Sunday, March 06, 2005

How likely is a popular uprising in Burma: A Hard Look

Quote of the Day:

``Burma is a social volcano about to erupt."

- Quoted in Larry Jagan's Military mass trials increase tension

This FBC Posting contains:

1). Military mass trials increase tension
2). How likely is a successful popular uprising in Burma?: Compiler's Remark

Bangkok Post: LARRY JAGAN :

Military mass trials increase tensionFOCUS / BURMA JUNTA TURNS ON ITSELF


How likely is a popular uprising in Burma: A Hard Look

By Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

The above BKK Post article depicts what is going on with the on-going trials offormer MIS officers in a way that is informative and descriptive.

The not-so subtle conclusion - that the country's situation resembles that of1988 and hence ripe for teh repeat of another popular uprisings - is less of aquote born out of an informed analysis than a cheer-leading line, however.

Here is why:

While no political analysis, intellectual or journalistic, can be expected tohave the power to predict future events - yes, even in a place believed to beas volatile as today's Burma - the possibilities of the repeat of the failed8.8.88 uprisings appear almost non-existent.

Although 8.8.88 was a dramatic and climatic event, there were geo-economic andinternal processes which precipated isolated events that finally led to the'social and political explosion' of 1988. Paradoxical as it may sound, theprevailing mood of the Burma Socialist Program Party government's leadershipitself - that is, General Ne Win himself - was a major contributing factor.

The top BSPP leadership itself was interested in liberalizing the economy and*limited political change* - perhaps along the lines of the Chinese model. Ina country that was shut off from the outside world through the self-imposed'Burmese Way to Socialism,' the ones who remained exposed to the outside worldwere the members of the party's top echelon, most specifically Chairman Ne Winhimself.

In addition to the built-in structural problems such as the country's failedcommand economy (and the Black Market) with the attendant economic problems,three events can be said to have played a role in the emergence of an appetitefor change at the top.

First, the visit of the late Deng Xioping, the man credited with China's highlysuccessful state-controlled capitalist economic reforms, to Rangoon andMandalay after he assumed the leadership of the Communist Party in early1980's. The popular joke among the urbanites in Burma, at the time, was abouta caricature depicting Deng on his return journey down from the top of(socialist/communist) mountain, and telling his Burmese counterpart, ChairmanNe Win, who was on his way up to the top that there was nothing at the top (andhence the futility of continuing to climb toward the top).

Second, with Deng Xioping's ascendency to power, Beijing became significantlyless ideological, but economically and strategically pragmatic. Having reaped no handsome returns in its investment in Communist uprisings throughout SouthEast Asia, Beijing began to cut its losses, pulled the rug out of all theCommies in the region who were on Beijing's welfare, including Burmesecommunists of all shapes, forms and colorations.

Beijing pursued unequivocallyits new strategy toward its Southern neighbor so as to pursue its own strategicand economic interests; its proxy army of the Burmese Communists in thejungless, lacked any prospects for victory while the ethnic armed groups suchas the (Christian) Kachin Independencen Army (of the golden days) were too God-drenched to join hands with the Burmese Communists against its common enemy(the Burma Army). (As a matter of fact, during his tenure as Chinese PM, PrimeCho Enlai (sp?) offered the KIA leadership of Breng Sai everything it needed tofight Rangoon, on the sole condition that it joined hands with the BurmeseCommunists. Land-locked and bordered on China, the KIA leadership was forcedto break ranks with its more revolutionary brothers in the tapestry of Burma'sethnic armies and chose the path of least (self-)destruction when Beijingdecided that it was going to do business direct with Rangoon.)

Third, in April 1986 General/later U San Yu who was known to be General NeWin's all-seasons yes-man went to Tokyo on a state visit and returned with 26Japanese government's scholarship awards for Burmese civil servants (includinguniversity instructors) and, more importantly, unequivocal message from the Japanese government, that Rangoon must reform economically or face the halt ineconomic aid by Tokyo, Burma's single largest 'donor' since the country'sindependence in 1948. (There were two countries which General Ne Win's Burmanever severed its ties even at the height of self-imposed isolationism, and onewas Japan and the other the then West Germany).

Within a year, in a short speech reprinted in all (state-controlled) papers in1987, Ne Win declared to the nation that change was the only thing that wasinevitable. And without admitting any wrong-doings on his part, he signalled that significant policy change was being considered (and perhaps under way). A Machiavellian pragmatist and nationalist of his own brand, Ne Win was never known for his convictions in either socialism or capitalism - nor was he ever a card-carrying member of any political party. Echoing the late General Aung San's sentiment, he once again warned 'the traders, speculators and merchantswith foreign roots' to consider Burma their real home and not to take advantages of the indigenous populations.
Between 1987 and 1988, one of the economic measures the Generals took was the demonetization of Burmese currency notes.

Something unexpected - or perhaps expected - happened. Immediately before thepublic announcement of demonetization in the state-controlled media, some ofhis deputies - including cabinet ministers - and their wives rushed to acquireland, properties, automobiles, consumer goods, gold, etc. For they had inadvance the privileged information that the demonetization measure was underway. Chairman Ne Win was said to have been angered seriously by the economicbehavior of his subordinates, and accordingly launched a subsequent wave ofdemonetization. The second time, the Chairman was said to have consulted withno one in in his inner circle, picked a Saturday morning, went straight to theBurma Broadcasting Station and handed his own hand-written seconddemonetization announcement to the TV/radio announcer who was ordered to readat 8 AM news hours, a few minutes after the Chairman's arrival at the station.

The second demonetization had severe economic impact on the general public, andthe dormitory-dwelling students in Rangoon who were from non-Rangoon areastried to start social unrest on campuses. The BSPP regime responded by closingdown all schools and 'shipping' all dorm students home - via air, rail andbuses - as a way of preempting contagious campus unrest in the capital city, aswell as in urban university towns. This was followed by an otherwiseinsignifcant town-gown tea-shop brawl the mis-handling of which caused a deathof the Rangoon Institute of Technology student Hpone Maw who died of bleedingfrom gun-shot wound.

Further, former Brigadier General Aung Gyi, who was General Ne Win's second incommand during the first year of his Revolutionary Council goverment(1962-74)whom Ne Win jailed twice circulated two open letters to his formerboss, believed to have been written with the general's prior knowledge andconsent. The letters faulted everyone except General Ne Win for all the woesBurma had come to face - economic underdevelopment, corruption, failinginstitutions, demoralized state of politics and civil service, etc. Theletters took the country by surprise and was the talk of the nation, havingmade waves in the discontent-filled popular psyche.

Needless to say, there was a series of significant developments which finallyresulted in a situation wherein a nation-wide massive protest against theone-party state was possible. Those factors included the somewhat indecisiveor confused mental state among the BSPP's top leadership, especially ChairmanNe Win, as to how to handle the fluidity of the series of events within thecountry; the unsatisfactory fact finding report re: the death of Hpone Maw, andthe growing campus protests, especially in Rangoon, the use of violence againstpeaceful student protestors in June 1988, and the old Communist undergroundcells that continued to operate in prisons and throughout select urban areaswhich used to be sympathetic to the Communists. Those who cooly remembered that fateful day 8.8.88 recall that the urbantresidents became emboldened to take to streets, only after having felt theregime's inaction - either by choice or circumstances - to not act preemptivelyon the BBC broadcast buzz that 8.8.88 was the day of the collective action.

Burma's internal situation/process today resembles little to the prevailingpolitical and economic climate in 1987/88.

For starters, the current military leadership is cut from a different cloth,unlike the generations which General Ne Win and his top deputies belonged to.In addition, if anything, the generals witnessed beheadings of all those whohad been accused of being government informers and spies during the heady daysof popular uprisings. If one puts oneself in their shoes, out of compassion orout of strategic calculations or both, it is not too difficult to imagine howthey will respond to any repeat of the 8.8.88.

Having succeeded in making opposition possible only at the symbolic andpsychological level, the current de facto government is confident in itsability to control any type of uprisings - or so it appears. The fact that SGThan Shwe kept his India travel plan in tact immediately after he ordered todismantle the entire institution of the Military Intelligence clearly indicatesthe level of confidence at the top SPDC leadership in terms of its ability tokeep the lid on domestically.

Under direct order from the 'retired' Chairman Ne Win, the MIS had done a greatjob of inducing and/forcing virtually all significant armed ethnic minorititygroups save the Karen National Union into entering into ceasefire arrangementswith Rangoon. Subsequently, it was also MIS that in effect has dismantled theopposition movement within the territories it controlled.

Insofar as the Burmese military intelligence (and by extension all successive governments in power) are concerned, the two most significant political forces with rootsand support systems within the Burmese society - university students andBuddhist order. As early as 1968, Burma's military leadership had openlyidentified these two mainstream institutions as the most potent threat to itsmonopoly over state power.

Accordingly, at the expense of the country'scivilian higher education (and thus future of civilian elite - as opposed tothe military elite), the SPDC has destroyed campus and monastery-baseddissident infrastructure over the past 16 years. The current generation ofstudents blames the older generation of politically active students for all their present troubles, institutional obstacles and otherattendent problems (such as excruciatingly long commutes to remote universitycampuses, openly meaningless extremely low quality education and so on).

A great majority of them have said to have checked out of Burma's politicalsituation, no matter how much it may impact their lives. In addition, many aresaid to mistake 8.8.88 student leaders with their illustrious names for up and coming romatic poets or hip hop stars!

It is therefore extremely implausible that social or political unrest willbegin at the traditional hotbeds of activisms - monasteries and universitycampuses.

Labor movement is practically non-existent in Burma, despite statements to thecontrary. The peasantry is also left out of the picture when the urban elitetalk about social change. (The peasants - who make up the majority of Burma'spopulation, are most impacted favorably by the regime's propaganda. Believers in the notion of Karma, which ever Buddist and Burmese general is in power, itis because of his past meritorious deeds and hence no need for revolt againsthim.)

Having completely ignored the progressively self-marginalized National Leaguefor Democracy, placed the ceasefire groups between rock and a hard place, anddeprived the Karen National Union and its Karen National Liberation Army of anygeo-economic and geo-political advantages, the SPDC is going full-steam aheadwith its National Convention. Further, absent B 52s and ICBMs flying towardRangoon or Pyinmana or Pyin Oo Lwin, the SPDC has written off the United Statesor United Kingdom as countries that are not needed for its regime survival.

It is said that while the SPDC is most certainly ramming its political agendathrough what most observers consider 'farce', it has allowed a fair amount oflatitude in terms of political proposals and discussions among its hand-pickeddelegates, as well as the ceasefire group representatives. While it iscertainly not fair, transparent or credible in the eyes both of theinternational community and the Burmese public, the SPDC doesn't appear readyor prepared, under the present circumstances, to reverse the course.

While economic hardships, the uncertain political climate, level of popularhatred toward the SPDC, the mounting pressure from the outside world (includingthe ASEAN), and the weakened state of the Tatmadaw leadership, one ought to resist the temptation to reach the conclusion that Burma is ripe for anotherround of the BBC-induced uprising.

Indeed the mainstream Burmese notions of power and politics are, in the finalanalysis, of very personal nature - in a self-destructive way. Parties, organizations, institutions, etc. become the extensions of the leaders. But in a deeply 'traditional society' - for lack of a better word - which has beencondemned by both Generals and the dissidents alike to isolation - the Tatmadawor the Armed Forces remains the only organization where orders, policies, andbehaviors are relatively less personal - and more bureaucratic and rational(except perhaps at the top leadership). The rank and file members of theTatmadaw, especially the officer corps, remain deeply loyal to the Institutionof the army. This is in spite of popular misreading of their seeminglypersonal loyalty to their respective big leaders. While the Air Force or Navy officers who self-perceive (and perhaps in actuality as well) asbetter educated and more intelligent than their brothers in the Army may bemore unhappy about the state of affairs within the Armed Forces, especially atthe top, it is the Army that is running the country - not a small contigent of air force and navy officers.

The ideological roots of the army officers aredeep, despite whatever sinister motives we may assign these men on horseback.They are fiercely loyal to the Armed Forces as their mother institution. ThePhillippines scenario of brothers ready to kill each other for freedom's sakeis for ever more distant. They may be devouring their own flesh, but certainlynot with the purpose of making the opposition's life easier; nor with the viewtoward ushering in a new civilian era of full-blown democracy.

Lastly, every conflict has its own unique characteristics - Burma is neitherthe Philippines nor Indonesia, much less the now romaniticized South Africa.

'People Power' sounds nice. But without any key segment of the establishedpower switching the course mis-stream, the repeat of '8888' will likely meet asimilar fate.

Having painted themselves into the corners, the SPDC appears determined to holdonto power - with or without its urban subjects taking to the streets. And anyjunior officers jumping ship at this late hour is inconceivable, having justwitnessed what could happen when one officer and his camp were perceived to get out of line.

No analyses of a society (and politics and econony) can be scientific in thesame way natural sciences are. But by Burma analyses should be informed by orbased on the empirical evidence, rather than pipedreams.

Social change is always possible, and it is possible through more than onescenario.
And no society remains stagnant - either societies are moving forward orregressing or both depending on which specific respects one examines.

While the society and politics are moving on, for better or for worse, itappears that the Burmese revolution has long been stuck in the revolutionarymode - at least among its international cheer-leaders and mainstream exiles.For we have not been able to conceive social change in Burma beyond massuprisings.

The Burmese public who lives under the boots on a daily basis does not appearto be in the mood for risking their lives or their children's - not forfreedom, not for democracy, and certainly not for the opposition.