BY MIN ZIN MARCH 28, 2014
For the past few months, I've been unable to escape an ominous sense that the political situation in Burma is on the wrong track. There are two main reasons for my anxiety. First, Burma is undergoing a leadership crisis. Second, the possibility of large-scale social unrest is increasing.
But now the contenders have taken off their gloves, and their fundamental political differences are starting to come out into the open.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling parties managed to work well together during the initial reform period. In 2011, a historic meeting between the Lady and President Thein Sein paved the way for Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, to run in the 2012 elections. That dramatic development encouraged the countries of the West to lift their sanctions on Burma. But now the two have fallen out, quite publicly, over whether and how to reform the 2008 constitution, which was written by the then-ruling military junta. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi made constitutional reform one of her party's priorities, although even then it wasn't entirely clear what changes she wanted to make. In June of last year, she announced that she wanted to run for the presidency in the 2015 elections, noting: "For me to be eligible for the post of the presidency, the constitution will have to be amended." Aung San Suu Kyi was clearly referring to Article 59 (f) of the military-drafted constitution, which states that the president or vice-president cannot have a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. Aung San Suu Kyi had two sons with her late husband Michael Aris, and both are British citizens.
The looming leadership vacuum raises an important question for the country's troubled transition. To be sure, Burma has plenty of other constitutional problems that need to be addressed. (Foremost among them: the broad, veto-wielding power of the military and the lack of ethnic rights.) But it's the question of reforming Article 59 that inspires the most passion these days, precisely because of Aung San Suu Kyi's continuing popularity among the majority of the population. People tend to believe that having the Lady as president will automatically lead to the resolution of all the other problems that the constitution poses. The uncertainty surrounding the 2015 elections has created a sense of insecurity among the top players, prompting each of them to regroup, mobilize their own constituencies, and prepare for the fights that lie ahead.
Aung San Suu Kyi has become increasingly vocal in her criticism of the president. In so doing, she has resorted to her time-honored strategy: Pushing for change by wielding international and domestic pressure. She continues to urge her western supporters to pressure the government for constitutional reform. Since early 2013, she has been using her foreign trips and meetings with foreign leaders at home to ask them to urge the Burmese government to accept reform. Recently, she teamed up with the 88 Generation Group, the most influential force in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi's party, to use the "people's power" to change the constitution. In a speech at a mass rally on March 22, 2014, she called on the public to join nationwide protests for constitutional reform.
There is, however, a growing Buddhist nationalist movement that could serve as a counterweight to Aung San Suu Kyi's reform attempt. Radical Buddhist monks have now succeeded in pressing the government to enact laws that prohibit interfaith marriage. Though President Thein Sein might not be responsible for organizing the movement, he adopted its cause by asking parliament to consider the interfaith marriage ban a few weeks ago. Reliable sources tell me that Thein Sein is in regular contact with the nationalist movement, including Ashin Wirathu, a self-styled "Burmese bin Laden" who is one of the movement's most controversial leaders. Some of the movement's leading monks have indicated that they would not support amending Article 59 (f), fearing that it might make Burma vulnerable to the threat of a Muslim or other non-Buddhist president in near future. Of course, these monks urge their followers to vote for Thein Sein instead of Aung San Suu Kyi, since they view her as too weak in her defense of nationalism and Buddhism. It is ironic to see Thein Sein, who was once reportedly tipped to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his reform efforts, slip into the embrace of ethno-nationalists.
They are left to cope with the daily reality of unemployment, illegal land grabs, official corruption, ethnic tension, and the inevitable outbursts of violence when government forces step in to suppress the resulting protests. (In the photo above, protesters pray during a demonstration against land grabs in Yangon.) Given the general atmosphere of tension, it is not hard to imagine how power struggles at the top might lead to partisan political protests, religious riots, or even terrorist attacks. Since the general level of trust and tolerance is so weak, and the capacity of the state so fragile, society could easily find itself in a situation even worse than Thailand's recent bout of political polarization. No wonder the Economist projected that Burma is at high risk of social unrest in 2014.
Unless Burma's leaders manage to reach a basic consensus about the speed and character of the transition, these risks will only mount. A few weeks ago I described the current situation in our country to some of my friends as a "slow-motion train wreck." As one of those listening put it: "Yes. And we, the people of Burma, are inside the train."