggle was very different and information about the massacres in Rangoon, Mandalay, and other cities had not penetrated. But even in Burma's region and the world generally, knowledge about what was happening inside the country remained scarce and fragmentary.

In 2007, the junta has made coordinated efforts to strangle information about the protests and violent repression reaching the outside world. It has had limited success, but the proliferation of media outlets and new technologies has meant that daily accounts of protests and the security-force responses have continued to circulate via mobile phones, blogs and websites as well as broadcast and print media. People in Rangoon itself have also received information about the events and the reactions it has provoked around the world against the junta. Than Shwe may not care about the world beyond Burma, but most Burmese do. This factor give the 2007 movement a stronger momentum than the 1988 demonstration could ever manage, even if after renewed evidence of the junta's ruthlessness the protests now will have to take different forms.

The second difference from 1988 is that today, the armed ethnic-opposition groups and the democratic opposition have established political cooperation in exile on the basis of agreement on the goal of a democratic, federal Burma that is codified in a new, alternative constitution. A first move towards a compromise between the key political actors in Burma would be to accept the roadmap to democracy proposed by the junta in 2004, but to base it (if necessary with modest changes) on the constitution written by the exiled opposition.

Such an approach would serve as the starting-point for an inclusive process to manage the problems facing all of Burma, in which every stakeholder can participate: the ethnic rebels, the ceasefire groups, the military, the Buddhist sangha, the democracy activists, and - most importantly - the Burmese people.

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