Saturday, February 16, 2008

Don't Push NLD into a Corner

Irrawaddy Online, Saturday, February 16, 2008

Don't Push NLD into a Corner


The present political crisis in Burma could be a model from William L. Ury and Richard Smoke’s political science thesis, “Anatomy of a Crisis”—a situation of “high stakes, short time, high uncertainty and narrowing options.”

In the pragmatic world of realpolitik, it means the opposition movement in Burma is now facing a serious predicament. When the military regime made the surprise announcement to set a timeline for a referendum in May and a general election in 2010, the opposition groups were caught off guard.

The junta decisively moved ahead with its own “Road Map” and ignored the persistent calls of opposition groups and the UN-led international community to modify the draft constitution and make the political process inclusive.

The political moral ground of the opposition movement, inside the country as well as in exile, has been based on the legitimacy of the 1990 election results in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory that has never been honored.

The opposition activists are now forced to prove the victory of 1990 election remains relevant in upcoming months. The stakes rise, indeed.

Several grassroots opposition groups, including the influential 88 Generation Students group and the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, recently vowed to launch a "Vote No” campaign against the regime's constitution. But many activists privately admit that the time crunch makes it difficult for them to mobilize a nationwide movement.
The military government's statement regarding the referendum and subsequent elections was vague and shrouded with uncertainties.

Furthermore, the regime has not revoked Law 5/96 of 1996, which provides for up to 20 years imprisonment for anyone who criticizes the government’s national convention and its constitution drafting effort.

To add to the dilemma, many ordinary people do not understand what a “Vote No” campaign really means—whether they are expected to boycott the referendum by shunning the poll stations or they have to physically vote against the constitution.

At the end of the day, no one knows what the regime will do if the public votes against their draft constitution.
"Will they spend another 20 years rewriting another constitution?” questioned a private tutor in Rangoon. "If so, enough is enough. I would rather just go for the flawed constitution."

The high level of uncertainty appears to weaken the opposition's message and game plan.
Even with such high stakes, the time crunch and all the uncertainties, the crisis would be less severe if the opposition had options.

"People must stand up against the referendum and say no to the regime's constitution," said Aung Thu Nyein, a Burmese analyst in exile. "I support the actions of the grassroots organizations, but they must make it clear that it is not a boycott against the referendum. The public must go to the polling stations and vote ‘No.’”

Several opposition activists and journalists have taken it a step further. They have called on the NLD to announce a clear policy to direct the public on the referendum issue and to take the initiative in the "Vote No” campaign.

Aung Thu Nyein disagrees. “It is not feasible to urge the NLD to lead the public in mobilizing a Vote No” campaign. The NLD must be flexible,” he said.

However, as long as the opposition activists and media view the NLD as the vanguard of the democracy movement, they will continually push the party to lead with a resolution at every turn.

But whether or not the NLD's current leadership—not forgetting the implications of Aung San Suu Kyi's long absence—remains at the forefront of the democracy movement will be called into question. The nature of the September uprising indicated that the NLD was not playing a leading role.

More importantly, it is a time for different political forces to play significant positions with a mature understanding of one another. The NLD should not run the risk of staking their political future on viewing the referendum—step four of the seven-step “Road Map”—as the final battleground.

“We have stated clearly from the beginning that we are against the undemocratic nature of the national convention and the draft constitution," Nyan Win, the NLD spokesman, announced in the wake of the government’s statement. “We will probably release our policy by the end of this month. But we don't think the referendum is the final fight for us.”

The NLD will continue to condemn the regime's draft constitution as unacceptable and to demand a free and fair referendum, but at the same time they want to appear to keep all options open, instead of totally rejecting the government’s Road Map or openly advocating a “Vote No” campaign.

Short of a better alternative, it seems to be the most pragmatic policy the party can adopt.

If the NLD sees the referendum as a final showdown and walks away from the Road Map, the party will very likely be sidelined from mainstream politics in future. If the NLD decide to engage in a “do or die” fight, the regime will gladly get into the ring and work at putting the opposition party out of action for good.

In truth, the NLD seems to be aware of this scenario and are determined to remain on legal ground.

"If the public approves the draft constitution in a credible referendum, we will respect the public's decision," said Nyan Win.

The NLD spokesman even hinted that the party does not reject the possibility of running for a fresh election in 2010, if the public decides to go ahead with the Road Map.

“Burma's road to democracy would be long term, independent of our activists' wishes for radical change," said Tin Maung Than, a well-known Burmese writer and analyst in exile. "The military, as a whole and as an institution, is not in a position to accept such a change. Burma needs some structural adjustment to lure a significant part of the military to cooperate with the people."

Naturally, the public—led by grassroots activists—must push in that direction. A mass movement will always be needed to bring about that change.

The people of Burma should support the “Vote No” campaign against the draft constitution. If the fight is won, it may prompt a shake up in Naypyidaw. The military government would be forced to reconfigure their options. Combined with international pressure, a new opportunity for dialogue might present itself.

Whether this particular fight is won or not, the NLD must prepare to go on. In politics, a crisis can be cleverly managed with a well calculated strategic move.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ban Kimoon Must Go to Burma

Ban Ki-moon Must Go to Burma

by Min Zin

Posted February 13, 2008 (Far Eastern Economic Review)

Burma's military junta is testing the response of the international community. When world leaders say they are “concerned” about the situation in Burma, then “increasingly concerned,” then “gravely concerned,” and then—inexplicably—just “concerned” again, the generals in the Naypyidaw jungle smile and push forward with their hard-line stance.

It is hardly surprising that the junta is refusing an immediate return of United Nation's Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari and defying the U.N.'s calls for an inclusive national reconciliation process, now that the regime feels confident it is bringing the country back under control after its deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations last September.

The generals even rejected the U.N.'s proposal to establish a poverty alleviation commission to address the country's humanitarian crisis, clearly demonstrating the regime's criminal disregard for the Burmese people's welfare.

Indeed, despite U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's repeated warnings that return to the status quo in Burma is not acceptable, that is precisely what is happening. The U.N. and other key international players realize the momentum for international mediation in Burma is fading and are trying to regain it with a swift return visit by Special Envoy Gambari. The Burmese authorities, however, say they will not approve the special envoy's itinerary until mid-April.

Each time the international community bends to the junta's will, the generals are emboldened. When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations caved in to the junta's demands by not allowing Special Envoy Gambari to give a Burma briefing at the Asean summit in November, hardliners in Burma celebrated their victory by stepping up oppression at home and canceling a scheduled visit by Mr. Gambari.

Some Burma lobbyists blame the failure of the special envoy's mission on the weakness of the secretary-general's mandate. “The Burma mandate of Ban Ki-moon, which has now been given by the U.N. General Assembly, must be enhanced and strengthened by the U.N. Security Council,” says Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. But the chances of such an initiative are slim, given China's permanent seat on the Security Council. In other words, the secretary-general may not want to risk a China veto.

Another possible mechanism, apart from a stronger U.N. Security Council mandate, is the “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar,” a group of 14 nations—Australia, Indonesia, Russia, the United States, China, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, France, Norway, Thailand, India, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Secretary-General Ban convened the first meeting of the group last Dec. 19 to assist him in his efforts to spur change in Burma. The Group is officially described as “a consultative forum for developing a shared approach in support of the implementation of the Secretary-General's good offices mandate,” and meets informally as needed.

Many analysts wonder if the Group could evolve into multiparty talks on the North Korea model. Some Burma advocates in the U.S. have suggested that the secretary-general convene the next meeting of the Group in an Asian capital such as Jakarta or Beijing, thus drawing regional leaders into the mediation efforts.

In any event, Secretary-General Ban needs to make a decisive move to strengthen his office's role. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group called for the direct involvement of Mr. Ban, saying: “It would be useful for Ban Ki-moon to get more personally involved, particularly at times when negotiations may appear to be deadlocked.” It even urged the secretary-general to pay a personal visit to Naypyidaw in the near future.

Burma's National League for Democracy said it would like to see such a visit. “If Gambari's attempt continues to fail in bringing results,” says NLD spokesman Nyan Win, “Ban Ki-moon himself should visit Burma and let the military generals know clearly that the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.”

Diplomatic sources in New York say U.N. officials are concerned about possible embarrassment for the secretary-general if the Burmese junta publicly rejects his entreaties. This week, as NLD members bravely protested outside their headquarters in Yangon, the secretary-general once again urged the junta to allow Special Envoy Gambari to return and move forward with talks with the NLD leadership.

Clearly, this isn't enough. It's time for Ban Ki-moon to call for a new U.N. Security Council mandate on Burma, to mobilize the “Friends of Myanmar,” and lastly to make a personal visit to Naypyidaw. The Burmese people's suffering under the military boot is far greater than any possible discomfiture the secretary-general may experience by being rejected by either the regime or its closest ally, China.

Unless the international community, led by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, compels the Burmese junta to feel the cost of rejecting the U.N.'s mediation efforts in Burma, the prospect for reform in the country will remain hopeless.The secretary-general must try his best for Burma.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Need for a Growth Coalition in Burma

Irrawaddy Online, Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Need for a Growth Coalition in Burma


When Indonesian dictator Suharto died last Sunday, Burmese-language short-wave radio stations and other Burmese media based abroad gave the news extensive coverage and offered comparative analyses. They attempted to draw similarities and contrasts between Suharto and Burma’s late tyrant Ne Win, and between the different directions the two countries have taken in their development.

Many experts noted that although Suharto was a vicious dictator, he raised the Indonesian economy to “Asian Tiger” status in the 1980s. Ne Win and his successors, on the other hand, have turned Burma into a failed state. All lamented Burma’s slide into its current condition of economic deprivation.

In fact, Burma introduced economic reforms after the military staged a coup in 1988. According to reports, cumulative foreign investment in the period from 1988 through early 1997 reached $6.1 billion. Some optimists even said that investors seeking the next “tiger” economy should set their sights on Burma.

However, despite the country’s opening of its economy to foreign investors, overall economic progress remained slow. Economist David Dapice attributed this to the government’s reluctance to undertake comprehensive reforms, choosing instead to implement reforms in a “half-hearted way”.

Then the 1997 Asian financial crisis struck. At first, Rangoon was unconcerned, as the country was not directly impacted by the plummeting value of a number of key Asian currencies. But when investors from other Asian countries began to shift away from high-risk ventures and started reneging on their investment promises in order to limit their losses in the crisis, Burma also got hit hard. The military regime made matters worse by failing to come up with sound economic policies in response to the crisis. The unreal economic boom went bust.

In fact, the junta has neither the capacity nor the political will to carry out far-reaching economic reforms, because they are afraid that any such move would threaten the interests of military elites, forcing them to turn their economic playground into a level playing field. They worry that allowing technocratic participation, much less public involvement, in the policymaking process would weaken their grip on power and deprive them of the prerogatives they currently enjoy. “Technocrats and experts such as economists and respected bureaucrats need to be viewed as important human resources and [their role should be] enhanced in Myanmar (Burma),” said Khin Maung Nyo, a well-known economist and writer in Burma. “They serve to help formulate economic policies, and the availability of policy choices makes it easy for government to implement reforms to build a modern, developed nation,” the economist added.
However, military involvement in political and economic affairs has from the outset been much deeper in Burma than in Indonesia and other countries in the region, where technocrats have long played a key role in formulating economic policies and guiding subsequent growth.

Broadly speaking, the junta has failed to form a growth coalition involving the military, opposition elites, ethnic ceasefire groups, technocrats, business groups, and the bureaucracy—all of whom need to work together to shape meaningful economic reforms.

In fact, several Burmese economists abroad and inside Burma have attempted to persuade the generals to secure such broad domestic support for economic reforms. In early 2007, a well-known economist inside Burma approached late Prime Minister Gen Soe Win to set up a consultative forum. Although Soe Win was said to have supported the idea, the junta’s supremo, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, shot it down.

Business sources note that other reform plans have stalled or been aborted because of Than Shwe’s preoccupation with ensuring his own survival.

“Than Shwe calls the shots on everything,” said Sein Htay, an economist in exile. “No one dares to initiate major reforms unless Than Shwe gives the final order.”

Since 2005, dozens of business people and economists have reportedly been consulted for their input into the drafting of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Law, which will designate six main commercial cities as free-trade zones, with the aim of bringing more foreign investment into the country to revitalize its crippled economy. The much-anticipated and hyped SEZ Law, which was supposed to be enacted in 2007, has yet to come into effect, as Than Shwe continues to drag his heels.

“Than Shwe is afraid of the emergence of the Thilawa SEZ in Rangoon,” said a businessman in Rangoon. “He does not even want to bring limited liberalization to a limited zone. He is too concerned with security issues, especially after the September protests.”

Several economists suggest that the state urgently needs to readjust its role in economic policy formulation and implementation. They say that if the state reduced its over-dominant role and allowed the private sector to play a greater part in the economy, the authoritarian regime would be able to undertake economic reforms.

“Centralization must be relaxed,” said Maw Than, a former vice chancellor of Institute of Economics in Rangoon. “A pro-business attitude should be nurtured and broader consultation should be sought after. Advice must be given serious consideration for the benefit of society.”

However, the strongman who leads the ruling junta with an iron fist cares little about what the experts have to say. The military mindset of the regime means that its decision-making process is strictly top-down. Under the leadership of Than Shwe, the Burmese economy will continue going to dogs.