Thursday, May 1, 2008

Burma's Political Transition Needs People Power

Irrawaddy Online, Thursday, May 1, 2008

Burma's Political Transition Needs People Power


The notion of political transition initiated by a country’s elite has been a dominant discourse in Burmese politics since the late 1990s. The model advocates that a peaceful transition can be facilitated by negotiations between the regime’s “doves” and opposition moderates. It would involve the opposition initiating a concrete proposal to the military in order to persuade the latter to sit at the negotiating table.

This political strategy gained currency in the early 2000s since it coincided with the political ascendancy of former Intelligence Chief Gen Khin Nyunt. At the time, talks between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta seemed to offer a glimmer of hope. However, simultaneously, the opposition movement was losing its strength in "people power" campaigns, such as the unsuccessful Four Nines (September 9, 1999) Mass Movement, and in armed struggles due to ethnic armies signing ceasefire agreements and the fall of the Karen National Union stronghold in 1992.

Any optimism in Burmese politics is never sustained for long. However, the transitional model remained popular as the only way out for the Burmese people. Proponents claimed there was "No alternative!"

"Many diplomats who we met always encouraged and even pressured us to initiate a proposal to the regime," said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). "In fact the party has always called for dialogue and has always been ready to negotiate."

In early 2006, the NLD proposed a transitional plan urging the junta to convene parliament with the winners of the 1990 elections in return for giving the regime recognition as an interim executive power holder. Though the party's call for a negotiated transition was rejected by the regime, the opposition forces—including the 92 MP-elects from the 1990 election and notable veteran politicians—continued to offer flexible transitional packages to the junta. None of them worked.

The proponents of the transition model often downplay the role of public action and mass movement. Some believe it will not happen because more than 20 percent of the population has been born since the uprising in 1988 and are therefore much less affected by the people’s power movement of those times. Others worry that mass movement could be counterproductive to a possible negotiated transition—often the momentum of a protesting crowd will spiral out of control and threaten the careful process of negotiation. They all conclude that the army doesn't respond to public pressure.

Then, all of the sudden, the September protests broke out. The so-called “experts” and “policymakers” failed to see it coming. In the wake of the crackdown, UN-led mediation efforts were revived and Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his generals, once again, were called on to sit at the negotiating table. And once again they declined.

The question now to the advocates of the elite-driven transition model is what to do when the regime refuses to negotiate with the opposition? What it is to be done when the military insist on a referendum to approve a constitution that will allow the perpetuation of military rule in the country?

Almost all supporters of the model say the people of Burma must accept whatever offer the junta makes. They say "something is better than nothing." Some suggested using the generals’ flawed model of democracy as a starting point from which to pursue a more acceptable long-term solution.

"We must give consideration to possible generation change within the military," said Harn Yawnghwe, a well-know lobbyist and director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma office. "The new blood of the army must have options available on the table when their time comes. This constitution and referendum, though they are flawed, can give reform options to a new generation of military officers. It will create a new dynamic for the country to get out of the current deadlock."

That’s why many advocates of the elite-initiated transition advise the Burmese public to accept the constitution and hope it will lead to amendments with the objective of the military's gradual withdrawal from politics at a later period.
Tun Myint Aung, a leader of 88 Generation Students group, disagrees.

"It is such disgraceful advice. The so-called experts and policy makers are pushing our people to live in slavery," he said from his hideout in Burma. "We do not accept the military's constitution; not because we don't want gradual transition, but because the constitution is too rigid to make any change possible. The military holds a veto over any amendments."

Critics said it is now clear—after a series of rejected proposals from oppositions groups and the UN—that rather than political carrots, it is much more likely that effective public action will compel the new military generation to choose the path to reform.

"Unless a mass movement challenges the corrupted military leadership, divisions within the military will not surface," said Kyaw Kyaw, head of the Political Defiant Committee under the National Council of Union of Burma, the umbrella opposition group in exile. "Besides lacking local and international legitimacy, the corrupt leadership is now losing its loyalty from within military ranks since the September protest. In a historical Burmese context, public action, or mass movement, has played a decisive role ever since the struggle for independence to the 1988 democracy uprising to the monk-led protests last September. It will continue to do so until we gain a genuine resolution."

In fact, only when mass movement with strategic leadership rises up against the current military top brass, then the elite’s calculations, regime defection and international pressure will become relevant issues in facilitating a negotiated transition. In other words, political transition is not likely to take place within a framework of proposed constitutional means. Even amendments to the constitution with the hope of gradual reform will not be possible within a military-dominated parliamentary debate. It will happen only when the people challenge the status quo with public pressure.
However, although mass action is believed to be necessary to bring about change in Burma, its inherent dangers mean the possibility of its success remains a big question.

"The calls for public action are getting louder since the prospect of elite-initiated negotiation became impossible," said Nyan Win. "If the regime rigs the referendum result, it could spark mass protests."

A recent history of democratization shows that vote-rigging and stealing elections create favorable conditions and the opportunity for the outbreak of a democratic uprising or, in a worst case scenario, violence.

In fact, vote rigging might not only trigger public outrage in Burma, but also test the loyalty of the regime's staff. It could create divisions and weaken the standing of Than Shwe, who is solely responsible for the decision to move ahead with the unilateral implementation of the current political process by ignoring the UN's call for inclusiveness.
Whether or not public action leads to a negotiated transition depends on the opposition's leadership. No process of democratization has evolved purely and solely from a civil movement or people’s uprising.

It would nevertheless be shortsighted to exclude the role and power of the people in a Burmese political context where elite-driven transition is no longer relevant.

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