Thursday, 8 August 2013

Revolutionaries to Leaders of a Nation, Burma’s 8888 Dreams

By May Ng
Gasser Abdel-Razek, an Egyptian human rights activist once said that, “the creation of the dictatorship started the day he took office and people decided not to push him.”

And after twenty six years under the military dictatorship, on August 8, 1988, Burma finally pushed back, and the nation reverberated with a thunderous uprising against the military dictatorship.

Today, twenty five years later Burma seems to have come back to a conflict ridden nation similar to the 1948 post war pre-independent Burma. 

Burma now has on the one hand a military establishment with enormous wealth and power but without moral authority, and on the other hand is the opposition community with enormous intellectual and moral authority but without a real opportunity to definitively institutionalize democratic values. Up until now the oppositions including Aung San Suu Kyi have been defined by their sacrifice and heroism, but not by their aspiration and institutional leadership drive.

Today as they begin coming home, the oppositions are under pressure to transform themselves from revolutionaries to leaders of political institutions.

(ဆက္ဖတ္ရန္ ေခါင္းစဥ္ ကုိ ႏွိပ္ပါ။ Click Title )

At the moment the only political institutions are the one created by the army’s 2008 Constitution, intended chiefly for preservation of the interests of army generals and their families. Yet, the 2008 Constitution is also seemingly a part of the army’s exit strategy. Depending on the future outcome, this may prove to be the start of the politicizing of the army, and the beginning of the end to military dictatorship in Burma.

The recent and unmistakable liberalization that allows revitalization of the Rangoon University and the celebration of ’88 is no doubt a cause for optimism. But the depth of poverty and the reality of opaque military machinery that still wields substantial power behind the 2008 constitution naturally call for caution. And particularly worrying is ‘the thuggish factor,’ a legacy of armed independent struggle in the tradition of paramilitary culture inherited through successive military government. These unknown thugs under tacit allowance of the military dominated government are the ones employed to assault civilians outside of the war zones where peaceable populace is kept under a close watch. They were employed to assault Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy at Depayin in 2003, and the same apparatus was deployed to stir up troubles against Rohingyas and Burmese Muslims during recent riots.

Current economic distress and the ethnic political conflicts are quite similar to the time of Burma’s independence, when the fledgling post war government was destitute all the while foreign firms continued to profit from the country’s resources. But today, after decades of mismanaged economy, frequent civil unrest, and continuing ethnic conflicts the impoverished government in Burma is inviting back the once hated foreigners to help rebuild Burma’s economy, even as the nation’s resources remain firmly in the hands of well-connected army coterie.    

Speaking of ethnic relations, colonial era divide and rule policy did have a long lasting effect but according to historians Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, even from the beginning the ethnic nationalities never really saw themselves as part of central Burma. In this context challenges to the administration of Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi are no doubt formidable. Bayly and Harper also said that Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San was more prepared than most Burmese leaders to accept the cultural and political differences upon which the minorities insisted. And that Aung San was not a particularly fervent Buddhist and was genuinely concerned for the hill peoples to obtain a democratic form of government. He was prepared to concede a large degree of autonomy to them. 

Today, ethnic nationalities in Burma are still waiting for a leader as Aung San to emerge again. During the meantime they are cautiously entering into a political bargaining with the military government.  In order for Burma to democratize, not only the ethnic nationality armies but also the Tatmataw must come to agree on a settlement and obey explicit rules in order to legitimately resolve conflicts without resorting to armed violence.  

A steadfast participation of the Tatmataw, the ethnic armies, and political oppositions is necessary to forge a compromise to institutionalize representation rights and bargaining mechanism to provide access to governing roles to all sides. Consequently the 2008 Burmese constitution that clearly establishes the military superiority over the civilian population will need to be amended.

The next generation’s leadership drive for electoral competition, interest representation, and executive accountability will further entrench democratic institutions in Burma. But in order to move the nation in that direction Burma still has a long way toward repairing the badly broken educational system, and revitalizing the decimated economy and social services.

Modern democracy in essence was created to compensate for the failure of moral virtue alone to govern the world. As the ’88 generation revolutionaries come of age it will be wise to keep in mind that no matter the sacrifices of the last 25 years, only durable democratic institutions will keep human vices out of politics and secure the future generations from perils of human weakness for greed and power. And today, Burma is counting on the ’88 generation leadership from the former students, ethnic nationalities and even soldiers to finish the revolution they all helped started. 

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