A BURMESE PERSPECTIVE: The Beauty and the Beast

Opinion | November 26, 2015 | Taunggyi Times
By Kanbawza Win

When the Beauty kissed the Beast he was turned into a handsome prince was the happy ending of the story. Will that be the case of Burma, the last frontier, where the investor’s eyes are screw on, and have hit the world headlines just before the Paris tragedy? 

This is the acid test for the Burmese military better known as Tatmadaw whether they really love the country or power? Not satisfied of taking the country from the rice bowl to the rice hole of Asia, from 1962 to 1990 to the least developed status, the Tatmadaw took another quarter of a century in laying down a meticulous long term plan, in the form of 2008 Nargis Constitution to achieve this kind of absolute power. For years, the generals had learned how to craft a system that would allow them to rule the country, while making symbolic gestures to meet the west’s half-hearted condition of democratization and pluralism. But the beauty has beaten them in their own game with their own rules and the Generals were aghast. They could not comprehend that the people hate them so vehemently.

Now, in a garishly constructed capital of Naypyidaw (translate in Burmese as abode of the royalty) the top brass are choking on a bitter pill of truth, brooding over the glasses of Scotch in their endeavor to drown their shame, while the majority of them are storming their brain to draw up Plan Z 99 as how to wrest it back. Remember that though they are out they are not crushed yet, besides their master mind Sr. Gen. Than Shwe, usually refer to as a “Beast” among the populace is perhaps drawing up his plan Z 99, as how to wrest the power from the beauty and justifies it to the world. News have leaked out that the army backed Union Solidarity and Development Party is planning to put up over 100 complaints accusing more than hundreds of the elected NLD winners to bereft of their member of parliament status in order to reduce the NLD majority. Earlier, in an interview with BBC on 20th July, the Commander in Chief indicated that the transfer of power will have to wait until ceasefires and peace deals had been concluded and it could be five to ten years.

Burmese media, couple with the word of mouth have clearly indicated that something very fishy is going on, for even though the President and the C-in-C have perfunctorily acknowledge the results and promise to hand over power according the law, they have so far refused to meet Daw Suu Kyi. Obviously they will ink all the contract with foreign partners and take as much as they can before handing over, and who knows may be deliberately buying time to hatch their evil and treacherous plans with their utterance of according to the law. The Burmese saying goes “A snake sees the legs of another snake” and saw the movements of the Thein Sein administration as unholy. The fact is that having ruled the country for more than half a century the Tatmadaw Generals’ psyche and rationale are attune to power is now having a hard time to let it go.

Contemporary history of Burma indicates that the Tatmadaw having it roots in the ragamuffins of Burma Independence Army founded under Japanese auspices in 1941, sees itself as the protector of the state from threats to its internal security, territorial integrity and external security, arguing that past interventions were essential in resolving political crises that threatened unity and territorial integrity, the Generals see itself as a role of stabilizing force, in the face of an unknown future, camouflaging the fact that they are against the very grain of Peace, (attacking the ethnics in time of negotiations even now) because if there is peace they are afraid that there will be no place for them in the Burmese society. Against Democracy (not honouring the democratic elections of 1990 and hatching plans now to discredit some of the election results) and the Union (making the non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities as second citizens and exploiting them) itself as Tatmadaw wants to be the only pebble in the beach.

Obviously, old soldiers never die, they just fade away. However, in Burma, they parachuted themselves into chief executives with little or no idea of what their profession is all about? Per see Col. Nay Myo Aung, son in law of Than Shwe, became the rector of Public Health University only because he had borne Pho La Pye, Than Shwe’s favourite grandson. With that kind of mentality and a bumpkin in business, the Tatmadaw still will have to rely on crony capitalism, some 20 wealthy and well-connected families with ties to military-backed enterprises. Even Khin Swe of Zaykaba group boasted that business will be usual as because they are the only ones eligible to tackle more investment abroad. A recently released report by Global Witness found that corporations linked to military families controlled much of the up to $31 billion worth of jade mined in Burma in 2014, and that money from jade almost completely bypassed the public treasury. Economically, the “Dutch Disease” is still prevalent and we would soon witness that 15 billionaires blooming to 40 in the poorest country of Southeast Asia.

But the main issue is structural, and would require constitutional amendments which the Tatmadaw has promised to defend until death. Other issues range from peace with the ethnic nationalities, to the retention of political prisoners, from a lack of press freedom to the presence of ex-army officials in the bureaucracy, and from widespread corruption to a rise in religious identity-based violence and intolerance all instigated by the Tatmadaw backed USDP which has a long history since the Depaéyin massacre of 2003, not to mention the ethnic cleansing. All indications point out that the government still has some tricks up its collective sleeve to justify staying in power.

The NLD government, on its own, may not even be able to free the remaining political prisoners. Assistance Association for Political Prisoners counted 97 political prisoners in various jails and 471 others are facing unfair trial. Daw Suu Kyi would likely to be the “de facto” president as the 2008 Nargis Constitution bars her from the presidency, is likely to at least try and deal with these issues. However, the road ahead is both challenging and messy. She clearly sees that Than Shwe who controls the eleven man National Defense Council is above the president. In her interview with BBC she directly challenge Than Shwe, that from now she will call the shots. But to succeed, she will need the support of both good administrators and highly skilled negotiators, given that the constitution provides for two parallel powers, the defense establishment and the civilian government, giving far more authority to the former. Negotiations with the Tatmadaw will often involve uncomfortable and unpopular trade-offs. The Tadmadaw remains a wild card in the political transition. But Daw Suu Kyi, is more than ready to reconcile, compromise and collaborate with the generals. Importantly, she is no stranger to the institution of which her father, Gen Aung San, is often described as the founding father. In initial, private meetings with the military, Daw Suu Kyi will put sensitive issues to one side; opting for Burmese-style cordial dialogue. She has spoken of restoring the army’s dignity as a force for the people and will seek to lay out its future role for the country. She knows well that even she has people’s power and the mandate; the generals have firepower and the key to unlock the state machinery.

One thing which all of us must acknowledge is that Burma’s leaders do not care a fig about democracy. They only care that the international community sees what they are doing as democracy. They will shape-shift as they need to see that Than Shwe is not out of the picture, but simply no longer needs “to micro-manage according to the old system.” However, Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing can go some way to mitigating the ugly history of decades-long military dictatorship by respecting the will of voters and allowing the formation of a new, democratically elected government to serve the country. Their actions could prove decisive in allowing Burma to turn a new page in its modern narrative, if they can swallow the Myanmar male chauvinist attitude of why, we the mighty Tatmadaw Generals should go to this lady’s house instead of her coming to them.

Given the power that Myanmar Tatmadaw continues to wield, if these elections are going to lead to consolidated democracy, Burma’s new civilian leaders will have to work in close cooperation with the country’s reigning generals to achieve further democratic reforms. Under the current government system, civilians don’t have the power to force anything on their own.

As a result, former political prisoners who are entering parliament have no choice but to cooperate closely and constructively with their former oppressors, without receiving any recompense or apology. “Our situation is an abnormal situation,” explained Tint Lwin, who sees that the military would dominate governance, but that running for parliament was the best available option for resisting continued military rule.

What is clear is that that voters wanted their country to be ruled by a civilian leadership. The people are uncertain what the future holds; they don’t expect miracles but hope that under a long-overdue NLD-led government, dignity, the rule of law and democracy can be restored. They hope their rights will be respected, new economic opportunities will materialize, business will be more transparent and the government will prioritize health, education and the general welfare of citizens. Burmese people also long for peace around the country and it is hoped that Daw Suu Kyi and the NLD will take the peace process forward and genuinely address ethnic demands for federalism and carried on her father’s job of a Federal Democratic Union of Union of Burma instead of a chauvinist Myanmar.

That journey is not complete. The Sautshet-less (A new Anglo-Burmese word of no shame) Tatmadaw could still get cold feet and back away from the loss of its power and privilege, even if much of it is safeguarded. US officials have signaled that continued assistance will depend on a genuine transition of power to a representative government. Other friends and partners of Burma, especially European Union, Japan and China must also demand that the military genuinely cede power and not try to undermine the next government. This outcome is an important victory for democracy, not only in Burma but elsewhere in the region and the American foreign policy.

The author can be reached at prof.unclewin80@gmail.com

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