Friday, January 4, 2008

60 Years On: Where did it all go wrong?

Irrawaddy Online

60 Years On: Where did it all go wrong?


Friday, January 4, 2008

During the struggle against British colonial rule, a young nationalist, Thakin Nu, once told his colleague, Than Tun: "You will be the Lenin of Burma and I'll be your Maxim Gorky."

When Burma achieved independence in January 1948, Thakin Nu (later known as “U Nu”) became prime minister while Than Tun was general secretary of the Communist Party of Burma. Unfortunately, Burma's Lenin and Gorky fell out and became arch-enemies. Then, civil war broke out. The irony of Burma's independence politics is that it started with a failed dream.

"We were all young and passionate then," said Thakin Chan Tun, a veteran politician who knew both U Nu and Than Tun. "As result, many of our key leaders took extreme stances in post-independence politics and, at the same time, weapons were easily available in the wake of WWII."

The CPB leadership declared independence to be a sham and “under cover of this sham, British imperialism would work a stranglehold on the defense and economic life of the country." Consequently, the CPB decided to launch an armed rebellion in March 1948 to achieve "genuine" independence.

"Dichotomous perspectives, such as genuine-versus-sham and right-versus-wrong is a dominant paradigm among the political oppositions of Burma throughout history," said Tin Maung Than, a famous Burmese writer and political analyst. "When they waged arm struggle, the CPB looked at politics not from a power dimension, but from an ideological perspective. They decided to disengage from the political mainstream."

It wasn’t only the communists—some of the ethnic elite also neglected power politics. They overlooked the reality of basic maturity in politics that you cannot always get your own way, especially in fragile and uncertain post-independence Burma.

A series of negotiations took place between Burman leaders and ethnic representatives some time before independence. The general consensus was to create four ethnic states: Shan, Karenni, Karen and Kachin. In the drafted constitution for the new union, a provision was also included for the possible formation of new states in the future. The Shan and Karenni were granted the right to secede after ten years if they were not happy with their status. The hardest nut to crack was the Karen issue. The designation and status of the Karen state boundary remained unresolved as Karen nationalists demanded Tenasserim, Irrawaddy and parts of Pegu Division.

In October 1947, U Nu's cabinet offered the Karen a state that would have included the Karenni State, the substate of Mongpai, Salween District and some of the Thaton, Toungoo and Pyinmana hill tracts. However, the Karen National Union demanded much of the delta as well, including the whole of the Irrawaddy Division and Insein and Hanthawaddy districts. From the perspective of U Nu's government, the controversial demands made further negotiations impossible.

"U Nu failed to carry out Aung San's promises for the Karen people," said David Tharkapaw, a senior Karen leader and chief of the Information Department in the KNU. "U Nu was a Burman chauvinist. While trust between the KNU and U Nu's government was then weakened due to the mutual propagandas and vilifications, Gen Ne Win's private militias started attacking Karen villages. Then the Karen's revolution became inevitable."

As a result, the KNU launched an insurrection in January 1949. The Karen nationalist movement gradually receded from the center stage of Burmese mainstream politics, and the power of the KNU also dwindled over time. Some observers believe that the KNU should have pursued a more careful strategy than opting to compel the Karen people to an armed struggle for greater autonomy.

"The government's offer could then have been considered very generous by today's standards, but the KNU was not willing to compromise, and [became] increasingly militant," said Thakin Chan Tun. "It was a tragic story of missed opportunity."

In fact, idealism compounded with militancy—whether violent or non-violent—has been a major trait of Burmese politics. The concept of legal opposition, in terms of making compromises and enjoying inclusive participation, has never rooted itself in the country. Post-colonial conflicts in Burma proved that when the opposition tended to resort to violent means to achieve their absolute goals, the government moved to eliminate them.

U Nu's government was also unable to resolve the country's multiple crises and was even disparagingly called the "Six-Mile Rangoon Government" because various rebel groups controlled the suburbs of the capital, Rangoon.

U Nu, modeling himself after Burmese kings of the past, attempted to establish himself as a patron of Buddhism, but he never managed to make his ideal compatible with the daily realities of politics. His authoritarian and capricious leadership failed to lay the foundation for sustainable democracy.

"The appreciation and practice of parliamentary democracy in U Nu's era was superficial," said Dr Aung Kin, a Burmese historian and well-known radio pundit. "U Nu's willingness to give up the parliamentary government to Ne Win's caretaker regime in 1958 paved the way for the military to usurp political power forever."

When the military staged a coup in 1962, it nullified parliamentary democracy and vowed "to transform the society to socialism." However, Ne Win's Burma Socialist Programme Party simply fueled an already faltering situation. His idea of mixing Marxist, Buddhist and nationalist principles was an idiosyncratic mess, forcing the country to retreat into international isolation. The abject poverty and political repression of the BSPP eventually broke the tolerance of the Burmese public and a popular uprising calling for democracy broke out in 1988. The army responded with a massive slaughter of protesters and staged another coup d’etat. Gross violations of human rights have continued unabated ever since.

However, democracy as a renewed ideal was born. The opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in 1990’s multi-party elections. The opposition elite aimed for the absolute maximum—the full transfer of power to the elected party. However, perhaps similar to the CPB and KNU before them, they walked away with the absolute minimum of gains—and the continuation of military rule in a failing state.

Instead of treating elections in a post-conflict society as a guide to power-sharing, the opposition leaders, who held lofty confidence in their public support and democratic ideals in the immediate aftermath of the election victory, viewed it as a means of determining winners and losers.

"Political immaturity within the Burmese opposition derives from a lack of appreciation for power asymmetry," said Tin Maung Than. "We could not strike a balance between power and principle."

All these crises—starting with independence and the ethnic autonomy issue—remain unresolved. The socio-economic condition of the country is at its lowest ebb in its post-1948 history. A humanitarian crisis is looming and public discontent is at an all-time high. The prospect of national reconciliation or even a breakthrough in the political deadlock remains unlikely.

Following the 1988 military coup, U Nu—once the hero of independence and first prime minister of the union—cynically voiced his regrets over fighting for Burmese independence. Those bitter words he might have uttered out of frustration and despair, but it in many ways they reflect the 60-year history of post-independence Burma.

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