Friday, July 24, 2009

Burma’s Opposition Must Wage Proxy Fight

Op-ed, The Irrawaddy, Friday, July 24, 2009

Burma’s Opposition Must Wage Proxy Fight


In politics, direct and frontal attack is rarely wise. Occupying the flank by co-opting the opponent's game plan for one's own purposes is a powerful ploy.

Co-option strategy, however, is a double-edged sword. It presents the risk of being swallowed by the dominant establishment, or at least having one’s reputation damaged, but it also conceals great power and maneuverability.

It depends on how one manages to play it right in a relatively conducive political environment. If well managed, it will become strength. In any case, never rule out this option in exchange for, or fixing solely on, the honor fight when the time is not ripe. To the advantage of oppositions in Burma, a multi-pronged strategy is always called for.

Mainstream oppositions, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) and major ethnic ceasefire groups, have announced they will not take part in the 2010 elections unless the military allows a constitutional revision and inclusive political process. Instead of bringing about a much-needed state-building process in which all parties rally together and make their voices heard, Burma's constitution conceded 25 percent of legislative seats to the armed forces and denied protection of fundamental ethnic rights in a multi-ethnic nation.

More importantly, the constitution allows the military virtually to run the country with the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), and even to stage a coup d’état "if there arises a state of emergency." The opposition's principled stance of refusing to endorse the military's constitution and contest the 2010 elections, therefore, deserves understanding and support.

However, it does not mean that there is no gap in the castle wall. The opposition should also look at the situation from a power perspective. By dissecting the junta’s constitution, the opposition will find the devil lies in the details over which Snr-Gen Than Shwe should lose sleep.

First of all, the new post-2010 election power arrangement will create two power centers—military and government. These two power centers will nonetheless be at loggerheads over the command structure and personal interests. Even within the single power center, the Burmese military has repeatedly mired itself in purges resulting from battalion forces versus the intelligence faction, and other rivalries.

Now, after the elimination of the intelligence faction, various reports confirm that there are serious animosity and tension between the military personnel and the thuggish Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) members regarding the latter's interference with the military's administrative mandate and other issues of self-interest.

The election, so long as it demonstrates a relatively competitive nature, can make elite rivalry become public issues. The government's operation with two centers of power—no matter who pull the strings—could lead to either a serious internal split or miserable inefficiency of the ruling body.

Secondly, the constitution carries destructive seed for the military to grow into a center-versus-periphery conflict. Though Than Shwe enshrined ultimate power for the commander-in-chief of the military in the constitution, he failed to provide similar authority to regional commanders in their localities, who are key pillars in the military regime's power structure.

The constitution requires the president to seek approval from the commander-in-chief in all major issues at least via NDSC procedure, but it does not guarantee any special power to regional commanders. Constitutionally, regional commanders are under the control of Chief Ministers of the Regions or States, who could well be civilians in most cases.

Even if the president appoints military Members of Parliament or retired army officials as Chief Minister of the Region or State, the regional commander who is so used to being a warlord in his domain will find it hard to accept constitutionally the prescribed power of the Chief Minister. This may in turn lead the regional commanders to oppose not only local power arrangements but also Naypyidaw's control.

The third loophole in the constitution is that if non-military parties sweep to victory or win a clear majority of the remaining seats (aside from the 25 percent reserved seats for the military), a non-military candidate can become president or at least non-military parties can control the legislative agendas. According to the constitution, parliament has the right to enact a long list of laws ranging from defense and foreign affairs to economic and social sectors. Thus, Than Shwe appears to be determined to fill the remaining parliamentary seats with members of a military-backed political party.

However, this leads to the fourth problem—another self-defeating clause of the constitution.

Than Shwe may want to see his USDA members seizing most of the remaining seats. Transforming the USDA into a political party and contesting the 2010 election will give the junta a great advantage because this thuggish group can exploit the existing nationwide organizational structure and also presents a constant reminder that it’s a fearful power that can intimidate the public to vote for its members. But it is not likely to happen because the constitution clearly states that "Civil Services personnel shall be free from party politics." This clause will invalidate a majority of the 24 million USDA members, who are public servants, if the group turns itself into party.

The constitution also forbids political parties and candidates for parliament from receiving any support directly or indirectly from the state, including the use of state property and money. As the USDA currently enjoys such advantages, it runs afoul of the regime's own constitution. If the military wants to create a new political party or parties, they will not carry any resemblance of the USDA in terms of name recognition, resources or and intimidating power.

These are some causes of grave concern for Than Shwe. Perhaps that's why he has kept delaying the promulgation of electoral law, which was reportedly ready to be published early this year. Than Shwe wants more time to secure his bet for more power.

The opposition, for its part, is not likely to take part in the 2010 election unless the regime concedes constitutional reform. However, it is not clear if a political party that does not contest the election will be deregistered. The constitution vaguely states that a party must "accept and practice a genuine and discipline-flourishing multi-party democracy." But if the election law forbids a party such as the NLD to have legal existence for its refusal to participate in the election, the same law will have to impact on ethnic ceasefire parties such as the United Wa State Party, Kachin Independence Organization and New Mon State Party. Most ethnic ceasefire groups have two wings—a political party and the army. It will be a tough choice for Than Shwe to make.

Aside from this principle stance, the practical power implication suggests that the credibility and legitimacy of an election and new power arrangement will be greatly hurt so long as ethnic ceasefire groups refuse to disarm and Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD does not take part in the election. With the new constitution and elections, the military thus cannot expect to minimize the cost of conflict. The most visible costs will be the continuation of international isolation and further damage to the country's economy.

In fact, the opposition could create leverage not only by being outside the regime's election process, but also by opening a new proxy front within the regime's game plan. Constitutional reform is still the most important policy demand, but the opposition should not shut their eyes to the 2010 election.

While the opposition does not take part in the elections representing the NLD, UWSP and NMSP, they must set up proxy political parties to engage in the 2010 election. Through proxies, the opposition must attempt to seize the mainstream platform in order to maximize civilian control of the regime's game. At the same time, the opposition groups such as NLD, NMSP and etc must stand strong outside the reins of an "illegitimate" constitution and election, and continue their fight for genuine reconciliation. The opposition must be savvy in combining both inside-out and outside-in strategies to usher in political change.

Just because they loathe the undemocratic constitution, the opposition should not consider total disengagement from mainstream politics. If history were any guide, the total dissociation of the Communist Party of Burma and the Karen National Union from post-independence mainstream politics made the two strongest forces gradually recede from the center stage of politics, and the power of the both groups also dwindled over time. The opposition, including both democracy forces as well as ethnic groups, should not overlook the reality of basic maturity in politics—that you cannot always get your own way, especially when one group in the conflict maintains an asymmetric power advantage.

Thus far, the KIO, other Kachin ceasefire groups and some representatives of civil society set up the Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP) in June 2008 to contest the 2010 elections and has reportedly already begun campaigning, while the KIO remains determined not to surrender arms. This is a wise and proactive move since it will allow Kachin to control the Kachin State parliament and be represented in the national parliament. NLD and other ethnic groups should follow suit.

In fact, the formation of proxy parties and participation in the 2010 elections will help preventing a split within the opposition groups.

Otherwise, the policy disagreement between moderates and radical activists within the NLD as well as individual ethnic groups might lead to actual and open splits when the election law comes out and the junta plays more rounds of divide and rule. By setting up proxies, the opposition can create dynamic and diverse tasks and responsibilities within its own leadership and the rank and file.

It could also help bring so-called "neutral," "politically non-engaged professionals," “intellectuals, retired civil/military officials and others who believe in Track Two diplomacy" into the given "legally viable" political arena. No matter whether one agrees or disagrees with the prevailing so-called "Third Force" who mostly opposes Western economic sanctions and criticizes Suu Kyi and her party, the best way to compete with them is to create one's own proxy.

However, no one should harbor any illusion that the presence of opposition proxies in the 2010 election will spark a magic power shift to civilian control. It could happen only if the military-dominated status-quo is challenged by public pressure and a negotiated settlement is reached with the military.

The regime's constitution will not lead to a genuine political transition and democratization without broad-based public actions and reconciliation. The aforementioned loopholes in the constitution may not necessarily offer much maneuverability and leverage to the civilian MPs in the first term of the post-2010 power arrangement. Without any balance of power in the state institutions, the military can simply ignore or veto these loopholes.

Moreover, non-military MPs are not necessarily monolithic and unanimous in their approach to the military's domination. They may not necessarily be willing to view their control of majority seats in parliament as a means of determining winners and losers vis-à-vis the military. Parochial interest can also blind non-military MPs to appreciate a broader vision, and self-interest can even corrupt them to compromise their reform agenda. All in all, the election can also be marked by vote rigging, intimidation and bullying attacks orchestrated by the regime and its affiliates against opposing candidates.

However, the seeds of foundational contradiction are embedded in the constitution. The gaps in the castle are built-in. If a moderate military leadership emerges in a post-Than Shwe era, those proxy MPs and ministers who are in the mainstream can work with them for gradual reform. Or when mass action takes place on the streets, proxies in the given political process may play a role.

Than Shwe, reportedly a big fan of boxing, must know that strength does not lie in the punches the boxer throws but in the balance and support of the boxer. In other words, it is the legs that matter, the foundation that holds the boxer up can also make him fall. With this loophole-ridden constitution, Than Shwe knows that his opponents could weaken his legs and he could easily reel and stagger.

The opposition should be creative and devious in opening a new proxy front, as a part of their multi-pronged strategy, to exploit the crack in the fortress.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.

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