Will Myanmar Reform or Repeat the Past?

Recently the Burmese government told the United States to mind its own business and not interfere with its political maneuverings amending the Burmese constitution. In exchange, the Burmese government told the United States it will do likewise and not interfere with constitutional and political issues in the United States. Fair is fair, after all.

Such a rebuttal to the United States reveals the aims of the Burmese civilitary government that retains twenty-five percent of its parliamentarians who are military officers. They are not moving aside for Aung San Suu Kyi voluntarily. Their so-called “opening” to the outside world, some have suspected, was possibly for economic reasons only.

Since President Thein Sien instituted limited reforms in 2012 the Generals and their cronies have legitimized billions of dollars of cash and loot gained at the expense of the people of Myanmar during their decades long authoritarian rule. They’ve also flipped real estate holdings into big profits going from the lowest to some of the highest property values in Asia. For example, UNCEF is paying $87,000 a month rent for a small property owned by a General. After half of their year as ASEAN chair gone they’re now looking toward the 2015 elections. In doing so, it seems Myanmar’s crafty rulers have more or less cornered Aung San Suu Kyi into a position of take it or leave it politics.

Political Reforms?

The Burmese government has unfalteringly claimed it will not amend the constitution to appease Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party. Although she has supporters in key government positions, denying Suu Kyi the legal opening to run for president in 2015 will leave her with only two options.

One option is to accept the current constitution conspired by the military dictatorship while she was under house arrest, not run for President and accept the results of the upcoming 2015 elections. That outcome would certainly add legitimacy to the current constitution as Myanmar awakens to the future. If that happens the current regime’s legitimacy in the world will be anxiously reinforced with indefinite investment and trade.

As long as the government can find accord with high-stakes international development projects in education, healthcare and poverty reduction, and prevent genocide of the Royhinga people in Arakan State, keep the ultranationalist Buddhist’s from reaping hatred against Muslims from the minds of millions of impoverished and uneducated people prone act violently to rumour and superstition, Myanmar could, possibly, begin to look like a country poised with unlimited potential. It’s a tall order, no doubt.

The rest of Myanmar’s numerous problems can be easily overlooked and tolerated by world governments and world markets. Those problems are mainly on the margins of places tourists rarely see anyway. They exist outside of the Myanmar very few people understand. Multiple human rights challenges, land seizures and environmental degradations in remote regions occur out of sight daily in the country of more than sixty million.

A New Uprising?

Another option is that Aung San Suu Kyi can rally millions of her supporters to protest for a more legitimate constitution and a possibility for real Democracy in Myanmar with Suu Kyi as its President. If Suu Kyi can draw one hundred thousand people to a speech, as she has recently, imagine what she could do over a sustained period of demonstrations and protests running up to the 2015 elections?

The only wildcard in this situation is that Myanmar people today enjoy freedoms never imagined in their pre-reform lifetimes. They could still eagerly support Suu Kyi but also support the government by not voting in the elections. Either way, the government wins. The dicey problem with this scenario arrives after the 2015 elections. How many worldwide leaders would eagerly support Suu Kyi’s, or anyone’s claim, that the constitution and elections are incredible?

This outcome would depend entirely on the civilitary government’s reactions to demonstrations and protests, which in the past have been murderous. The last thing Suu Kyi or anyone else wants for Myanmar is for its people to be shot down in the streets. If the demonstrations don’t absolutely paralyze Myanmar over a sustained period, and if the government can keep its trigger finger at ease, leaders worldwide will accept the 2015 election results. Aung San Suu Kyi will be forced to do so as well.

Indeed, the path not yet taken in Myanmar, though, may be the path that leads to its salvation if there is to be no bloodshed.

Propaganda’s Gravy Train

Many educated young people in Myanmar, democracy activists and nationalists, are getting heavy doses of western neo-liberal indoctrination from Europe and the U.S.A. Since 2012 Myanmar people have been besieged with input, advising, conferencing, special programs, trainings, workshops and conferences in Myanmar and abroad. The IMF, World Bank, United Nations, and international NGOs, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce work on the government in Naypyidaw. At the same time, other neo-liberal right-wing activists groups have been doing their best to impact Myanmar’s best and brightest youths via exchange programs teaching textbook western Democratic values, development and capitalists principles. Its effectiveness is incalculable because western neo-liberal values are directly at odds with the sincere nationalism shared by most Myanmar democracy activists. They simply do not want to be manipulated by anyone though they do assimilate the education of new ideas afforded to them by the west.

There are many hands at work in Myanmar and there are even subterranean efforts being ramped up by western governments to provoke political unrest while trying to influence the populace to support Aung San Suu Kyi as the 2015 elections approach. We probably won’t be hearing another brilliant tactic from a U.S. State Department neocon saying, “Fuck the EU. Yat’s is our guy.” But, that doesn’t mean the Neocons aren’t looking at provoking China. Larry Diamond from the U.S. right-wing National Endowment for Democracy has made several trips to preach neo-liberalism to the fledgling Yangon School of Political Science.

Back to the Future

Whichever way Aung San Suu Kyi moves, there is a showdown ahead in Myanmar if there are no reconciliatory movements to de-militarize or amend the current government and constitution. What if Suu Kyi is allowed to run for President and wins? Will the military sit by and accept this inevitability, as they did not after the 1990 election? No one yet knows.

Of course, the military can wait out Aung San Suu Kyi as it waited out U.S. sanctions for many years. This is the most probable course for the current government if it has no further plans for reform. There has been some capitulation for reform in many legal areas by the government recently but over time they seem to revert back to their previous norms. Whatever progress there seems to have been made gets washed away with new excuses and reasons for ignoring past avowals. This is what constitutes progress with the Myanmar civilitary government. They suitably do what they want to do no matter what they otherwise say they will do.

Currently the Myanmar government needs to project immovable unity, independence and strength to save face and has done so by rebuffing the United States. However, real reformers, if they exist inside the current government, could win out with a specter of mass demonstrations. They may surprise everyone at some point by negotiating a solution to allow Suu Kyi to run for President without giving up military control of the civilian government. Obviously more deals need brokering for this to happen but this could be the safest solution to continue Myanmar’s delicate flirtation with reforms.

The Lady’s Dilemma

Over the past several months Suu Kyi has been rallying supporters by the hundreds of thousands to petition for her attempt at amending the constitution so she can run for President. Her critics say she is selfishly trying to become President for her own benefit at the expense of economic progress. Make no mistake; there are hundreds of thousands of business people from every sector who gain under authoritarian rule from their relationships with cronies. Whether or not they admire the name Aung San Suu Kyi, they do not want political change.

Critics aside, Aung San Suu Kyi will not relent. When she was faced with running for parliament or boycotting the elections in 2011 she was also faced with millions of Myanmar people waiting for her to decide the fate of Myanmar. Those who know Suu Kyi well said that she did not want mass protests and demonstrations to occur. She knew the outcome would have been the same as in 1988 and 2007, ending with demonstrators shot down in the streets. Her choice was to accept a potentially no-win political situation by becoming a member of parliament.

The Current Situation

If nothing from today changes and unless the adult sons’ of Aung San Suu Kyi return to Myanmar and claim Myanmar citizenship, Aung San Suu Kyi will be prevented from running for President, an office she won in 1990 when Myanmar was called Burma. Following Suu Kyi’s presidential win in 1990 she was placed under house arrest and Burma’s flirtation with legitimating a path towards Democracy was stopped.

While conditions in 2014 one year before the national elections are different in many ways than in 1989, in many ways they are the same. Aung San Suu Kyi is still at odds with the military government and if she is prevented from running for president she said she would boycott the elections. If that happens, hundreds of thousands, or millions of people, will demonstrate against the current government. Will it collapse or will it use force and massacre its own people, yet again, in order to hold power? In addition the continuing religious conflict pitting Buddhists against Muslims is a wildcard that can only be played by the military by declaring martial law and ending reforms – prior to elections.

In a 2010 interview with Ma Zin Mar Aung, a democracy and gender rights activist, ex-political prisoner and 2012 Woman of Courage Award winner, Zin Mar was asked what she and her network of activists were hoping to achieve at that time. Zin Mar said, “We are just trying to test the new government to see if it’s still stuck in the past or if it wants to move forward.”

The question to be considered for Myanmar today is what does moving forward look like for a country that is in many ways deeply stuck in the past, yet trying to emerge from fifty years of self-imposed isolation? The time to decide is approaching for the government and the test will not be easy.

Ko Tha Dja is an educator and writer who lived in Burma for five years. His collection of stories about his time in Burma is forthcoming. Now residing in Vientiane, Lao PDR, he can be reached via his personal blog at Bamboodazed.com. Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.