Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can Burma's Civil Society Find Its Voice Again?

Can Burma's Civil Society Find Its Voice Again?


The Burmese military is staging a comeback. Since the government launched its tentative liberalization process four years ago, the armed forces, the notorious Tatmadaw, have taken a backseat. Though it has members in key roles in all government institutions, it has refrained from fully exercising its coercive and all-encompassing constitutional prerogatives. But now the generals are signaling that they're no longer willing to keep a low profile, and instead hope to exercise the full extent of their power in the country's ethnic regions and in its parliament, in which 25 percent of the seats are reserved for military representatives. The army's Nov. 19 attack on a training facility of the Kachin ethnic rebel group -- which killed 23 cadets -- is a clear case in point. (In the photo above, an activist lights candles at a memorial to the attack's victims on Nov. 24.) At a moment when many Burmese are expressing growing dissatisfaction about the undemocratic nature of the military-imposed constitution, the generals are determined to show that they won't brook any further challenges to their authority. If things continue as they are, it's only a matter of time until the Tatmadaw decides to suppress public protests. The question thus becomes whether Burmese civil society is capable of pushing back.
Unfortunately, Burmese civil society is in limbo. The country's diverse constellation of student unions, human rights organizations, and other citizen-led groups were once known for their resilience in the face of oppression and for their creative ability to connect with each other, with their fellows in exile, and with the international community. These groups rallied behind democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her drive for national reconciliation. Her stunning return to active political life in 2012 with a sweeping electoral victory was possible in part due to the support she received from the grassroots. And earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi called on civil society groups to rally behind her during her constitutional reform campaign -- which eventually lost steam with its ambiguous endgame, weak credibility, and the changing domestic and international context.
Since the Lady's political return, the groups that once rallied behind her have found themselves marginalized and unable to play a meaningful role in the country's ongoing political transition, which has assumed a marked top-down nature. Burmese civil society appears to have lost its voice.
There are three cases that clearly demonstrate this demobilization. The first was in November 2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi chaired a parliamentary inquiry into police violence against a protesters' camp outside a mining project in northwestern Burma. She failed to hold any officials accountable for that bloody crackdown. Instead, she allowed the project to continue, triggering intense protests from locals and victims. She has refused to criticize the government's renewal of the war in the Kachin region in 2011, which has led to massive human rights abuses, including the rape of displaced Kachin women. The Lady's silence on this matter has alienated her Kachin supporters. Perhaps best known to the international community is Aung San Suu Kyi's silence about rampant anti-Muslim violence which first took place in the west and has since spread throughout the country. 
In all of these cases, Burma's civil society groups looked to the Lady -- their one-time icon and hero -- for ideological, political, and strategic guidance. Unfortunately, she failed them. Perhaps naïvely, she put her trust in the ruling elites and failed to sustain her grassroots bases either at home or abroad. As a result, the partial integration of the opposition into mainstream politics has remained largely symbolic. Civil society groups work hard and make headway on their own individual projects, but few feel that they have been able to make a difference in the country's overall direction.
It wasn't always this way. Burma's civil society organizations were once known for their tenacity and effectiveness. After the military launched a massive crackdown on the democracy movement in 1988, large numbers of these groups were forced into clandestine politics. With basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly severely curtailed, they continued to operate underground. They were often able to combine their covert activity with whatever mainstream political participation was allowed. This led to some impressive results. 
A 2007 protest led by Buddhist monks soon attracted youth groups and many other formerly clandestine organizations, soon evolving into a full-scale uprising known as the "Saffron Revolution." Though suffering a harsh government crackdown, these groups did not wither away. When the devastating Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008, costing over 130,000 lives in the delta region, civic groups made an indispensable comeback to deliver humanitarian support to disaster victims. New volunteer groups proliferated. It was civil society that made up for the military state's criminal negligence toward its own citizens in the aftermath of the cyclone. Despite harassment and repression, civil society proved its resilience and effectiveness in assisting the survivors. 
Moreover, civil society groups joined together to protest against the construction of the Myitsone Dam, a multibillion-dollar Chinese investment that would dam the Irrawaddy River at eight locations with grave environmental and cultural consequences. The new government's partial concession in September 2011, when it agreed to suspend construction of the dam, illustrated the strength of Burmese civil society.
Ironically, then, Burmese civil society -- sidelined and demoralized during a relatively open period -- was once capable of great things, even during the harshest periods of military rule. Will it find its voice in the new Burma?
It's possible that the recent resurgence of the armed forces will prompt civil society groups to regain their strategic focus and their willingness to coordinate their actions. If the military decides once again to project its power on the streets by intimidating or attacking protestors, that might force activists to reconsolidate their defensive capabilities and reclaim ownership of Burma's regime-driven political transition. If not, civil society can expect to remain on the sidelines for years to come.
Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Return of the Myanmar Military?

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Return of the Myanmar Military?

NOV 17, 2014

YANGON, Myanmar — During his visit to Myanmar last week, President Obama sounded a word of caution, saying the process of reform was “by no means complete or irreversible.” His tone was decidedly less enthusiastic than during his previous visit, in 2012. Back then, the recent inauguration of the pseudo-civilian government of President Thein Sein seemed to signal the advent of liberalization after almost half a century of military rule. Many political dissidents were then released from jail or house arrest, notably the democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But now progress has stalled on almost all major issues: power sharing with the opposition, peace talks with armed ethnic groups, Buddhist-Muslim relations, minority rights, media freedom. Progress has stalled because the military is tightening its grip once again.

The Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are called, has grown increasingly assertive in recent months, even as the country prepares for a historic general election next year, the first since the military junta’s formal dissolution in 2011. Not only is the Tatmadaw increasingly exercising the expansive prerogatives it gave itself in the 2008 Constitution; it is trying to extend its powers further.

                                               Jacob Stead

The recent killing of the freelance journalist Par Gyi, a former bodyguard of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, is just one glaring example. Mr. Par Gyi was allegedly shot while in army custody in early October. At first the army tried to hide his death, only to claim three weeks after it occurred that he was shot by soldiers while trying to escape. After the authorities exhumed Mr. Par Gyi, images of his mutilated body circulated on Facebook and outraged the general public, confirming suspicions that he had been tortured.

But the episode seems only to have revived the military’s siege mentality. The army is unlikely to allow any civilian court to look into the case; it will rather prosecute its own commanders if necessary to protect the institution’s credibility overall. And under the 2008 Constitution, “in the adjudication of military justice,” the decision of the commander in chief is final.

Submitting to civilian oversight would be risky. A recent report by Harvard Law School names three senior generals in connection with crimes against humanity and war crimes suffered by ethnic Karen between 2005 and 2008. Transitional justice is a threat to the army’s unity, and in the past would have been just the kind of threat to justify a coup. The issue today isn’t so much whether the military would consider a takeover — times have changed — but rather how far it will go to protect its narrow interests in the face of public opposition, just a year before a general election.

Another gauge of its resolve is constitutional reform. Throughout 2013, a special committee appointed by Parliament solicited views from the public about whether, and how, the 2008 Constitution might be improved. In a separate petition, the main opposition party gathered five million signatures from people asking for a relaxation of the amendment clause. Modifying major provisions of the Constitution, including the amendment clause itself, requires a 75 percent majority in Parliament — which gives the military veto power since by law it holds 25 percent of parliamentary seats — and then a majority of votes in a national referendum. This exceedingly high threshold blocks any fundamental constitutional reform, including of the provision prohibiting Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy for the presidency and of clauses governing taxation and the appointment of provincial authorities in ethnic areas.

Yet during debates in Parliament last week, the military’s representatives declared that the amendment clause should be maintained. The Tatmadaw may never have considered allowing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president. For a time, however, it did seem to want to increase the autonomy of ethnic regions, if only to curry support among ethnic political parties and armed groups. Its recent inflexibility is a notable change, and a sign of its growing insecurity. 

This is especially ominous because the military’s hardening risks causing friction with the Thein Sein government: Last December, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, an offshoot of the old military junta, had granted its conditional approval for amending the Constitution’s amendment clause.

In the initial phase of liberalization, the military tended to follow Mr. Thein Sein’s reform initiatives. The generals rarely defied the political agenda of the president, himself a career army bureaucrat, except to defend their economic and tactical interests. But according to several senior aides to Mr. Thein Sein, relations between the president and the commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, are increasingly out of sync. Several sources close to both men told me that General Min Aung Hlaing’s tougher tactics of late were reminiscent of the style of Senior Gen. Than Shwe, Myanmar’s military leader from 1992 to 2011, suggesting that General Than Shwe may still be pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Lately, the military leadership has called for expanding the role of the National Defense and Security Council, a military-dominated 11-member body that holds wide-ranging powers, including the right to take over from the civilian government in a state of emergency. During the parliamentary debates last week, military representatives argued that the N.D.S.C. should be able to dissolve Parliament if one-third of the seats become vacant.

Were this proposal an isolated case, it might simply be a maneuver by the military to increase its leverage. But like one of several such moves recently, it is evidence that the generals are hardening their stance with little regard for international opinion, the will of the voters, or even relations with Mr. Thein Sein. After a brief moment of promise, the new Myanmar is increasingly starting to look like the old.

Min Zin is a contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog Democracy Lab, and serves as a Myanmar expert for think tanks and NGOs like Freedom House.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 18, 2014, in The International New York Times. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

The People vs. The Monks

JUNE 6, 2014

One of the darkest aspects of Myanmar’s political transition is a surge in religious intolerance, especially toward Muslims. Liberalization has lifted the lid on many pent-up grievances, and old-timers in the government and the monkhood are stoking these sentiments.

Last week the government proposed a law that would require anyone who wants to change religion to first seek permission from local authorities; it would also penalize proselytizing through “improper influence and persuasion.” This is one of four bills the government has drafted at the instigation of a powerful group of radical Buddhist monks called Mabatha, backed by a petition with 1.3 million signatures. The other three bills contemplate restricting interfaith marriage, birth rates and polygamy. Though phrased broadly, all are a veiled attack on Myanmar’s religious minorities, especially its 2.2 million Muslims.

A coalition of almost 100 civil society groups, led by well-known women activists and ethnic minority leaders, immediately protested the president’s endorsement of the discriminatory laws. The Mabatha denounced them as “traitors,” but that only prompted more civil society groups to oppose the bills. Facebook lit up with posts and comments like, “Count me in; I am a traitor, too.” The publication The Voice criticized “crony monks” for trying to advance the government’s authoritarian agenda.

                               Mitch Blunt, the illustrator

This reaction is unprecedented. Myanmar’s Buddhist order is arguably one of the clergies in the world that commands most deference from its followers, and never before have so many lay Buddhists pushed back against the monks for political reasons. Buddhist sects have had disputes among themselves about the tenets of monastic discipline: Should a monk’s robe cover both shoulders or just the left? And there have long been conflicts between the order and the state. Many monks opposed British colonial rule, with some joining the armed struggle against it, and from the 1980s through the late 2000s, monks rallied students to form the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement.

Intellectuals have sometimes criticized monks, but typically it was for falling short of their own rules, not for political reasons. We were taught to think of any corrupt monks as deviant, keeping intact our faith in the virtue of the robe and the wisdom of the Buddha.

But now a gap is growing between a significant segment of the monkhood and a significant segment of society over the issue of religious radicalism.

Buddhist nationalism took a turn for the extreme in mid-2012, when riots broke out between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, killing 300 people and displacing about 140,000, mostly Muslims. (The government refuses to acknowledge the Rohingyas as a distinct ethnic group, and many people in Myanmar consider them to be intruders from neighboring Bangladesh.) When the violence spread to other parts of the country and to non-Rohingya Muslims, who were thought to be better integrated, it seemed that natural bigotry was being manipulated.

Two radical religious groups, Mabatha and the 969 Movement, have emerged since the political transition in 2011. Like Mabatha, the 969 Movement — named after the nine qualities of Buddha, the six qualities of his teaching and the nine qualities of monastic community — wants to ensure that Myanmar remains a majority-Burman and majority-Buddhist state. It is led by the firebrand ultranationalist Ashin Wirathu.

Mabatha and the 969 Movement have run a broad anti-Muslim campaign, from organizing economic boycotts against Muslim businesses to, some charge, inciting pogroms. During a visit by a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation last year, monks marched through Yangon with banners calling Islam “a faith of animals with uncontrollable birthrates.” Other monks have even been accused of instigating killings early last year in the town of Meiktila, in central Myanmar, where Buddhist mobs destroyed Muslim neighborhoods, killing at least 44 people, including 20 students and several teachers at an Islamic school.

These extremist monks are proving to be valuable political allies for the ex-military leaders of the pseudo-civilian government. Ashin Wirathu’s camp criticizes the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for being too weak in her defense of nationalism and Buddhism. (The other side criticizes her for being too weak in her defense of minority rights.) The radical monks oppose amending the current military-drafted Constitution to let Myanmar nationals with a foreign spouse or children run for the presidency, which would open the way for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2015 election. Meanwhile, some monks are pushing to obtain the right to vote, which the Constitution also bans.

But this rise in religious radicalism has created a countermovement bringing together over one hundred civil-society actors, including the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group; popular monks like Metta Shin U Zawana; Muslim and Christian groups; ethnic minorities; associations of intellectuals like PEN Myanmar; much of the mainstream media; and young bloggers like Nay Phone Latt. Together they have launched an anti-hate speech campaign, released official statements of protest, petitioned the legislature and lobbied the international community to condemn discrimination in Myanmar.

Their approach has a distinctly Burmese feel. They are rejecting extremism without entirely embracing Western values. Wholesale secularism hardly features in their calls; religiosity and spirituality are still prevalent in Myanmar. But local prejudice does feature: Some leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group also refuse to acknowledge the Rohingyas as a distinct ethnic group.

Critics of Mabatha and the 969 Movement tend to couch their objections without reference to human rights. Instead they challenge the radical monks for staying silent about deepening poverty throughout the country and, say, the crackdown in late 2012 on Buddhist monks protesting a Chinese copper mine. In other words, they are mostly criticizing the extremist monks for doing the ex-military’s bidding.

The unprecedented chasm between the monkhood and the people is for now a source of tension and turmoil. But it augurs well for the country’s political and social development in the long term. The advent of a countermovement to Buddhist extremism suggests that the people of Myanmar are emancipating from traditional elites and taking a major stride toward modernity and democracy.

Min Zin is a contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog Democracy Lab and serves as a Myanmar expert for think tanks and NGOs like Freedom House.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 7, 2014, in The International New York Times. ntinue reading the main story

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Lady Rallies the Masses Once Again

Aung San Suu Kyi wants to change the Burmese constitution. But will the military really go along?


The big question in Burmese politics these days is whether the military will allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency. The current constitution, which was drafted and passed by the old military regime, bars her from the job. Article 59F of the constitution states that any Burmese who has a foreign spouse or children who are foreign nationals can't become president or vice president. Aung San Suu Kyi's two sons (from her marriage with the deceased Oxford professor Michael Aris) have British citizenship, so she needs to change that rule before she can qualify for Burma's highest office. Burma's military rulers included that rather peculiar condition precisely in order to prevent her from taking power.
During the third week of May, Aung San Suu Kyi's supportersgathered for two mass rallies in Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma's two biggest cities. (The demonstration in Mandalay, the most important commercial city in upper Burma, drew an estimated 25,000 supporters.) Both rallies called for amending Article 436 of the 2008 constitution, which essentially gives the military a veto over any amendments. The article stipulates that any amendments require the support of more than 75 percent of members of the parliament, where unelected military representatives control a quarter of the seats. Aung San Suu Kyi's camp have to get rid of this provision before they can amend the article that prevents her from holding the presidency.
There's no doubt that Burma's constitution is deeply flawed.
There's no doubt that Burma's constitution is deeply flawed. The excessive power that it grants the military and the obstacles it places in the way of amendment are only two of the most obvious problems. Ideally, of course, these provisions can be changed or abolished. In reality, matters are a bit more complicated. The 2008 constitution was the result of an effort to reduce the military's direct control of the state as part of the country's transition away from the previous military dictatorship. For all its flaws, the constitution has enabled the political opening that continues in Burma today.
At the rallies, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters called for replacing the 75 percent requirement with a simple majority parliamentary vote. After spending the past two years lobbying for a constitutional amendment, the Lady (as the Burmese often refer to their revered opposition leader) has finally lost her patience with the military, which failed to respond to her request for a formal meeting with key political players, including President Thein Sein, House Speaker Shwe Mann, and Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Speaking to thousands of supporters at the rallies, she ultimately resorted to some highly charged, shame-and-name rhetoric: "I challenge the military..." "Soldiers must be brave enough to face reality... "The military was founded as the Burma Liberation Army, not as the Army for Repressing Burma."
The crowds were suitably fired up. They also applauded her decision to team up with the 88 Generation Group, the most influential activist group in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi's own party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to organize these mass rallies and launch a nationwide campaign to petition for constitutional reform.
The question is whether this show of political influence will achieve its professed goal. The short answer is "no." 
In all likelihood, the campaign will end up serving merely as part of the broader political effort to garner support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, ahead of the 2015 elections.
In all likelihood, the campaign will end up serving merely as part of the broader political effort to garner support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, ahead of the 2015 elections. There are at least three reasons to assume this outcome.
First, what is the Lady's broader game plan? What will she do if the military rejects her call for constitutional reform? Will she launch a campaign of street protests? Judging by her statements to date, she has no plans to go that far. She insists that she's planning to reform the constitution in compliance with parliamentary procedure. Will she boycott the 2015 elections? Also unlikely. Such a move would leave her and her supporters in the political wilderness once again.
So what's left? The 2008 constitution does not provide any path for translating public opinion into policy apart from regular parliamentary elections and the right of voters to recall elected officials. (A controversial bill that would translate the latter principle into law remains on hold.) So long as Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to pursuing constitutional change according to the military's rules, it's hard to see how her strength on the streets can translate into actual reform in the parliament.
Meanwhile, the military and its associated political party are becoming savvier in dealing with the challenges posed by the opposition. Consistent with their strategy of co-optation, the ruling elites do not reject anything outright. They typically respond to opposition demands by making partial concessions and preventing full-blown confrontation. On May 21st, the parliamentary Joint Committee for Reviewing the Constitution (JCRC) announced that its members had agreed to amend Article 436, saying that they will submit a proposal to parliament for a final decision. Though the incumbent-dominated JCRC did not reveal details of the proposal, it almost certainly won't do anything to help the opposition get what it wants. Moreover, the military chief recently made it clear that any constitutional changes have to be passed according to the existing amendment procedures. In short, even if the military agrees to make concessions, the opposition will find it virtually impossible to pass a corresponding amendment.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to resort to full-on street protests or election boycotts, the main effect of her current campaign for constitutional reform will be to motivate her base to vote for her party in the 2015 elections. Even so, the effort does come with a substantial risk. The campaign could spark conflict with pro-government activists such as the Buddhist nationalists who have already declared their support for the incumbent president and Article 59F. More importantly, military leaders might view Aung San Suu Kyi's call for soldiers to sign the charter reform petition as a ploy to divide the military. It's precisely such fears that fuel continuing suspicion of the democratic forces among the officer corps. The Election Commission, for its part, issued a warning to Aung San Suu Kyi, chiding her for using language "challenging the army."
Whether or not the Lady has the stomach to pick another intractable fight with a new generation of military generals is a question that has to do with a second concern: the credibility of the constitutional reform campaign.
Given the country's complex ethnic makeup and its continuing civil war, minority groups are among the most important actors in Burmese political conflicts. So far, however, their representatives have been conspicuously absent from the stage at Aung San Suu Kyi's public rallies (even though the Lady has paid lip service to the federalist cause in her speeches). This seems odd, considering there's no way to build enough support to reform the constitution that bypasses the ethnic groups (whether inside or outside parliament). So the exclusion of the ethnic groups from the current campaign merely reinforces the conclusion that the NLD constitutional reform campaign is really just a way of preparing for the 2015 elections. Instead of the ethnic groups, the Lady has brought in her informal sidekick, the 88 Generation group. Observers agree that most of the group's leaders do not entertain electoral ambitions, so they have no plans to field candidates against Aung San Suu Kyi -- at least in the 2015 elections. 
Finally, even if Aung San Suu Kyi throws all of her energy and resources into the campaign, the current political context does not seem to favor her. The current government's liberalization process might appear inclusive, but the reality is quite different. 
While the new regime has accepted Aung San Suu Kyi as a valid spokesperson in certain areas, it still refuses to give her any real power over policy.
While the new regime has accepted Aung San Suu Kyi as a valid spokesperson in certain areas, it still refuses to give her any real power over policy. And there is little she can do to change that now, having given the government her blanket endorsement early on. The lady's public announcement of trust in President Thein Sein and his "genuine wishes for democratic reform" in 2012 granted the new regime much-needed domestic and international legitimacy; she may well regret that decision now, but what's done is done. Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim nationalist movement is preparing to push back if the Lady dares to launch a full-scale confrontation over the issue of constitutional reform.
The promise of the Arab Spring has ebbed. Turkey's once-promising democracy is torn between chaos and rising authoritarianism. And now Thailand has once again succumbed to military rule. Under such conditions, it's hard to imagine that the international community will wholeheartedly throw its weight behind the unpredictable Lady. The countries of the West, who have generally taken Aung San Suu Kyi's side, insist on categorizing Burma as a success story not only because of the presumed success of its "democratization," but also due to geostrategic interests. Here, for example, is what President Obama, said about Burma in his recent speech to graduates of the U.S. military academy:
...[W]e have seen political reforms opening a once closed society; a movement by Burmese leadership away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America and our allies.... If Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.
Given its ambiguous endgame, its weak credibility, and the changing domestic and international context, the opposition's amendment campaign is likely to fall short of its declared goal before the 2015 elections. The leader of the campaign, however, may have a very different perception of what counts as success.
Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images