Friday, June 03, 2005

Burma as South Africa: A wrong comparison

Quote of the Day:

No nation gets their freedom through telegrammed statements of moral support, pro-democracy newspaper op-eds or editorials, or early parliamentary motions.

-from Compiler's Remark, Apartheid South Africa and Burma Under Military: A Wrong Comparison

Apartheid South Africa and Burma Under Military Rule:
A Wrong Comparison
Free Burma Coalition

For those of us who helped draw the parallel between South Africa'santi-apartheid movement and our pro-democracy movement, between South Africa under apartheid and Burma/Myanmar under successive military governments, between ANC's leadership and activities and NLD's leadership and activities, we conveniently ignored major differences.

First, we chose - at a heavy cost to our own efforts for change - the country to compare Burma with, which is located in a radically different set ofgeo-political and economic conditions.

Second, the ANC was categorically different from the NLD, both in its leadership capabilities, its strategic framework which did not rule out political violence as part of its overal work, organizational strength, the level of mass participation - at all costs to the participants, and the wisdom and calibre of South African exiles who operated from Western and NorthernEurope.
Self-made, Nelson Mandela was ANC's Leader of its Military Wing. He was tried on charges of treason against the apartheid state.

Third, both UK and USA were leading opponents of international sanctions against the apartheid regime in Pretoria. And Ronald Reagan gave a speech at US Congress in late 1980's deriding sanctions against Pretoria as "immoral."

Fourth, all South Africa's neighbors allowed the ANC to operate on their soils, helped with the ANC smuggling arms into the country, helped set up militarytraining camps, and perhaps equally important, all black Africans - as well as blacks all over the world, specifically in Europe and North America, identified with the ANC's anti-apartheid struggle. They peceived the ANC's fight as their epic struggle against white domination and exploitation.

Fifth and finally, the ANC, under extremely repressive regime, was capable ofbuilding its new generations up, and created a multi-tiered leadership, bothwithin the country and among the exiles. As a result, even when Mandela was locked up and as used initially as the rallying icon, his equally capable comrades in exile and within the country were able to execute numerouspolitical activities, both violent and non-violent,successfully. It was indeeda revolutionary movement, self-reliant, enjoying pan-African solidarity, EVE IN THE FACE OF OPPOSITION FROM SOME GREAT DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENTS IN THE THEN WESTERN BLOC. The ANC had the stomach - and strength - to have claimed responsibilities for its violent acts.

No nation gets their freedom through telegrammed statements of moral support, pro-democracy newspaper op-eds or editorials, or early parliamentary motions.

So, next time when we compare the ANC's struggle and our own, let's not remember only selectively what the apple-boycotting Westerners did in support of anti-apartheid and imprisoned Mandela back in that revolutionar society. Let's not get enamored with Bishop Tutu's nicely coined phrases as to how his people go their freedom, that is, sanctions and through language of love and peace or non-violence.

Here is a dose of reality as to what the ANC was like and what it was prepared to do to accomplish its revolutionary aims 20 years ago:

20 May 1983: Car bomb in South Africa kills 16


I was in Pretoria at the time. The ANC (or rather their military wing "Umkhonto We Sizwe", often known simply as "MK") achieved little through their sporadic attacks on quasi-military targets, rarely more than two or three times a year. The infiltrators were often ill-disciplined and simply chose whatever targets of opportunity there happened to be. Conditions in ANC training camps in neighbouring territories were rough and difficult. In the end, there was no military solution to apartheid, but a political one in which so many people played a part. Comparisons with Burma, as you say, are meaningless. There was democracy in South Africa, but it was for the whites only.

Derek Tonkin, Former British Ambassador, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam



There should be a sixth major point of difference in the comparison betweenthe South African and Burmese scenes. This point may be termed Accountability, or rather, Sense of accountability.

We must remember that the White minority responsible for the apartheidpolicy must have felt some guilt all along simply because it was the Whites who actually robbed the land from the autochthons, the Africans. The SPDC generals, on the other hand, are convinced that they legitimately inherit their own motherland from the larcenous British colonialists, and they are the ones who know how to run their country without the interference of Western-influenced (read democratic) NLD and the internal as well as external opposition groups, including the ethnic resistance organizations. About the SPDC blokes, sans a modicum of guilt, plus the mental set up already well entrenched, anyone or any outfit trying to oppose them is going to be fighting an uphill battle, just about an impossible one without some happenstance, if not an outright miracle, more likely through a Power quite beyond human comprehension.

BaSaw Khin at

Pushing for Reforms in Burma/Myanmar: Lessons from Our Own Past

Quote of the Day:

... it is much easier to make a revolution than it is to transform a failed state into awell-performing democracy.

- Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia, In 'Five core principles for the world's reformers', May 26, 2005

A Short Essay for Fellow Dissidents Pushing for Reforms in Burma/Myanmar
Free Burma Coalition

May 26, 2005: Today marks the independence of Georgia, the country of Joseph Stalin and Edward Shevanadze, her two most famous - or infamous in the case of "Uncle Joe"- sons. As we rejoice in the successes of other peoples' revolutions some of which are romantically labelled 'Rose, Velvet, Tulip,' and so on, we, Burmese, might wish to pause for a moment and think why ours has as yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It is indeed much easier "to make arevolution than transform a failed polity into a functional one", as the author of the essay below points out.

We the citizens of Burma/Myanmar should know better. For we have been trying to make not just one, but waves of them since March 29,1948, starting with the armed Beijing-supported Communist revolt, followed by the Karen National Union's impressive, but eventually failed attempt to take over the reign of the civilian government of PM U Nu. And the list goes on.

Here an example might help. Imagine ourselves as visiters invited to observe a mouse in an experiment designed to understand animal behavior by once fashional behavioral scientists. And we have a view from above - the mouse and the cheese differently located in the maze. We will have noticed if the mouse smells cheese and keeps taking the wrong turns, then it will have gotten frustrated, smelling the cheese and yet never reaching it. But if it is intelligent, it will search for alternative paths or makes alternative turns or may perhaps pause or try new things. One of those tries will lead the mouse to cheese, and BINGO!

Most certainly, this metaphor is rather simplistic having only three elements, namely the mouse, the cheese and the maze. To belabor the obvious, society and attempts to change it are incomparably more complex, difficult and intergenerational, as it were. The Burmese are known for their strength and ingenuity. (Perhaps this applies to all peoples in need, with equal force).

For no society sandwiched between two of the most influential civilizations in history, namely China and India, could have survived - and at times even thrived without having had some considerable internal strength as a people. It was no small feat that we remain a sovereign country without being swallowed by one orthe other.

Nor was it possible for the Burmese to have been able to develop their distinctly Burmeseness, being influenced by both civilizations, without some degree of ingenuity and creativity.

Five decades of radical power-grabbing attempts by different groups in our country have not produced desired outcome. That's an under-statement. In fact, all have been spectactular failures!

We keep on pointing fingers at the 'colonialist' or 'neo-colonialist' Capitalist West, Communist China, or "opportunistic" Thailand or some other outsiders for our own failures. Or we can keep playing the domestic blame game at which we all have become expert at. At the end of the day, fingers, however, are pointing at all of us, within and without Burma.

It's about time we should look around and reflect, in a brutally honest fashion, why others succeeded where we have failed spectacularly. Putting on hold, momentarily, feelings of all-round inadequacies and bruises, mutual animosities and prejudices, and unarguably failed revolutionary attempts of the past 50 years, it might be worth our while to examine a diverse sample ofsocieties that have moved on to finer and better things such as post-conflict reconstruction or successful transformation of internal conflicts.

What worked under Gandhi's "spiritual revoluton" in India five decades ago may not work - and has not worked - in contemporary Burma/Myanmar. What was crucial for the successes of the Czec playright Havel's Velvet Revolution, ANC military leaderMandela anti-apartheid, Aquino's "people's power", Walesa's Solidarity may not be that pertinent or strategically applicable in our case. For each social change process has its own specific circumstances and dimensions.
Each generation stands on the shoulders of previous generations.

And it's about time we look around for ideas and explore new paradigms for change, if we are to avoid "the frustrated mouse" syndrome. No one wants to root for - or side with a loosing team or loosers. The priceof loosing in revolutionary affairs is no trivial matter. Successful revolutions - Rose, Velvet, Tulip and what have you - usher in a new era of change and bring the winners to power.

Failed revolutions keep our colleagues behind bars for ever and ever, or so it seems, while they invite more waves of repression. There's got to be better ways to 'make revolutions'. And we still have a longway to go, if we think about the task to "transform a failed state into awell-performing democracy." As a multi-ethnic country, we Burmese of all stripes and colors would do well if we remember the words of someone who succeeded in where we fail:"A free democratic state is about far more than elections or personalities."


Five core principles for the world's reformers

By Mikheil Saakashvili,

The Financial TimesPublished: May 26 2005 03:00 Last updated: May 26 2005 03:00

Dramatic changes are sweeping across the area that was once the Soviet Union. It is clear that, after the revolutionary changes in Tbilisi, Kiev and Bishkek, the old status quo is gone forever. Kleptocratic ways of governing are obsolete, autocratic rulers cannot ignore popular moods and people are uniting to demand freedom.

Today marks Georgia's Independence Day and 18 months after the Rose Revolution we have learnt some important truths: first and foremost that it is much easier to make a revolution than it is to transform a failed state into awell-performing democracy. We inherited a dysfunctional state administration.

An immediate donation ofseveral million dollars by the United Nations Development Programme made a critical difference. We dramatically increased the salaries of 200 tax collectors and a select group of anti-corruption investigators, leading tosignificantly increased tax collection. We quadrupled our budget and now pay every civil servant a decent salary.

Having despaired after many months of attempts at reforming our thoroughly corrupt police, we decided to fire all 15,000 officers and recruit an entirely new force. We equipped the reformed service like any other modern European police force and increased salaries 10-fold. This surgery resulted in a quick and complete recovery of Georgia's law enforcement capacity.

The new police force has a 95 per cent approval rating and Georgians now see the police as protectors rather than predators.

We undertook significant reforms in other sectors. We are currently in the process of abolishing most licence and permit requirements to empower investors and entrepreneurs. We defied International Monetary Fund advice and dramatically lowered our tax rates. But we achieved our goal: overall taxrevenues increased.

My fellow reformers and I learnt from our own mistakes when we tried to reform the failed government of Eduard Shevardnadze from the inside.

We also learnt from the mistakes and successes of eastern European reformers - from Poland to Estonia to Serbia. Economic "shock therapy" works and is indeed the only way to move from acriminal economy to a market economy.

Dwelling on the injustices of Soviet brutality is not a substitute for membership of Nato and the European Union. Tragically, the greatest threat to a young democracy comes not from external enemies but from the crime and corruption that flourished under decades ofcommunist occupation.

There are core principles that all reformers - present and aspiring - should heed.

First, the window of opportunity for democratic reform is very narrow andwill not stay open indefinitely. Every reformer should know that the race for the future is won by the swift. Something that was easily possible immediately after a revolution becomes much harder after just a few months, even with a legislative majority and broad popular support.

Second, reform has to be comprehensive. One cannot reform parts of the statestructure and retain the old order in others. Reforming the economy without addressing law enforcement will result in failure. Reform must be a continuous process uninterrupted by pauses. This approach needs a vision of a country'sdestination and a systematic plan to get there.

Third, the people are the best ally of the reformers. In principle, there should not be such a thing as unpopular reform; rather there are reformers who often fail to explain their programmes and to link them to the long-term publicinterest. Reformers will have little chance to succeed if they alienate keyconstituencies. Public debate over reforms is thus central to their success. The more open a society and the more transparent a government, the greater thechances for ultimate success.

Fourth, reformers must build free institutions that will endure long beyond their term in office. A free democratic state is about far more than electionsor personalities. It is about building the institutional foundations that preserve individual and economic freedom, sustain the rule of law and protectall elements of society.

Finally, reformers should not count on keeping society permanently happy. They should accept that, sooner or later, their constituents will be disappointed with them and they will be voted out of office. Reformers must seek long-term change, not short-term political gratification. It is not the eternal gratitude of society to which we aspire but lasting results. The ultimate prize for every reformer is the transformed society they leave behind.

The writer is president of Georgia

Freedom of Speech, Press and Publication and the Closing of "the Burmese Mind"

Quote of the Day:

Closed-mindedness of the generals in powr, perceived or real, cannot be fought and won by equally closed minds.

- from Freedom of Speech, Press and Publication and the Closing of "the Burmese Mind"

Freedom of Speech, Press, and Publication and the Closing of "the Burmese Mind"
Free Burma Coalition

Freedom of speech or publication, while admittedly non-existent among our fellow citizens back home under the current system of governance, is a pillar of any democracy, to stress the obvious.

But it exists for those of us privileged enough to check our emails, undeteredand uninterupted. At least, we should develop healthy respect and tolerance ofdiverse views and ideas, using the Internet as a space where we whohave this privilege use it wisely, rather than in ways vicious, nasty and self-destructive.

We air our views, popular or unpopular, controversial or consensual. Some amongst us, including our international friends and supporters, argue, unconvingly, that we must refrain from making public any and all critical self-examination of the pro-democracy efforts and actions against the sole empirical yardstick, specifically concrete improvement of the well-being of our fellow citizens back home in Burma/Myanmar.

After all, all pro-democracy Burmese - from NLD leadership down to us, pro-change foot soldiers around the world - have been waging this up-hill fight in order to bring about change in Burma. And it is being done specifically in the name of ordinary people. Legitimacy of this work, this campaign, the current opposition leadership, is all based solely on the 'people' of Burma. In other words, we stand on their backs. It is legitimate to ask by ourline of advocacy and campaigns, are we breaking their backs, instead of strengthening it?

It is therefore only logical that we measure our work against how ourcheer-leading and campaigning on-line improves the life of our ordinary people. And, conversely how successful are we in pressuring the generals in power to simply sit down and work with the election-winning NLD leadership, as well as non-Burman ethnic peoples?

Measuring whether we have succeeded on either count is no ideological matter; nor is it a matter of who is pro and against change. The evidence is there for those who use their reason and intellect to assess what our collective efforts have accomplished and how our common progress chart or graph would look like -from 1948 on, if you are a Communist or sympathizer; from 1949 on, if you wer eoriginally a Karen secessionist; from 1962, if you are a left-over from July 7 Unrest on Rangoon University campus; from 1970s, if you are a part of PM U Nu's spectacularly failed armed revolution; and the list goes on.

It's not that there are no changes in our country. Change is constant in life and thus in history. It is taking place in Burma/Myanmar. We may not like how, in what direction or under which leadership it is heading.

For instance, the NLD is withering, and the leadership has refused to recognize this and has lashed out against anyone and everyone who wisphers this truth in their ears, let alone people like Aung Zaw or myself who have gone on air to say such unpleasant things as, well, the NLD's policy and leadership failures to deliver.

Major taboos in and about this "movement" are indeed being broken.

Ko Aung Zaw's latest Irrawaddy on-line commentary - "Regrets - the Residue of the 1990Election" - is a case in point where he captured the quiet, but majority sentiment widely shared amongst the Burmese, both within and without Burma: that neither NLD nor SPDC offers any hope and that despite our pride on the fact that our beloved Bogyoke Aung San's daughter won the Nobel Peace prize we have in fact been let down by her inability to lead this fight in any practicable, strategic or pragmatic way.

There are those among us, the Burmese emigres and exiles, as well as well-meaning foreign supporters of democratic change in Burma/Myanmar who find it intolerable that some of us dare break these long-observed taboos about our campaigners or activists many of whom we ourselves supported, followed, recruited, groomed, manufactured or elevated to where they are today.

For these individuals, the unpreparedness to stare at our own camp's unpleasant truths, as the dismal situation demands, is born either out of what they perceive, wrongly, as a strategic need to continue rallying behind the symbolic, notpratical or strategic, leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her octagenarian advisors or the 'Uncles'.

The demand for unconditional loyalty and support is an undemocratic attitude. And many, if not all, of us have become accustomed to it, to the detriment of any efforts to push for change in our country.

I think my-leader-right-or-wrong, my-country-right-or-wrong attitude is completely self-destructive, myopic and short-sighted, uncharacteristic of any people or community that aspires - or more accurately fancy - to self-governance, that is, 'government of, for and by the people'.

This is an attitude born out of ignorance of history, which offers numerous examples of how populous leaders and populous campaigns destroyed themselves and thus eventually ended up undermining the very missions they set out to accomplish. Hitler was democratically elected - however flawed his elections may have been; Japanese militarism had popular roots, and ended with two atomic mushrooms on Hiroshima and Nakasaki. The populous French Revolution of 1789 ended up creating a situation wherein Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself as Emperor and went on to restore an extremely powerful monarchy, himself having eventually ended up a prisoner of war on a small St. Helena Island.

Be that as it may, out of this mental calculation or emotional need for unadulterated loyalty develops intolerance toward any and all views that challenge the NLD policy of isolating the country - or any orthodox views. Last year two of my Karen National Union (KNU) colleagues - Naw May Oo and Saw Kapi - got expelled because they have the intellect to see that the KNU old guards have failed spectacularly in their 50-year old revolution and, equally important, because they have the guts and integrity to speak truth to power.

There are those of us who have built on-line and real-time networks internationally, established organizations and helped popularized and galvanized grassroots and media support for our mission for change back home. After 16 years of our involvement, our political views have matured. We no longer believe in seeing Burma in simplistic Orwellian fashion of 'two-legs-bad' and'four-legs-good.'

Burma is a country gone wrong. Now we are a movement thathas gone wrong. And two wrongs don't make one right. As long as orthodoxy and intolerance are two supreme values of leading Burmese dissidents and their sheepish followers and supporters, the road ahead is grim, dark, nasty and vicious.

Irrawaddy Editor Aung Zaw argues that neither SPDC nor NLD is good for Burma.
One may disagree.

But it is his right as a citizen of Burma, a professional journalist, and an accomplished dissident in exile, to express his views and analyses - however unpopular those views may be among the orthodox followers and supporters of theNLD or ethnic resistance groups.

By the same token, we should recognize the freedom of speech and publication which Thant Lwin Htun as Head of Voice of America Burmese Service exercises inbroadcasting, say, his more nuanced understanding of the allegations ofreligious persecutions by the SPDC based on the evidence which he has gathered as a long-time professional journalist.

Both are proven and accomplished Burmese whose political involvement was rootedin the 1988 uprisings. No sinister motives should be assigned. They say what they see, and if anyone disagrees with their views, they should debate or challenge their views, insteading of resorting to despicable below-the-belt invectives.

From inside looking out, this whole thing - the wave of social and political revolt which originated in 1987/88 and which many cling on to as 'freedom movement' - has been turning on itself, shredding its own rank and file on the path of self-destruction.

Many able and strategically placed Burmese, both within and without Burma, stay away from this nasty political business. They would not touch many of the exiles with a long pole who have in fact become fanatics, without a clear strategy, a vision or political competence.

There will always be extremists in any camp. It is a given in any political and social movements. As such, they have closed off their minds.

But that doesn't mean the majority of Burmese within and without Burma are incable of keeping their mind open. Closed-mindedness of the generals in powr, perceived or real, cannot be fought and won by equally closed minds.