Colombo Telegraph

Can Sri Lanka Learn From Myanmar?

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Marwaan Macan-Markar

On the 23rd of April, Myanmar President Thein Sein will be feted in New York at a dinner where he is due to receive the ‘Pursuit of Peace’ award. Sharing the same honour that night will also be the other winner, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil. The event is organized by the International Crisis Group, which has chosen to bend backwards to help Myanmar regain respect on the world’s stage.

In other corners of the globe, such as Europe, the current leader of Myanmar is receiving more accolades, including such whispers that he could be in the running for a Nobel Peace Prize. These are mirrored by what is happening in the Southeast Asian nation, which was, till March 2011, condemned as a pariah by Western nations. A procession of global leaders has been flying into Yangon to support the Thein Sein administration. This A-list has been topped by U.S. President Barack Obama, who made an unprecedented visit by a sitting occupant of the White House last November.

Myanmar’s new fortunes have not been lost on some Sri Lankan commentators who shed light on the country’s foreign affairs. Dayan Jayatilleka, Colombo’s former envoy in Paris and Geneva, is among those who have touched on the reception Myanmar is now receiving internationally.

In the interest of a more informed discussion about what ails Sri Lanka’s current position in the world, an essay written by Marwaan Macan-Markar for the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), India’s premier journal on current affairs, about the transformation in Myanmar, is being reproduced. It was published in the EPW’s May 5th, 2012, edition. 

Myanmar: Is the Age of Military Juntas Over?

Myanmar has reached a moment in its history that has given rise to a rare burst of hope. It is about time, one may say, after the suffering its people have endured under 50 years of military dictatorships. And the signs of reform unfolding in this Southeast Asian nation are quite unlike the change the world witnessed during last year’s Arab Spring, where street protests and days of public rage saw long-standing dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt topple. What is happening in this corner of Asia is more orderly, top-down, and led by a former military man himself. And that this Myanmar story of change has been embraced by the figure who has become a barometer to understand the extent of oppression is hard to ignore. Yes: Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most prominent dissident, has given her blessings.

Just what it means for the Nobel Peace laureate is amply evident. The 66-year-old is finally enjoying her first political honeymoon after a more than 20-year life of sacrifice in a struggle to restore democracy. It follows a thumping victory at landmark by-elections on April 1 for Suu Kyi and the party she leads, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The 43 seats the NLD won out of the 45 seats contested in the 664-member bicameral assembly affirmed the solid support Myanmar’s famous political prisoner still enjoys. She was the ubiquitous face of the party during the weeks of campaigning. It was to hear “Mother Suu” that tens of thousands of voters were drawn to NLD rallies. The NLD is now poised to take its place as the largest opposition party in the 440-member ‘Pyithu Hluttaw’ (Lower House), which is dominated by the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that was vanquished at the April poll.

It is a scenario that appeared improbable a year ago. And the presence of Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues as lawmakers says much about where this Southeast Asian nation has arrived since 1990. That year saw the military rulers in Burma, as the country was then called, take an unprecedented political gamble: hold the country’s first general election since a 1962 coup. It came in the wake of a pro-democracy uprising led by university students in 1988, which was brutally crushed by government troops, resulting in the deaths of 3,000 protesters. The prospect of parliamentary democracy returning to a Burma that once had a thriving political culture gave rise to many new parties, including the NLD. And Suu Kyi, who had returned home in ’88 after being away for decades, emerged as its natural leader.

But Suu Kyi’s first foray into formal politics proved too much for the military. The NLD shocked the generals and the pro-military National Unity Party (NUP) that contested the polls with the outcome. It won a staggering 392 seats out of the 485 that were up for grabs. The NUP secured a mere 10 seats. And Suu Kyi, who had by then been placed under house arrest, was soon to learn that political reform and a transfer of power to civilian rule was furthest from the minds of the generals. They refused to ease their iron grip. And so began a bitter chapter in the country’s history that saw Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s independence hero Gen. Aung San, spend 15 years under house arrest. Her supporters were not spared; hundreds were thrown into jail in the years that followed. The victims ranged from parliamentarians, Buddhist monks and journalists to political activists. Their nemesis was the reclusive Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the strongman of Myanmar’s last junta.

Thein Sein’s Presidency

No wonder many expected a continuation of Than Shwe’s oppressive rule when a former general was elected by the country’s parliament last March as the first civilian head of state in five decades. After all, President Thein Sein had served as a prime minister in the Than Shwe junta. He had also been a leading member of the USDP, which won 219 seats for the Lower House in a fraud-plagued 2010 general elections that the NLD boycotted. And he did stand to benefit from another peculiarity of Mynamar’s 2008 constitution: the bloc of 110 non-elected military offices guaranteed seats in parliament, ensuring the pro-military faction having 329 seats. So when the bespectacled Thein Sein began his term last March as the head of a quasi-civilian administration, Burmese political activists were quick to refer to him as a “puppet” of Than Shwe. His inaugural speech was similarly derided despite its progressive tone that hinted at the politics of inclusion and the spirit of reform.

Yet six months into Thein Sein’s administration, the tone of reform was hard to ignore. It challenged the conventional wisdom that had prevailed for decades in describing the politics of Myanmar – one of absolutes, a clear black-versus-white scenario, a tussle between the evil generals and a living saint fighting for democracy. While the president’s assurances could have been dismissed as cosmetic, how could the words of Suu Kyi be avoided? Who better than her could judge the sincerity of Thein Sein as a reformer? And she certainly appeared convinced when, in mid-September, she told journalists: “The past situation is the past. The current situation is the current one and there has been some progress.” They are lines that have come to define the role she has assumed as an ally to the quiet spoken Thein Sein as he presses ahead with change.

The picture that has subsequently emerged to explain the country’s journey towards openness is one that should be familiar to Asians. It is shaped by personalities than institutions; it is based on faith, trust and confidence shared by the leading lights in the political firmament – in this case Suu Kyi and Thein Sein. And political insiders point to a day last year, August 19, which is pivotal to understand the beginnings of this alliance. For not only had Suu Kyi been extended a rare invitation to participate in an economic seminar in Naypidaw, the new capital, on that date; and not only had she accepted to travel to Naypidaw to mingle for the first time in public with members of the Thein Sein administration; but there was also a private dinner she had been invited to. It was hosted by the president in his residence. And there, besides Thein Sein, was his wife, who reportedly had been overjoyed in meeting the heroine of democracy. The tone at that dinner and the assurances that Thein Sein had promised had convinced Suu Kyi to deliver the line to her supporters that Myanmar was moving beyond the age of juntas.

But it was not a sea change that was easily accepted. There were skeptics among Suu Kyi’s followers. Commentaries in the media outlets run by Myanmar exiles expressed concern. Is “The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is also called, being fooled into an embarrassing political compromise? Some Western analysts even dismissed Suu Kyi and her knowledge of her countrymen. These views often touched on benchmarks to gauge the sincerity of the Thein Sein administration. Amnesty for the nearly 2,000 political prisoners languishing in the 44 jails and labour camps was one of them. The ending of the country’s crippling media censorship was another. And then there were the freedoms for the NLD: to be able to function openly as a party, including Suu Kyi being eligible to contest the April by-elections along with other NLD candidates.

Support from Dissidents

By March, Thein Sein had fortified Suu Kyi’s faith in him by delivering on a raft of pledges. Over 1,000 political prisoners had been released, media were given more freedom and the formal return of the NLD was evident in the presence of its ubiquitous symbol, the party’s flag – a fighting yellow peacock with a white star on a red background. The reactions of prominent dissidents released from prison – known as the ’88 Generation Students Group –described the new Myanmar they were returning to after years in isolation. At a press conference, they declared in a statement: “(The ’88 Generation) will participate to the fullest extent with the government led by the president, the parliament, military, political parties and ethnic minority groups for the emergence of democracy, peace and development.” A similar spirit of reconciliation emerged following talks between the government and rebel groups from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities who have been waging separatist wars for decades. “Over the course of the past year, rapid progress has been made in reaching preliminary ceasefire agreements with nearly all ethnic armed groups in the country,” noted the Brussels-based think tank, the International Crisis Group, in a mid-April report, titled ‘Reform in Myanmar – One Year On’.

It is inevitable that questions would be posed to understand a man being compared with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms as the head of state of the former Soviet Union led to the end of the decades-long domination of that country’s communist party. Is Thein Sein the principle architect of Myanmar’s reforms? What motivated him? Were there signs of his moderate outlook even during the years he served under the last junta? Not all have been properly answered; there are gaps that remain beyond the reach of some of Myanmar’s most informed analysts. But of what has seeped out from military records from his past and the decisions made while serving the strongman Than Shwe, Thein Sein cuts a figure driven by propriety than power. “He had a reputation for being obedient, a good manager, modest and less ambitious and less corrupt than other officers in the army,” says Win Min, a Myanmar academic specialising in the country’s military affairs. Of his fighting experience, less is known. Yet he had demonstrated a streak of assertiveness later in life when, as the prime minister for the recalcitrant Than Shwe, he pressed for international assistance to be permitted into Myanmar to aid the victims of the devastating Cyclone Nargis, which struck in May 2008, killing over 150,000 people. This move was not lost on the likes of the late Nay Win Maung, a prominent figure in an emerging civil society movement in the country. He had described Thein Sein as “smart” and “pragmatic” in an exchange with U.S. embassy officials in Yangon. The contents of that discussion, which made it to a confidential cable that the diplomats sent to Washington in June 2008, was subsequently revealed in the ‘Wikileaks’ exposures. It stated: “Nay Win Maung said it was Prime Minister Thein Sein who had appealed to Than Shwe to secure the Senior General’s permission to allow international and humanitarian staff to travel to (Nargis) affected areas.”

Behind the change

But those familiar with countries that made transitions from military rule towards democracy are bound to ask what local currents in Myanmar made Thein Sein’s role as a catalyst possible. A place to explore this line of inquiry would be the state of the country’s economy. It is in shambles. This collapse of a nation that was once the world’s leading rice exporter to become a least developed country was the result of decades-long interference by the military in the economy. For unlike in, say, Indonesia, where a coup in the 1960s saw the military rulers control only the political space, in Burma of that same decade, the first military dictator, Gen. Ne Win, placed banks, industries and international trade under the military’s command. And 50 years later, public resentment towards the military mismanaging the economy had become palpable. And efforts by Than Shwe to seek an economic lifeline from China in the wake of sanctions imposed by the United States and European governments triggered another sentiment in national psyche: patriotism and nationalism. The recent years saw growing concern and resentment – even among sections of the military elite – about the dominance of China’s footprint in the country, with the Asian giant emerging as the largest investor (14 billion U.S. dollars) and the largest trading partner (5.2 billion U.S. dollars). And then there were regional reminders that Myanmar was falling behind countries like Vietnam in the development race. Yet the emerging forces who were pressing for economic reform — that included moderates in the military and a growing civil society – faced a moment of truth: political reform was a prerequisite for Myanmar to find an answer to its economic woes. If it needed trade and investment from the West to help it rise up and to also serve as a counterweight to China’s dominance, power had to shift from the barracks to the legislature.

Yet to draw from all this that Myanmar’s march out of its military past is certain and that the country’s return to civilian rule is on the horizon is to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room. There are powerful former military officers and serving ones who refuse to fade away. Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, a former general, is a hawk, as is Htay Oo, a former major general, who as the general secretary of the USDP has been disgruntled at the pace of change. And then there is Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the country’s over 400,000 strong armed forces. During a speech in late March, he fired a broadside at Suu Kyi, who has pledged to use her party’s presence in parliament to amend the constitution. The military has a role to defend the constitution and to continue its role in national politics, he said.

Changing the Constitution

So it all comes down to one fact: Changing Myanmar’s current constitution is the final frontier. It was drafted to protect the military and ensure that its grip on power is perpetuated. Where else but only in a country run for and by generals is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces guaranteed a role in the constitution to appoint the ministers of defence, home affairs and border affairs. Where else but in a county under the grip of a military that the powers of a parliament are brazenly undermined by the constitution recognising an even more powerful body – the national defence and security council. The latter’s 11 members –including the president, two vice presidents, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the vice commander and four ministers, three of whom are appointed by the armed forces’ chief – have been given legitimacy to suspend parliament and take over power in the event of a national emergency. In other words, a junta waiting to step in.

It explains why, more than Suu Kyi, the hope for a new Myanmar rests largely on the shoulders of Thein Sein. He has won the support of the moderates within the military faction, the increasingly assertive Lower House speaker Shwe Mann among them. And in these early, fragile days of change, the authority of the man who reluctantly accepted the mantle of president is also respected by the hawks. Yet will Thein Sein be able to deepen the reforms he is presiding over, ushering in a greater civilian presence in political life? Will he achieve peace in the northern Myanmar, where government troops are fighting ethnic Kachin rebels? Will the tone he has set resonate louder by 2015, the year of the next general elections? These are questions that even Myanmar’s best astrologers may not hazard an answer. But what is certain is that Thein Sein does not want to stay on. He has already announced his quest to be a one-term president. For the 66-year-old has something personal to consider: his health. He  has a pacemaker because of irregular heartbeats.

*Marwaan Macan-Markar, a Sri Lankan journalist, is a foreign correspondent who has been reporting from Southeast Asia since 2001. His first posting was in Mexico City. He is a former features editor of The Sunday Leader.

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