Saturday, April 21, 2012

Picking the wrong battle

Posted By Min Zin

On April 23, 43 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are supposed to take up their seats in Burma's national parliament. But before they can do that, they have to swear an oath. Now NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has started a fight over its wording.

The MP-elects have refused to take the pledge because it requires them to state that they will "uphold and abide by the Constitution of the Union." The constitution in question is the one that was adopted in 2008 as the result of a process orchestrated by the then-ruling military junta and denounced by most outside observers as illegitimate. During the recent election all the NLD candidates campaigned on a promise to amend this constitution. In a recent meeting with President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi asked that the text of the oath be changed from the present version to one that stipulates only "respect" for the constitution.

The present standoff was preceded by a lot of complicated maneuvering that probably isn't worth going into. Suffice it to say that it will be almost impossible for the NLD leader to get her way unless the government amends the constitution itself accordingly. While some sources suggest that Thein Sein might be willing to concede the point, it will be very hard for him to do so without causing considerable discontent among other members of the ruling elite.

While the NLD has threatened to boycott parliament if its demand isn't met, Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to avoid saying this all too directly. "We won't say we are not attending parliament," she toldRadio Free Asia in an interview on Thursday. "We will attend after the oath [is amended]."

This is an unfortunate strategic blunder for the leader of the NLD. She has put herself in an unnecessary dilemma. First of all, the point at hand is largely symbolic. Semantic issues in politics are usually about saving face. Vowing to "uphold and abide" the constitution does not mean that the opposition can't try to amend it later. A quick look at the texts of other countries' oaths of office shows that words like "uphold" and even "defend" are commonly used, but such language has never prevented anyone from proposing constitutional amendments.

Second, the timing is bad. When she reached her pre-election deal with the regime to change the Party Registration Law so that the NLD could run, Aung San Suu Kyi should have known that the language of the oath appears not only in the Party Registration Law but also in the constitution. If she wanted to make an issue of it, she could have done so then. Now she should just ignore it for the sake of establishing normal working relations with the incumbent legislature and the government.

Third, Suu Kyi has picked the wrong person as her interlocutor. She is relying too heavily on the president and the executive branch. Amending the constitution is a job that should be carried out by parliamentarians. While there is a clear institutional and personal rivalry between the executive and legislature branches, Suu Kyi's personal approach to the president could backfire. Rather ominously, a high-ranking officer has now seen fit to state that the army is determined to protect the constitution (and, along with it, the military's dominance in politics). In an interview last month, Htay Oo, the leader of the military-aligned party that holds the overwhelming majority of the seats in parliament, told FP that he sees no need for an amendment. Given the enormous humiliation inflicted on Htay Oo's party by the NLD in the election just past, Aung San Suu Kyi's insistence on a semantic issue will be viewed in some quarters as rubbing salt into the losers' wound.

In short, while fulfilling the NLD's demand might make many members of the opposition feel better about their implicit cooperation with government institutions, hardliners within the military and the regime are likely to gain powerful ammunition in their fight against Thein Sein. If the president and his fellow reformers compromise on this issue, they expose themselves to the accusation that they are giving too much away to Aung San Suu Kyi and the West.

Perhaps the dispute can be resolved with some sort of trade-off. Otherwise the cost of further escalation and eventual deadlock will almost certainly prove high both for pro-reform officials and the opposition. By participating in the election Aung San Suu Kyi chose to play by the regime's rules; now she needs to pick her battles rather than wasting valuable energy in a fight over symbolism. There's an old Burmese proverb: "If you choose to live like a bug inside a chili pepper, you can't really complain if you start feeling hot."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Happy Burmese New Year!

Posted By Min Zin

The Burmese New Year Festival has begun. Thagyamin, King of the Celestial Bodies, has come down to Earth. The day of his arrival is known as the Day of Descent, which was on April 13 of this year according to the Western calendar. There is the day of his departure from Earth, the Day of Ascent (April 16), and the day in between (sometimes two days, like this year), the Day of Sojourn. The day after his departure marks the first day of the Burmese New Year (April 17).

Khin Myo Chit, a leading writer of postcolonial Burma, tells us that Thagyamin is "responsible for seeing that people live in accordance with Buddha's way." His name is cited frequently in everyday conversation: To prove their honesty, the Burmese commonly say, "Thagyamin knows I'm telling the truth." During more desperate times, they may utter "May Thagyamin help me out of this."

The New Year Festival, known as "Thingyan" or "Thingyan Pwe," is not, strictly speaking, a religious event. Neighboring Southeast Asian peoples such as the Thai, Lao, Cambodians, and the Dai people of Yunnan Province in China also celebrate similar New Year Water festivals. People throw water on one another to wash away the sins of the previous year. At the same time, the festivities serve the practical purpose of relieving people from the heat, since April is the hottest month of the year in tropical Asia.

What's really worth noting, though, is that the Burmese version of the festival is changing. Over the past few years Thingyan has grown wilder. Crony-run businesses sponsor free outdoor concerts, and the water hoses used to shoot at roving revelers seem to be getting more powerful all the time. Observers have noted that the water festival, increasingly marked by binge drinking, revealing clothing, and street fights, has been the only outlet for the people to vent their frustrations after decades of military rule.

This year the country has undergone a rapid political thaw, and that, too, is having an effect on Thingyan. The most notable sign is that the government has removed a 23-year-long ban on thangyat chanting, rhymed couplets that are sung to the beat of a traditional drum on festive occasions. Thangyat chants are the heart and soul of the New Year Festival. The performance criticizes and makes fun of the foibles of society, a sort of verbal version of cleansing by water. Done properly, thangyat jokes are fun and fairly light, and the whole genre can be regarded as a particularly entertaining form of traditional performance art. Some famous political activists, such as former student leader Min Ko Naing, were thangyat performers in the 1980s. The ruling junta that seized power in 1988 did not find their satirical criticisms amusing, however, and banned the performances. Thangyat chanting survived only in exiled dissident communities.

The return of thangyat troupes boosts the legitimacy of the nominally civilian government, which has just received a big gift from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised thesuspension of sanctions during his historic visit to Burma this past Friday. The most popular troupe for this year's festival chose to express a collective appreciation of the reforms by naming itself the "Well-Done-Indeed Thangyat Troupe."

The Burmese believe that when Thagyamin comes down to the human realm, he brings with him two books, one bound in a dog-skin parchment, the other in gold. In the dog-skin book he records the names of those who have committed bad deeds during the course of year, while in the gold one he writes the names of those who have performed acts of merit. He must be happy this time around, since this year he's presumably got a lot of new names to add to the gold book. Happy New Year, everyone.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi's strategy for change

Posted By Min Zin

Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy never fail to surprise the pundits. When the NLD (whose symbol is shown in the photo above) won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in the April 1 by-elections, the result caught most observers off guard. Most of them had expected the party to fall short of overwhelming victory. As I noted in my previous post, this victory demonstrated that people of Burma were prepared to practice "sincere voting" in the by-elections, defying various forms of government pressure to vote for the woman many of them call "Mother."

What happens next is much harder to predict. The NLD and its parliamentary group now face the challenge of actually trying to effect change in a system defined by the authoritarian constitution of 2008. The constitution guarantees the military political supremacy and ensures the domination of parliament by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military's proxy party, by giving it 80 percent of the seats. In short, the recent "flickers of progress" in Burma have not substantially contributed to solving the country's two most intractable political problems: the lack of democratic governance and the failure to provide autonomy for its many ethnic minorities.

But this doesn't mean that the recent changes ushered in by President Thein Sein, a former army general who is also the leader of USDP, are insignificant. Burma now finds itself at a crossroads, confronting a fundamental choice between democracy and a new version of authoritarianism. While the euphoric headlines suggest that the country is heading down the former path, the current institutional arrangement actually points toward the latter one.

In his inauguration speech on March 31, 2011, Thein Sein urged all parties to "work together in the national interest" rather than engaging in opposition to the government. The leaders of parliament also discourage members of the smaller parties represented in the body from using the word "opposition" in parliamentary debates. Meanwhile, local media tend to use the phrase "national interest" quite broadly without really explaining what they mean by it.

So how will Aung San Suu Kyi deal with this rather daunting situation? She appears to have adopted a dual-track strategy, one that places equal emphasis on participation and contestation. The first part of this approach, to be pursued by the NLD members in parliament, focuses on working within the existing legislature, bureaucracy, and judiciary, despite their obvious democratic deficits. The idea here is that you won't be able to effect constructive change in these institutions without building their capacity to implement policy, and you can only do that by giving them incentives to behave as if they were in a real democracy. This strategy operates under the assumption that the present transitional stage is very fragile, and that an all-too-adversarial approach could provoke undesirable side effects. If the opposition pushes too hard for far-reaching change (such as amending the 2008 constitution or establishing a genuine federalist system), it could prompt hardliners within the military and the USDP to bring the reforms to a screeching halt.

This does not mean that Aung San Suu Kyi and her entourage will have to subordinate themselves completely to the current corrupt system. Even as the NLD parliamentary delegation works within the tight constraints of the non-democratic parliament, the party can still use its presence in civil society and the media to challenge the poor governance of the regime. To name but one example, they could confront the endemic corruption of the regime as a way of supporting the true rule of law.

If the NLD manages to strike this delicate balance between participation and contestation, it could succeed in gradually steering Burma away from Thein Sein's updated version of authoritarianism (what he calls "disciplined democracy") toward genuine democratization.

The international community can also play a positive role in Burma by encouraging the regime's reformists with selective incentives for any steps toward democratization. If the balance of power within the regime tips in favor of the moderates, that bodes well for progress toward democracy.