Saturday, February 12, 2005

First Rooster Joke, then Ethnic Politics in Burma/Myanmar

Burma's Politics of Ethnicity

Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

I am sharing with you first some traditional Year of the Rooster jokes on:

Why DID the chicken cross the road???!!!

Saeed Al Sahaf (former head of information under Sadaam Hussein) - The chicken did not cross the road. This is a complete fabrication. We do not even have achicken!

George W Bush - We don't care why the chicken crossed the road. We just want toknow if the chicken is on our side of the road or not. The chicken is either for us or against us. There is no middle ground.

Colin Powell - Now to the left of the screen, you can clearly see the satellite image of the chicken crossing the road.

Tony Blair - I agree with George!

Hans Blix - We have reason to believ there is a chicken, but we have not yetbeen allowed to have access to the other side of the road.

Dr. Seuss - Did the chicken cross the road? Did he cross it with a toad? Yes,the chicken crossed the road. But why it crossed I've not been told.

Martin Luther King Jr. - I envision a world where all chicken will be free tocross roads without having their motives called into question.

Aristotle - It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.

Karl Marx - It was an historic inevitability.

Bill Gates - eChicken 2005 will not only cross roads, but will lay eggs, fileyour important documents, and balance your cheque book - and internet explorer is an integral part of eChicken.

Albert Einstein - Did the chicken really cross the road, or did the road move beneath the chicken?

Ariel Sharon - Is this chicken kosher?

Col. Sanders - Did I miss one?

Homer Simpson - Mmmmmmmm .... chicken!

Ronald Reagan - What chicken?

For the Chinese who have just celebrated their new year, this is the Year of the Rooster. As the Burmese question has become almost unresolvable to anyone'ssatisfaction, I am sharing with you first the simple, but famously hilarious question "why did the chicken cross the road?" - and various (made-up) rationales andexplanations by known entities in both ancient and contemporary history.

Aftera chuckle, you will probably be greeted by a feeling of hopelessness aboutBurma.At the root of the problem is that the Burmese power elite, as well as thegrassroots citizens hold a radically different understanding of how the presentday Burma came into existence. It was a nation that was built by successivegenerations of Burmese kings as early as 11th century AD (of course, throughmilitary expedititions and conquests).

Wildly divergent ethno-nationalisms are , once again, flaring up inBurma's national politics.

(The historical development of Burma is not that different from otherethnically hetrogeneous nation throughout the world.)

This linear view of Burma's history sharply contrasts with others versions ofBurma's history in relation to various mono-ethnic groups such as the ones heldby the Karens, the Shan, the Chin, the Karenni, the Mon, and the Arakanese.

For those ethnic groups whose representatives signed the Pin-lon or PanglongAgreement on Feb. 12, 1947, declaring their endorsement of Aung San's vision for a multi-ethnic modern Burma as we know it today never existed untilthat day.

The instititional, official memories (Read 'propaganda') of the Armed Forcescollide with the alternative memories (Read 'alternative propaganda') put forthby non-Burman ethnic opposition groups. Neither side is likely to compromise on their historical memories and futurevisions. The ethnicity-focused conflict will rage on - and the future of Burma doesn't offer much hope for those Burmese who wish to seek reconciliation, reconsolidation and reconstruction of Burma as a modern nation.

Perhaps thinking that the Burmese power elite have been figuratively andliterally decimating one another, the Shan elite appeared to have decided that a new window of opportunity has arisen.

The SPDC apparently thought the denunciation of its National Convention by the shan exiles from different partsof the world who got together in New York City had everything to do with the flury of political activities involving New Generation Shan politicians,the ceasefire group - Shan State Army North, and Khun Tun Oo, who is a prominentmember of the NLD-created Committee Representating People's Parliament (CRPP) and the leader of the Shan Nationalaties League for Democracy (SNLD).

Some Burman politicians such as Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, a daughter of the lateAFPFL and socialist leade U Kyaw Nyein and the recently released U Thu Wei, who chaired the now de funct Democracy Party, also participated in these politicalactivities.

In my meeting last year with the ousted Brigadier Than Tun and Colonel Hla Min, Head of the Internal Security and Political Affairs and SPDC Spokesperson respectively, the two officials told me that ethnic issue was the number issueconfronting Burma (and by extension, the SPDC).

To the SPDC, everything else is secondary such as democratization, the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom, theUS or EU sanctions or ASEAN membership. Self-serving as it may sound, theygenuinely believe the Armed Forces is the only political and military forcethat can make sure the country doesn't meet the fate of former Yugoslavia - theBalkan scenario.

An understanding of the background history might be of help here ininterpreting today's events re: ethnicity-based political conflict in Burma.

Historically, from 15th century on, Burman power elite have long forciblyintegrated the Mons and the Arakanese kingdoms - all Buddhist - into revised and expanded version of Burman kingdom. When the Burman kingdom fell to themilitarily and technologically superior British Forces, the descendents of the Burman court elite teamed up with the Arakanese and the Mon to imagine a newmodern, Burmese nation and formulated and propagated a new form of nationalism.

The only remaining cluster of formidable political systems in the Hills -various Shan provinces under Shan kings, Saw Bwa, or Chao Pha - reached a dealwith the British - on the model of the Thai monarchy and its relationships with Britain, US and Japan, which allowed the local Shan "kings" or chiefs to retain their traditional social structure and customs in exchange for theadministrative and military submission to Whitehall.

The nationalist elite of the Mon, the Arakanese and the Burman, built a strategic alliance with the left-leaning, radicalized Shan elite who were not part of the traditional feudal power structure to break the monopoly of Shanfeudal chiefs over the Shan provinces. For the Shan chiefs were viewed aslackeys of the British colonialists by the nationalists in the lowlands.

The Shan chiefs tried to monkey-wrench Aung San-led Burmese efforts forindependence of Burma. Consequently, the British questioned openly Aung San's legitimacy and right to speak for the frontier area peoples. In response to the feudal chiefs' effort to derail Burman nationalists' effortsnegotiating with Atlee's Labor Government in London, Aung San teamed up with Shan leftists and used a combination of inducement and mass display of Shan commoners' support for his effort to seek independence for his "imagined"Burma. Aung San used the recognition of the self-determination rights by the Kachinand Shan as a carrot to get the feudal chiefs from respective ethniccommunities to endorse his vision for a federated Union of Burma.

It remains highly debatable, however, whether Aung San would have accepted the claims of self-determination - in practice -(outside his vision for a unified, if federated Burma).

The nationalists' embrace of the Kachin and Shan's rights to secede from the Union of Burma (10 years after independence in 1948) appeared to have really been, in the final analysis, more a matter of politicalexpediency than any genuine acceptance of the abstract version of liberalism ofthe West, by him and his colleagues, where politics is supposed to be de-ethnicized, principle-driven and color-blind.

The idealized and romanticized national community of multi-ethnic peoples and culturs remains an ideal even in the world's oldest and largest democracies -the United States and India - or in Britain with its Constitutional Monarchy - where race riots and ethnic violence have not become a thing of of the past. No sooner were Aung San and half of his cabinet members assassinated on July19, 1947 - five months after his signing of the Pin-lon or Panglong agreement -than his nationalist colleagues who survived and/or escaped the assassination decidedly moved to re-draft the constitution of Burma, so that the future Constitution was federal only in name and unitary in substance and structure. Prime Minister U Nu tasked the late U Chan Tun, the English-trained, firstAttorney General of the soon-to-be independent Burma, with the job ofre-drafting - changing - the future Constitution of independent Burma, anassignment that U Chan Tun completed as a loyal civil servant of the newly independent Burma.

The now de funct Burmese Communist Party (BCP) headed by Thakhin (or Master) Than Tun, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's uncle, went underground on March 29, 1949-barely 14-months after independence - and waged an armed revolt against the AFPF government of U Nu.

To make matters worse, the Karen National DefenceOrganization headed by Cambridge-trained barrister Saw Ba Oo followed suit witin a year and almost succeeded in militarily defeating the Union Army underGeneral Ne Win's stewartship.

As the ethnic bloods boiled, Burmese Communists reached a secret deal withtheir ethnic brethens in PM Nu's Union Government and repelled the KNDO revolt- only to resume their bloody feud after the KNDO threat was pushed to Burma's forested areas and away from the centers of commerce and political power.

Having learned its lesson, PM Nu's Government and nationalists within theBurmese Armed Forces built military bases throughout the Shan State in the form of military training schools, including the Defence Services Academy as earlyas 1953.

Whether Aung San would have succeeded in persuading the minorities to give up their claims of self-determination peacefully can never be known. One thing remains clear - despite what he ariculated as his vision and hisintegrity, Aung San was a Burman nationalist through and through from theheartland of Burma. In his writings espousing his multi-ethnic vision of Burma, Aung San rejectedcategorically absolutist notion of "self-determination." He (and most, ifnot all, of his Burmese nationalist colleagues) privileged the sanctity ofnation above anything else.

It is highly improbable that successivegenerations of nationalist leaders who, having put their lives on line, struggled against the British rule and Japanese occupation so that the notion of ethnic self-determination for mono-ethnic communities may be placed above the prerogatives of the Burmese nation.

Neither the dominant Burmans nor their minority brethens in Burma have been able to find the right balance in their sordid tale of nation building - the balance that honors the majority's deeply rooted feeling and vision of aBurmese nation and at the same time is sensitive to the minorities'legitimategrievances and concerns. Sadly, the way things have been progressing (or regressing - depending on whereone stands) in Burma, this crucial balance remains a distant, if not unrealizable, dream.

Friday, February 11, 2005

National Convention and the State of the Opposion

On National Convention and the State of the Opposition

Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

Burma's opposition is dominated by a mob ofzealots, especially those in exile whose politics is driven by hatred of the defacto government than the desire for change in the country, that embrace thepathologically self-destructive attitude of "my-leader-right-or-wrong".
A handful of thoughtful Burmese have been advocating for the NLD'sparticipation in the only game in town - the SPDC-sponsored NationalConvention. One gets a sense that pushing for the NLD to join the NationalConvention at this late hour is futile. It is all cliche to say "too littletoo late."

To be sure, the SPDC (or SLORC) attempted to decimate the NLD - and succeededin that mission to a great extent. No other person than General Khin Nyunt andhis intelligence apparatus was largely responsible for the destruction of themost formidable. The Asian media dubbed General Khin Nyunt "prince of evil,"the label that was in circulation well into the mid-1990s. Ironically, as theNLD became weak as a viable political force and an organization, the power ofits iconic figure - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi - grew. Both the West and Daw Suu havelatched onto each other - something the (internal) security-minded generalsunderestimated.

Something happened along the way. Trapped in the politics of convictions whichresults in its embrace of a fair-play, the NLD leadership has been committing one serious strategic blunder after another. For instance, the NLD issued the ultimatum"choose dialogue or face utter devastation," without being able to deliver theblows; instead of formulating a home-grown specific compromise agenda that addressed the military's self- and corporate-interests and national securityconcerns, the NLD opted for a Western-style campaigning going to the masses; instead of embracing political realism which would have allowed for ameaningful, if initially unsatisfactory role in Burma's real politik, at least for the interim, the NLD privileged Western discourse of legitimacy, democracy and human rights; and instead of crafting the blue print for a break-through inBurma, the NLD has been boringly strident in its call for Dialogue.

Worst of all, NLD leaders remain fiery revolutionaries, notwithstanding theirSenior Citizen status - most of them - and long-years of detention andimprisonment, while the emerging situation called for this transformation -from being populist activists or dissident leaders to politicians who seek apragmatic solution to the impasse.

Conversely, General Khin Nyunt, with the help of his own men from his outfitand ASEAN and international friends, began to re-make himself as Fidel V. Ramosof Burma.

The late Chao Tzang Yawng-ngwe (a.k.a) Eugene Thaike wrote a long letter to DawAung San Suu Kyi,essentially begging her to come up with concrete offer ofcompromise. His words fell on ears that were accustomed to the populistlanguage, not to political realism. On the sidelines of the NLD-led opposition flattered and fueled by the Western human rights crowd, Eugene and I developed into our favorite past time act complaining bitterly, and with great sadness for Burma, about the incapacity of the NLD leadership to see or act on windows of political opportunities, that availed themselves from time to time. The NLD was stuck in its own orthodoxy of how Burma's political impasse had to be resolved.

On the eve of the first Bangkok Process or Meeting held on December 15, 2003, the Free Burma Coalition issued a public statement which embraced the NationalConvention conditionally, casting our vote for the NLD's participation. We were the only visible dissident organization that broke ranks with themainstream, and we were labelled "opportunists" "sell-outs" and you name it.

The SPDC was then desperate for the NLD to bless the National Convention - andit appeared to have been prepared to make some concessions. Then came the fateful Friday day of May 14, 2004 when the NLD declared its decision to boycott the NC, thus painting itself into the corner - or as some have argued,having sealed its own fate.

It is highly doubtful whether the NLD would be ever brought back into thisNational Convention. If the utter lack of communications between the SPDC andthe NLD leadership is any indication, SPDC will forge ahead with its ownpolitical agenda and plan. Two things appear certain: first, the SPDC will notaccept Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as its business partner and they will make surethat the future Constitution, however illegitimate or unpopular, will bananyone who has lived long years abroad from holding public office in Burma; and second, they will make sure the NLD doesn't become a formidable politicalorganization in Burma's national politics.
Oppressors are not the only ones who are responsible for the fate which weas an opposition movement are living. It is their job to crush theopposition, resistance. They are doing their job.
Our leadership - and even perhaps our own - self-detsructiveness have alsoplayed a role in the extremely sorry state of the opposition. We must holdourselves accountable, without giving into defeatism. Surrender is, in thefinal analysis, a state of mind - not an outward act.
Four decades of mainstream opposition to the military rule have been a categorical failure. For those of us who are still committed to change inBurma must take responsibility for this tried-and-failed strategy - and our own failures.

Southeast Asian region is going through tremendous changes, and Asia is now home to the two fastest growing economies. The economic future of the world isin Asia. This tremendously powerful force unleashed by corporate globalizationwhich seeks cheap labor, raw materials, educated work force, political (READmarket) stability, predictability, and so on is a double-edged sword.

Change in Myanmar - without world-class activists or world's empathy andsympathy - is conceivable as long as we activists do not blindly and arrogantly insist that we must be in the driver's seat. We activists fail to distinguish Western polemics of moralism and solidarity from the real politik that governs the real trade and profit-making. Trade is a powerful engine for societal transformation, which can help bring about changes in our country. We must not stand in its way. ***************************************************************************
Reconvening National Convention

B.K. Sen
Mizzima News (
February 11, 2005

The SPDC has announced that the National Convention will sit again on 17 February 2005. The last sitting was during May 2004. It has taken months toadjourn the meeting. This is not surprising as the first announcement of theNational Convention was made in 1992 and the first sitting finally took placein 1993, several months later. These events reveal much about the pace of theprocess, making one reasonably conclude that the State Peace and DevelopmentCouncil (SPDC) is not at all serious about the matter. There are seven steps inthe SPDC’s road map to democracy of which convening the National Convention isthe second. How long these steps will take is anybody's guess. The impressiongiven discredits the SPDC implying that all it wants is to prolong the life ofits dictatorship.

When announcing the reconvening of the National Convention, the SPDC did notrelease any information concerning the agenda. In relation to the road map’ssecond step, it is expected that the 104 principles proposed by the SPDC willbe accepted with a few changes and will be put forward to a constitutiondrafting committee. The formation of this committee is another main task ofmilitary junta. Thereafter the Convention will be adjourned until theConstitution Drafting Committee has prepared a draft constitution.Implementation of the road map’s remain steps will depend on the whim of theSPDC. That this will be a time consuming process is easy to see.
The National Convention, like it or not, is now embedded in Burma's politics.The National League for Democracy (NLD), being a major stake-holder, can notremain silent witness to this process’ end. Having the received the massivemandate of the people in the May 1990 elections, it has their moral duty todemonstrate their pro-active policy. It should ask the SPDC's permission tohold a closed-door Executive Committee meeting without making conditions ofrelease, as the SPDC’s attitude has been “take it or leave it.” This proposedExecutive Committee meeting should have only one agenda item, namely how toapproach the reconvened National Convention. The question should be whether ornot it should participate in the process, however limited that may be.

The issue before the country is constitutionalism rather than the constitution.It is naive to think that the SPDC has to come out first with its response todemands formulated earlier by the NLD. The SPDC's strategy is to isolate andmarginalize the NLD. It is therefore incumbent on the part of the NLD to seizea space in the political process and end the status quo. This will generate amomentum, a slow movement that will change centre stage politics. The NLD hasto ask for the resumption of talks with SPDC and to participate in the NationalConvention. This two-track strategy will open space for more constructivepolitics. The climate of fear with which the military dictators has permeatedthe country, even more so since Khin Nyunt's purge and dismantling the NIB,will change and slowly but surely freer discussion and debate will ensue on theissues emanating from National Convention.

Unfortunately, the opposition force has been put inside a shell and themilitary dictators are moving from strength to strength. The situation needsrethinking, however, not in terms of an eventual emergence of a situation akinto 8.8.88. It is important to keep in mind that “Politics is the art ofpossibility.”

Questions will rise. Will SPDC resume talks with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? If not,Why participation? What can participation do in the context that every one willbe gagged?
These questions are legitimate. But important points to consider includewhether the current political stalemate should continue and will politicalprisoners rot in prison?

The aim is to put forward a democratic bargain, whether dictators accept it ornot. The proposition that National Convention per se will only consolidatemilitary rule is debatable. What it wants is military participation inpolitics. Whether their participation will result in “domination” is ahypothetical question. It will have to be engaged in two battles.
The first battle will be the referendum; the second will be the election afterthe constitution is accepted in the referendum. The people will become central,regardless of whether the referendum is forcefully obtained or the election isrigged. We consider Senior General Than Shwe is all powerful. We used to thinkthe same of Ne Win. It is not the objective of the writer to suggest that thereshould be unconditional participation in the National Convention. However thisis a chance to re-think and consider that the reconvening of NationalConvention represents a new opportunity. But the only condition is that things have to move fast within a time frame so that the people's suffering may be ended soon.

The military regime has laid down a road that will run into minefields. Thecurrent situation does raise fresh question regarding what is and is not“necessary” for democratization to advance. The unfortunate thing is thatunless some fresh wisdom is allowed into the process, the opportunity willdisappear. Burma's transition to democracy is one of the longest in history.
The issue has become not “Democracy” but “electoral democracy” anddemocratization. The balance of power is unequal. Elections may help to correctthe balance, which may result in a peaceful way to resolving conflicts. Thetheory that the inability of the opposing sides to defeat their enemy wouldcompel them to negotiate is wrong. Equally fallacious is the theory thatinternational pressure can deliver. In the present context, costs ofparticipating in an imperfect political process are less than the costs of overturning the dictatorship through non-democratic means. The coming NationalConvention will be a milestone in Burma's march to democracy.