Friday, June 15, 2012
Friday, June 1, 2012
This week, The New York Times covered Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Thailand -- the first foreign trip for Burma's opposition leader in 25 years. Many people who have dealt with Suu Kyi and her political entourage over the years say that the Times report, which described a striking lack of organization in the upper ranks of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was spot-on.
Last week, Suu Kyi's staff turned down a request for a meeting from Paul Collier, one of the world's top economists. Their excuse: The Lady was busy. "Perhaps her staffers don't know who Collier is," one source in the opposition told me. "The Burmese opposition movement has missed the chance to benefit from a great mind." Meanwhile, government newspapers covered have reported that ministers and presidential advisors gave Collier plenty of time.
Prominent experts from the Burmese exile community, many of them with valuable experience acquired in their years abroad, say that the NLD is ignoring them even while the government is actively soliciting their services. "There is no proper mechanism set up by Suu Kyi for Burmese researchers to play a contributing role to the opposition movement," says a Burmese scholar who graduated from a top U.S. university and visited Rangoon a few months ago.
The NLD is also having problems with reporters. Lately there have been increasing tensions between the NLD and local journalists. In early May, a member of Suu Kyi's security staff manhandled a local photojournalist who tried to take pictures of the Lady. Local reporters say that the bodyguards abused them, saying: "You media people are doing this for money. We don't make a f---ing penny. We face jail time because we're doing politics."
Many NLD members suffered under the previous regime. But Suu Kyi, who holds to a rigorous moral code, rightly tends to dismiss those who bring this up. She once famously said: "If you choose to do something, then you shouldn't say it's a sacrifice, because nobody forced you to do it." Moreover, since many journalists (and activists-turned-journalists) were also imprisoned by the military regime for their political and professional work, the self-righteousness and arrogance of the NLD members are likely to backfire.
Local reporters have complained in the past few weeks that the NLD no longer issues open invitations to the media to cover important political events, such as Suu Kyi's recent meeting with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Maung Wuntha, a well-respected veteran journalist and a former leading member of the NLD in 1988, told me that the NLD staffers who are close to Suu Kyi need to learn how to work in a more media-friendly manner: "Many of them tend to see journalists as careerists who do not have any principles and commitment to the interests of the country. This perception is a serious problem. Unless they realize that journalists are doing a public service, we aren't going to see any fundamental improvement in relations between politicians and reporters."
Another public criticism of Suu Kyi and her staff has come from an unexpected source: staunch NLD supporters outside of Burma. Eight major Burmese exile organizations -- including such dedicated and well-connected groups such as the Network for Democracy and Development, the Women's League of Burma, and the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma in Thailand - asked for some face time with Aung San Suu Kyi during her visit in Bangkok, but to no avail. For perhaps the first time since 1988, many prominent exiled activists came together to express their frustration in the Burmese-language media. "We feel sad," said Khin Ohmar, NDD chairwoman, told The Irrawaddy, a leading Burmese-language magazine. "We have worked tirelessly for our country since 1988. We can't go home, so while our leader's visiting us here, we all would like to meet her and exchange views and experiences."
You can find signs of frustration not only on the Thai-Burmese border, but also in the capitals of the United States and Europe. Several lobbyists who relentlessly advocated on behalf of Suu Kyi and her "principle-centered policy" of economic sanctions for decades are now disoriented by the Lady's apparent lack of coordination and inability to delegate. A dedicated Suu Kyi advocate told me he's been trying to get in touch with the NLD's information department for months to arrange a conversation between Suu Kyi and the president of a newly democratizing Asian country, but his correspondence has gone unanswered.
Of course, it's not fair to blame Suu Kyi for all these problems, given that the party's organization is still weak. Most party activists (including herself) have spent long periods in detention - perhaps the most important among many legitimate excuses for the problem. By now, though, it's high time for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to step back, practice self-criticism, and think aloud about whether they have burned too many bridges too quickly in this transitional phase. Perhaps what Suu Kyi needs is not just an entourage, but a full-blown chief of staff with a proper team that is capable of strategic planning and management and can support her in the decision-making process. Moral courage and clarity are hugely important in politics, but you also need the capacity to cultivate your base and craft sound policies if you really want to get things done.
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If history is any guide, it's the bread-and-butter issues that tend to make Burmese people take to the streets. Then, when the authorities use force against these initial protests instead of peacefully managing popular demands, popular outrage mushrooms into a full-scale uprising. That's what happened with the pro-democracy protests in 1988 and the Buddhist monk-led "Saffron Revolution" in 2007. The first was triggered by a confiscatory currency reform along with police brutality against student protesters, the second by a hike in fuel prices in combination with police attacks on monks. Now Burma appears to be facing a similar situation once again.
For days people in cities around the country have been publicly protesting chronic power shortages. The authorities tolerated the demonstrations at first. Then, on Thursday, police in the town of Prome (Pyay), 160 miles northwest of Rangoon, beat up hundreds of protesters, most of them holding candles to symbolize the lack of electricity. Several protestors were detained and subsequently released after intervention by local parliamentarians. Whether this crackdown was an isolated incident or a sign of growing impatience among the country's security forces remains to be seen.
The protests began in Mandalay, the country's second largest city, on May 20. Hundreds of local residents held a candlelight vigil and marched peacefully through the streets, calling for a 24-hour supply of electricity. (In recent months, power has been available in Mandalay only for a few hours each day.) In the days that followed, the protests spread to Rangoon and other cities. Local media reported some rough encounters with the police and the temporary arrest of some protest leaders. The marchers held posters and banners. One of the slogans was, "We want the same 24-hour electricity that Naypyidaw has." (Naypyidaw, the capital built by the military junta a few years ago, does not have to contend with the power cuts that plague other parts of the country.) Another poster read, "Our homeland is dark while next-door neighbor China is lit up with electricity generated from our natural resources." Even though the authorities predictably suspect the opposition of orchestrating the protests (judging by the questions police asked of detained protestors), they actually seem to be drawing on spontaneous grassroots outrage. One protest poster that read, "Electricity First, Democracy Later On," even drew criticism from pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She blames the current political system for the various hardships, including power shortages, suffered by the people.
Meanwhile, President Thein Sein seems to realize the danger of his government's failure to deliver basic public services. In a speech to his cabinet earlier this month, he said, "Our government must make a drastic improvement for the people's needs including residential housing, water, power, transportation and jobs." The nominally civilian government has been uncharacteristically responsive in its reaction to the protests. The authorities have tried to blame the power outages on the recent drought, which has reduced hydropower, and ethnic Kachin rebels, who have bombed power plants in the north of the country. The government has promised that the damaged plants will be quickly repaired, even announcing the purchase of six generators and two gas turbines from American companies - a move made possible after the suspension of U.S. sanctions last week.
Meanwhile, thousands of workers in industrial zones on the outskirts of Rangoon have been staging strikes against various foreign factories, calling for wage hikes.
What these protests show is that the government still hasn't gained much legitimacy at home despite the acceptance its policies have earned it overseas. This is the reason why the government has to be careful in managing these protests. On Thursday the head of the Association of South East Asia Nations warned the Burmese authorities onjust this point.
At the same time, the protest organizers should remain sensitive to the fact that it's precisely the recent political opening, no matter how flawed and limited it might be, that is enabling them to express their grievances. The Burmese state has plenty of capacity to suppress the protests if it so chooses, and the protests won't bear fruit unless political liberalization continues. Still, that process of liberalization remains far too fragile. The Burmese security forces, whose track record of killing unarmed civilians remains fresh in everyone's mind, presumably do not have unlimited tolerance.
Right now, the protests are taking place in a virtual vacuum. The big question is whether the demonstrators' demands can be solved within the existing system or end up undermining it, perhaps even through regime change. In reality, protests that push for radical demands without viable leaders or feasible political alternatives are likely to achieve little other than strengthening the hand of the hardliners within the regime.
Needless to say, there is no easy solution to the political and socio-economic problems that have piled up over decades of misrule. But it's clear that the government has to come up with a way to provide basic public goods if it doesn't want to derail the nascent reform process.
Click here to read this article on Foreign Policy Blog