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Burma Political Review

Burma Political Review: Revolution

Hre Mang
Mizzima News (www.mizzima.com)

May 18, 2004

The Burmese people have experienced much political chaos since the anti-colonial movement against the British. The recent pro-democracy movement has shown up significant factors explaining why the Burmese opposition, including the ethnic minority groups, has failed again and again. Among these factors are ideological pitfalls as well as intellectual incompetence which have dragged the opposition away from its collective goals and lead it to neglect the political and historical context of contemporary regional and national politics. 

Failure has been compounded by other major factors, such as miscalculation of potential outcomes as a result of a lack of skilful political capital management and leadership guiding the pre-disposed political mindsets and social behaviours of the people of Burma. For example, the Burmese opposition gained enormous political capital after the 1988 public uprising that forced the generals to conduct national election as part of a plan to trap the opposition. The political capital produced by the people's movement has been misused and the opportunity to change the course of the whole nation was missed. 

The present time, however, poses a critical historical juncture when the people of Burma have to choose their own way: confront or negotiate with the military leaders for the future of 50 million people. 

In politics, activists can be prose to defending their stance even at the cost of the interest or lives of the people. Burma's revolutionary past provides examples of such conduct: the independence movement and the assassination of General Aung San and his colleagues; the Burma Communist Party and the assassination of Takhin Than Thun; the Karen people's five decade-long revolution and the split of the Karen National Union; the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO)'s earlier brethren and their assassination; the recent Burmese students' democratic movement and the internecine killings in the peripheral jungle which fragmented the student force; the Chin revolutionary movement and its killings and attempts to kill its leaders; and the return of the 17 ethnic armed groups into Junta's fold and their negotiations with the military leaders. 

All these events furnish a plenitude of lessons for contemporary Burmese revolutionaries. If these lessons are not sufficient, there is no intellectual or spiritual supernatural intervention that can enlighten the Burmese dissidents and teach them to avoid the most obvious destructively path and to choose the most viable and feasible political path to achieve the collective end goal: peace and freedom for the people of Burma. This history, however painful it may be, is ours and ours to draw practical lessons from for finding a political solution today. All of us want to achieve our collective end-goal and not to remain in the diasporas, existing as a "good reason" for the regime's extended political power and control in the country and leaving millions of starving people both inside and outside Burma.

The root causes of these failures are obvious within each particular political context. The political evil behind the assassination of General Aung San was political ambition entertained by the Burmese power dreamers that was brutally exploited by the culprits. Similarly, the other political nightmares entail comparable political, ideological and intellectual pitfalls. 

Within the world political context the Burmese people are not alone in calling forth blame for such political failures, for self-destructive criticism among the dissidents, and the employment of morally heinous and politically evil political actions to assassin or destroy one's political opponents by any means, shooting oneself in the foot, even when collective effort is politically crucial to win the battle. 

By its very nature, politics is biased and power-centred. This is why advanced thinkers across the world believe in the superiority of the collective rule of the people, in democracy. Democracy minimises conflicts of interest among the people by providing for a presumably free and fair collective election system. Many people around the world desire to participate in this kind of a political system. They think that it can serve the interests of the majority without exploiting the rights of the rest, instead affirmatively supporting their status within the general population. 

Sadly, however, in the attempt to change from the previous political system to the rule of the people, many political actors disengage intellectually. Many honest volunteers and activists increase the distance between themselves and the fulfilment of their political dream due to their lack of rational capacity and the empirical assessment ability. The progress of Burma's civilization has led the people through a remarkable history which teaches any prudent and honest person many valuable lessons. If, however, the current generation chooses to follow the paths that previous generations of activists and volunteers have taken, the results are bound to be similarly dismal. Killings, assassinations, and self-destruction, political suicide and distrust among the dissidents puts off balance the common boat of our common dream to sail to the shore of freedom for Burma. 

During the "8888" uprising, one of Burma's military leader said: "If we kill 3 million people, we still have more than 35 million to rule." And then what? 

The movement has failed recently to detect political discrepancies. The "8888" movement, provoked by the people's ill feelings and not necessarily by a collective demand for democracy, raised enormous political capital, enough to change the entire course of the nation's development at the time if it had been managed effectively. After 15 years of revolution, the political capital is now almost completely used up, leaving many activists struggling hard for political survival. In comparison to the Burmese independence movement, no international political event helps the current revolutionary movement to gain cheap political capital. The regional political context is in favour of the regime's position, supporting peaceful negotiations and opposing the wholesale replacement model of regime change which many opposition hardliners stand for. 

The international community's pressure has not proved a viable means for dismantling the Burmese regime, either. At their worst, the dissidents have been ideologically and strategically divided and have taken diverging paths, making impossible any collective political force against the common enemy. Significantly, the return of 17 armed ethnic groups signifies support for the peaceful negotiation approach, weakening the confrontation or total replacement model of political transition. 

Several false assumptions handicap those believing in them and leave them with political and ideological dilemmas. Among them is the assumption that all opponents of the regime are democrats. Of course, all opponents are likely to choose democratic rule over the military dictatorship. 

However, as a result of the regime's four-decade long brainwashing process delivered through the national education system, the political administration and social construction, the minds of many activists and leaders have been hardwired with authoritarianism, socialism, or communism against the democratic mode of political process and management. The school of thought perpetuated by the military dictatorship led to political behaviour being determined by undesirable ideology. In short, many activists fail to think and act democratically, lack political tolerance and partisanship, the pre-requisite moral and professional qualification for any democratic practitioner. The Burmese students' self-purgatory killings in the peripheral jungles, the destructive writings and accusations among dissidents and the lack of mutual cooperation reflect the legacy of the regime's dictatorial political mind-setting. Within the opposition groupings, they increase the numbers of enemies while isolating individual oppositional forces from each other. 

Unfortunately, the 1990s MP-elects were not given a chance to form a government. Instead many had to leave the country. Since then the people of Burma relied on false assumptions expecting from the 1990's MP-elects a revolutionary movement against the regime. The MPs elected in 1990 were not revolutionaries, however, but honest prudent men and women. Some were physicians, teachers, politicians, lawyers, businesspeople, etc. Whatever their professions, they were by no means elected to fight against the military regime but to run the governing body of the country. In other words, they were not politically or morally obliged to do so. 

To expect of them the execution of so great a mission for which they were not prepared is wrong and to blame them for not endeavouring to do so is politically incorrect and morally wrong. However, as trusted citizens, if they choose to take up the struggle against the military, they should be given support to the extent that their action or potential action require social and political capital. Nevertheless, handing over the whole political capital of the contemporary revolutionary course to them is a historical mistake and politically a great loss. 

For there is a difference between the roles required in regular domestic politics (where the electoral system produces the essential political infrastructure) and the course of national revolution (in which an inclusive political and national movement is the sole foundation of political force). These different roles, in turn, must be filled out by power-centred and people-centred persons respectively. 

The nature of the first leads to an exclusive political party movement in which the flow of power and the distribution of political means and resources are based on membership of the party. The later, by comparison, leads to an inclusive movement of all citizens as well as any concerned stakeholders. Whatever the motive may be, any movement that places supreme importance on something other than the lives and interests of the people is ideologically and politically dangerous and may be indistinguishable in effect from the military dictatorship. 

Forty years ago, the Burmese military had a "good reason" on which it built its existence: the persistence of ethnic insurgencies, addressed under the term "disintegration of the Union". After taking over the country's political power, the regime has changed its "good reason" to the existence of the dissidents, called pro-democracy fighters. After four decades of bloodshed, the regime skilfully changed its "good reason" for holding central political power, negotiating with almost all ethnic armed groups while pushing the 1990 MP-elects and student activists out of the country. 

After gaining independence, Burma faced no external threat among its newly independent neighbouring countries. However, the unstable nature of the new Union lend itself as a reason for some political leaders to play political games.

The reasons behind the instability of the Union are well publicized and politicised. First, the Panglong Agreement, envisioned to last for ten years, gave its signatory the political freedom to opt for secession or to continue to stay inside the Union. The military leaders turned this fact into a "good reason" for its actions. If genuine democracy had been allowed to flourish under the Panglong Agreement, the ethnic groups would have had no reason to fight against the central government. Second, a continuous threat was posed by the Karen separatists who had never agreed to be part of the Union. Third, a significant threat emanated from the east in the form of Chinese communists infiltrators and the Shan national movement. 

On the basis of these reasons, the Burman leaders eventually handed the central power to the military, instead of trying to resolve the problems through a democratic process. Thereafter, the military continued putting forward its own "good reason" for holding on to central political power. And now the military regime has a new self-made "good reason", namely the existence of the dissidents whom they consider "traitors" of the Union. 

The United States of America, especially CIA, was accused of having lent a hand to enable Bin Laden to fight against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and Sadam Hussein to take on Iran in accordance with its "containment policy." Following its own political "good reason", the USA has engaged in political games throughout the Middle East. Comparably, although dissimilar in terms of the reasons given, the Burma military regime has continuously offered its own reasons, one after another, to hold on to central political power. 

It is illogical to believe that, in the wake of the "8888" nationwide uprising, the military leaders sincerely believed that they would win the 1990 national election. The election was no more than a pre-meditated political game plan to create another self-made "good reason" for the military's existence as the only solution to Burma's political stalemate. So, according to the wishful dream of the military leaders, all civilian figures and leaders who espouse hardliners positions will remain in jail or in diasporas. This is simple soldiers' logic: "When there is an enemy, the existence of the army is justified." In the middle of a political deadlock, many are left with a simple prisoner's dilemma. At the worst, the regime's leaders have skilfully played with the people's political mind-sets. 

Much as entrepreneurs sell their products by creating a sense of need in their potential customers through advertisement and promotion, Burma's military regime has effectively sold the "good reasons" for its existence. If there is no alternative path for the dissidents to pursue, they will remain in jail, under house arrest, oppression, and in the diaspora. The military leaders will remain in power. The regime is certain to attempt to maintain the existing political stalemate or to creat another one to perpetuate its "good reason" for continuing to exist with pretend political dignity. Therefore, it is up to those disagreeing with the military's "good reasons" to look for an alternative path for reaching the collective end goal. The current and previous paths are about to or have reached a "dead end."

Since Burma's independence, the Burma Communist Party, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independent Organization, and the rest of the ethnic armed forces have spent enormous political capital and thousands of human lives and incurred vast economic, social and political loss. 

Unfortunately, the non-Burman ethnic groups missed out on the world democratic boom after the Second World War when peoples around the world gained independence in a global political wave against colonialism and unjustified occupation. The definition of the term "humanitarian intervention" has changed within a world political context, in which no country is willing to supply arms and ammunition openly to an independence or revolutionary movement against a ruling government. The recent emergence of the global terrorist threat has made many people come out in opposition to violent political movements, whether they are directed against an oppressive government or against foreign invaders. The Chechens under the Soviet control, the Palestinians under Israeli control, the Irish under the British, the Tamils under the Serilinger, the Tibetans under China, the seven sister states of North East India, etc.: all lack sympathizer who could supply arms and ammunition to support the struggle against the ruling government or intervene militarily. 

Modern technological development has made the world a global village in which governmental interactions and interdependency have dramatically increased, binding many governments together and making them cooperate with each other in solving internal as well as international problems. 

India, which once provided Burmese student democratic activists with significant amounts of food and money (especially under former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi), now cooperates with the regime in regulating the international border and countering ethnic insurgency along the Indo-Burma borderline, thereby hoping to avoid losing influence in China, its regional rivalry. 

There is not a single Asian country willing to supply arms and ammunition and side with the Burmese dissidents against the regime now. Instead regional political behaviour has recently swung over to self-seeking political interest, non-interference, and commercial and political competition. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing terrorist's threat have led to an increasingly anti-war movement and to scepticism over the affiliation of underground political movements around the globe. 

In short, political resources for a violent political movement aiming to change the course of Burma are in short supply within the current political context. Meanwhile, the fact that almost all ethnic armed groups have negotiated with the Burma military reflects the changing nature of the political movement. All these historical factors lead to the conclusion that the current political stalemate in Burma will not be solved by violent means but only through peaceful negotiations if both parties are ready to engage in them. 

Hence, the historical factors arising from the past 15 years appear to teach the following lesson: The current political movement, based on party politics in which the flow of power and political resources is based on membership of exclusive parties, will lead to nowhere. The hardliners' stance, meanwhile, is in a critical condition in terms of its political strength to do away with the regime and in terms of the needs of the 50 million starving people inside Burma. 

At the same time, the political context does not hint at a dramatic reformation process among the dissidents. If its concern is to meet the needs and interests of the people, the opposition has to change its strategy from the total replacement model of political transition to a model of peaceful negotiations whenever and wherever possible, without lessening the political pressure on the regime. The military leaders must be dragged to the political round table at which extended political discussion among the people can take place. 

Having been kept under control without the capacity to exercise its political freedom and influence the people with a clear political vision, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been weakened in many areas, lacking essential political instruments to bear upon the regime. If we are looking for an immediate solution cooperation with the regime is necessary as is an attempt to influence other participants in the movement, especially the cease-fire groups and other individuals in favour of the common good. 

For all pro-democratic dreamers, whether student groups or individual citizen, it is unacceptable to share power with the military leaders in a democratic form of government, however, for the sake of the 50 million starving people and the potential continuous sufferings of millions. The opposition has a chance to cooperate with the military leaders and work with them with forgiveness and tolerance. Will the military also respond the same?

(The author is a member of Burma Strategy Group/Free Burma Coalition.)