Myint Shwe took a journalism program from Ryerson University 2004

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Is Aung San Suu Kyi Era Winding Down?


photo credit - AWJ


BURMA : IS AUNG SAN SUU KYI ERA WINDING DOWN


October 10, 2010
Site - Yayway Cemetery crematorium in the outskirt of Rangoon

From funeral to funeral, these old men and a few dozen of their fans gather not only to farewell their passed away comrades but also to see how many of them, who are openly defiant to the military regime, remain.

Funerals and the following week’s merit-making meals for monks and guests at the homes of the deceased are relatively safe moments for the members of the National League for Democracy which is now banned by Burma’s ruling junta government, the State Peace and Development Council.

The latest NLD senior and an Aung Suu Kyi protégé who went to grave was Thakin Ohn Myint (92). He died on September 17, of natural causes. Earlier on in May, another old man and mentor of Suu Kyi, Thakin Soe Myint (87), died and was cremated at the same cemetery.

Always among those who make farewells to the departed ones are the still living octogenarian Tin Oo (83) and Win Tin (82), the NLD’s most uncompromising hardliners. Released from jails or long confinements lately, the two also have been seeing doctors or visiting to hospitals, in Yangon and Singapore.

Tin Oo and Win Tin are the most outspoken in the twelve-member CEC which originally was twenty, including Suu Kyi. Last month Tin Oo lodged a complaint to European Commission concerning a roundtable in Berlin on Burma’s election to which Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) has invited some Burmese ex political prisoners whom NLD considered as junta’s political brokers. Win Tin has written scathing articles against the Burmese election in the Washington Post and New York Times.

The NLD has paid a steep price for boycotting the junta staged November election, the termination of its status as a political party by the election law. Dozens of party members are still in jails serving long prison terms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the daughter of Burma’s immortalized national hero Aung San, is about to complete the last round of her confinements which began in 2003, hoped to be released a week after the polls in November.

During Burma’s uprisings of 1988 she had addressed to half a million admirers on the middle terrace of Rangoon’s most revered shrine, the Shwedagon Pagoda. In 1991, she was knighted with Nobel Prize for Peace, followed by some forty international prizes and monetary awards and became the world’s most luminous democracy icon.

On its heydays following the 1990 election victory, NLD counted its memberships almost in seven digits.

However, once the giant which was only one step to state power, the NLD has long been the shell of its former self. Last month, even this shell has being attempted to dismantle by the military government.

The NLD’s troubled relation with the ruling military government began since its birth, was partly due to the highly visible patronage of Western powers to it.

Its endorsement on Western economic sanctions are widely seen as unwise by many including Asian neighbors.

The NLD was founded on the idolized personality of Aung San Suu Kyi. The party did not grow much from its birth but mainly existed as ‘an Opposition party for opposing sake’, short of proving itself alternative to the existing regime in facing the root problems of the country such as economic backwardness and the ethnic civil war.

During the years of Suu Kyi’s absence due to repeated house arrests that count 15 in total, the only real movement the NLD could made is the “Free Aung San Suu Kyi” campaign.

The situation has eventually given ground for the emergence of the so-called, “Third Forces,” who claim they are not pro military but seek a working relation with the power that be.

The NLD’s political strength solely rested on the victory of the 1990 election. But, in military’s view, ‘the 1990’ seemed to be a false start in attempting a political transition which is safe for its abdicating elite at that time. The next twenty years was the time the junta forced its way constructing such a safe exit by way of a new Constitution and the second election, together named, “Roadmap to Democracy.”

The NLD has rejected it all along and demanded a dialogue in order to negotiate for what each side wanted. NLD’s objective seemed to be aiming at political power for itself and impunity for the regime elite at the end of a successful dialogue.

The NLD’s political pressures applied upon the regime were mainly outsourced. Washington and London are the major fountains of external supports. Domestically the NLD was unable to take advantage of spontaneous outbreaks such as the 2007 monks’ revolution reflective of sudden gas price soar, a rare occurrence in size since 1988.

After the withdrawal of its representatives formerly sent to junta’s constitution making National Convention in 1995, there was no more working relation between itself and the ruling junta. The two sides exchange messages only through the media. The junta uses the state controlled media whereas the NLD uses the exile media.

During her long absences the old men (the party CEC) acted but only as custodians of the party, admittedly preserving it for her to lead it again when she is free. They had resisted the grassroots’ calls for party conferences, and refrained from making political decisions and steps by themselves.

This had cost the NLD a series of revolutions within the revolution.

First in 1995, seven NLD MPs (U Kyi Win and six others known as the ‘G7 group’), who first had been sent to junta’s constitution making National Convention, refused to obey Suu Kyi’s order to walk out of it halfway. Later, these men, in jointly with some outsiders, formed a party of their own and prepared to contest in the coming election.

Then there arose an anti sanction group in upcountry (in Mandalay Division) calling themselves, “Wun Thar Nu NLD” (Patriotic NLD), first as a breakaway group now a political party which also sent candidates to the November 7 election. An eloquent woman, Daw Nan Shwe Kyar, led the WNLD.

Finally and of late, nineteen prominent NLD members, many of them CECs or long term political prisoners who had disagreed party’s decision to boycott the November election, formed a new party called, “National Democratic Forces” under the leadership of one U Khin Maung Swe, a former Suu Kyi admirer and MP who had lived in prison for 17 years.

The NDF is by far the largest NLD splinter in size which sends 163 candidates to the coming election. After the declassification of NLD as a political party, many former NLD grassroots silently helped the NDF out of their nostalgic feelings. Gradually, NDF may be viewed as NLD’s successor, free from personality cult and more flexible with times and situations. At the moment its mere existence contributes to NLD’s demise inadvertently.

Regime repression, personality cult, policy (sanctions), dissent and breakaways, supporter-fatigue: all contribute to NLD’s attrition.

The parasitic exiled Burmese opposition also forms a part of the problem. It works best in distorting the issue with opportunistic misinformation. The ‘Burma Policy’ establishments in the West are at their mercy. Foreign stuntmen, from James Mawdsley down to William Yeattew, get involved unwarrantedly making the case worse off for the Opposition, particularly for Suu Kyi.

It took Washington two decades after ASEAN to accept that ‘engagement’ is the only feasible way with regard to Burma.

In November last year the US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, for the first time by a high US government official since Madeleine Albright’s visit in 1995, went to the new Burmese capital, Nay Pyi Daw, to get engaged directly with Burma’s Than Shwe.

But Campbell came home empty handed. The good start made earlier in August by Sen. Jim Webb and the following hope for a thaw dashed quickly. Campbell has failed to soften the stands of both Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta, though he did not elaborate the details publicly. Calls for the “UN inquiry Commission on Myanmar”, defeated in the UNSC by Chinese and Russian vetoes in 2006 renewed again.

In New York, The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is flanked by a fourteen nation ad hoc group named, ‘Group of friends on Burma.’ They include: Australia, France, US, UK, Japan, China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Norway and Portugal.

The two significances with regard to this group are that they are committed to get involved with the case uninterruptedly, and that the group is equally divided into two halves: one group is ardent to punish the Burmese junta and the other against it, in part reflective of the post Cold War East West rivalry.

The US and UK Governments strongly voiced their disapproval of junta’s election preemptively.

As the election date approaches in, 37 political parties take over the political space the NLD has vacated. Out of them, 35 parties are from what is collectively known as, “Third Forces” who will put up about 500 candidates to the contest.

Truly, junta’s election needs a lot to be desired but Third Forces parties took it as an opening. They expect the post election periods to be much livelier with new rules of the game.

While waiting for their supreme leader’s release, the NLD insists it is intact. It wages a covert campaign against the November election telling those they can reach not to vote on November 7.

But two years ago, in 2008, people went to the polling stations to vote in the referendum made upon the new constitution despite the same dissuasion by NLD, then with a legal status.

"So far we have no plan in advance for her release date. We will do and follow whatever she asks for. We are waiting for that day," said U Nyan Win, her lawyer who has the sole access to her in custody (AFP). His utterance is typical of the octogenarian spent force.

Of late he is, on her behalf, trying to sue the junta in court for cancelling NLD’s political status.

The post 1988 generations know Aung San Suu Kyi but only the name. About three million of them are in neighboring countries: Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, working as underpaid migrant workers. Punitive sanctions cost them employments opportunities at home. Economic hardships have driven them to be more apathetic to politics and politicians than the previous generations.

The repeated house arrests and the inertia of the NLD during her absences from public eyes also made them know Suu Kyi more of a legend than a corporeal politician.

When she regains freedom, Suu Kyi (66) will have to face many new faces in the newly born (civil/military) hybrid government. Some may even be her long time subordinates of the past.

She may pose a political white elephant to the new players.

Three top NDF leaders, U Khin Maung Swe, Dr. Than Nyein and U Thein Nyunt, have strongly expressed personal respects for their former leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to the author lately in Rangoon. They look forward to working with her positively in the post election era’s new political setting.

Would she embrace the Third forces or, refuse to recognize them of their legitimacy in politics, if not in their power sharing with the military, whose political life is given by the new election she has rejected?

Circles in Rangoon (Burma’s former capital and economic engine) wish there should be a visible amount of changes within the continuity of military dominance. As front men of the new political setup, elected civilians should have some leverage and play a buffer between the military and its political adversaries, both the majority Burmese and the non Burmese minorities.

Can Aung San Suu Kyi be able to use them as catalysts for further positive changes?

If she can, the NLD’s comeback could be just a collateral gain.

Aung San Suu Kyi owns a chapter in contemporary Burmese history. The mere existence of her as an antagonist constitutes a whip prodding the ruling regime to move on. As long as the military rule exists, her relevancy in the national politics cannot be eradicated.

However, in twenty years she hardly had achieved a substantial gain over the military regime. Her persistent call for a direct talk was totally ignored.

The junta had used time as weapon to erode the base of her politics - the 1990 election victory. As the country keeps moving further away from the tumultuous 1988, time has turned her image from the ‘national leader’ to just ‘leader of a political party’.

On the other hand, despite international outcries Burma’s second election is now a fait accompli. The Obama Administration’s policy shift - from isolating to engagement with Burma - indicates that pragmatism has arrived. In fact the European Union is ahead of the US in this respect. It means despite their disapproval of the election after NLD’s boycott, Western governments are much likely to continue to get engaged with whomever the power incumbent that is in Burma in the post election era.

As she would continue to need their support Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to become but only a component in their two-prong policy, subject to fine tunings ceasing the up-to-now unquestioned supports.

To predict the winding down of the Aung San Suu Kyi era in Burma would be premature at the moment. She still has one more game to play. The election will conclude the “Twenty year-Two player” saga so far being played out. The post election era will demand much more flexibility and caliber as added new players (minorities included) coming up on the stage along with the military.

Until then, if people go to polling booths on Election Day despite her behest to shun, it may be that the rising curve of the politics of the charismatic and dominating personality of Burma’s democracy icon has passed its apex.

Myint Shwe

The writer is a former political prisoner in Burma, now based in Toronto. He is a York University alumnus, MA (Political Science, 2001)

Related story in The Australian

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