Myint Shwe took a journalism program from Ryerson University 2004


Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Myint Shwe
Burma election opens Pandora's box (also in Asean Affairs)

If war is the continuation of politics by other mean, as said by von Clausewitz, Burma stands a good candidate after an internationally condemned election.

“Civil war will resume after it”, writes a friend of mine in the GTalk chat box the night before election. His fear is shared by many in Rangoon, including politicians who stood in the election.

Pessimisms may or may not be proved ultimately but life after the election will not be the same as before for this Southeast Asian nation where a plethora of problems have been kept pending until this election is over.

Burma possesses many characteristics of a failed state. One highly visible manifestation is the existence of numerous rival ethnic minority armies vis-à-vis the central government manned by majority Bamars or Burmese. The new Constitution of 2008 should have been the solution for the core problems of the country. Rather, it has become part of the problem. 

Talks about revising the new constitution among Burmese politicians were common even before the draft was put to the referendum.

Accordingly Burma watchers worldwide viewed the election more as the beginning of the next round of mess than the end of the military era.

The constitution has a phrase which says, ‘Tatmadaw (military) share a leading role in national politics,’ which means it can intervene in civilian affairs but not vice versa. 

The nation’s new Assembly will accept two kinds of legislators. The civilian half (three quarters of the total seats) is elected. The military half (one quarter of seats) are officers to be sent directly by the Defense Chief of Staff who holds the status of Vice President ex officio. Also he will choose his successor.

It is highly likely that the regime nurtured Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which has won most of the seats, will ally with the military sent representatives, dominate the legislature and push its candidate to Presidency.

Technically the President is to be chosen by voting in the Assembly out of three candidates who can be anyone, each proposed by three contingents of the assembly: the popular, the ethnic and the military. Though he is not to be chosen directly by popular votes yet the President is the real top executive with power configurations mimicking that of the U.S president. He can invite any individual, elected or non-elected, to form the cabinet.

There is no candidate of U Thant or Aung San Suu Kyi’s stature available from among civilians to represent Burma on the international stage. Half a century of military dictatorship had cut the potentiality of acorns becoming oaks. The woman who is the darling of the West is disqualified by the Constitution.

Western democracies will be reluctant to roll out red carpet for a Burmese President who is an ex-junta member and produced by an election they have rejected. Andrew Heyn, the British Ambassador to Burma, said the new government will be just ‘old wine in the new bottle.’

Thus to elect a President acceptable to all segments of the country especially non Burmese minorities could be the first problem of the immediate post election months. There are a few new generation military officers who are modern educated and more liberal minded. But nobody can read the mind of the notoriously unpredictable junta supremo, Than Shwe. It remains to be seen whether he can find a Burmese equivalent of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Thanks to mammoth FDI from neighbors – China, Thailand, Singapore - the economy at macro level is starting a takeoff. But life of the common people remains bleak. Not much of the ‘trickled down effect’ is seen yet. ‘Rangoon looks like one big slum,’ remarked a Malaysian businessman who has recently visited it.

Oppressive laws, absolute poverty, mass unemployment, polarized rich poor gap, government corruptions, lack of opportunity and decaying public morality are inflicting the population. Problems which had brought down the Socialist government in 1988 are still reigning.

Lifting of economic sanctions could be linked to the re-accommodation of pro Western elements back into mainstream politics, most importantly Suu Kyi who is expected to be released next week. However, in final analysis, all these issues look matters of secondary importance when compared to what all the Burmese refer as, ‘national reconciliation.’

The long civil war remains to be concluded once and for all. Between 1989 and 1995, the Government signed ceasefire deals with fifteen ethnic rebel groups. Among the largest are the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kachin Independence Organization, KIO. The UWSA is believed to have 20000 under arms whereas Kachins have 4000. Ceasefire groups are allowed to keep their arms, parts of their territory and commercial interests. However, the civil war has been - to quote a Swedish journalist who is close to them, only frozen. Since the Border Guard Force project begun to incorporate them into the national defence system many have gone back to belligerency.

In fact Burma’s pacification constitutes more than a domestic problem. The two largest of ceasefire groups, the UWSA and the KIO, are cooperating with Naga rebels of Northeastern India for a long time. According to Indian sources, China’s decommissioned models of AK 47 and M15 assault rifles are reproduced and shipped to India’s Northeast through Burma’s rebel territories. Naga guerrillas have dozens of base camps on the Burmese side of the border occasionally taking military trainings from Kachins. The USWA plants are producing weapons for sales, hiring retired Chinese army technicians with blueprints discarded by the PLA. The ceasefire groups refuse the Government missions to enter their territory for investigations. Production of small arms as well as narcotics in the rebel territories are long well known to DEA as well as Chinese, Indian and Thai governments.

Some independent Indian researchers even claimed that arm dealers have a clearing house in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and weapons are supplied to Islamic terrorists farther west. Successive Indian Governments are coordinating with the Burmese Government at least to curb it but without much success due to the deadlock faced by the latter.

Lately, the junta Government has evacuated civil servants, schools teachers and healthcare staffs from rebel controlled areas. News about Government’s increasing air capability and ground movements as well as fresh recruitments on the rebel side have caused locals to be alarmed. However, preparations for war so far remain as maneuvers. Both sides seem to be calculating the overall costs of war, economic as well as political.

“As long as the Government troops do not start the shooting, there won’t be war. We do not want it happen, not at all,” says Col. James Landau, a senior official at KIO foreign office in Bangkok. This can be the same with the UWSA.

Many believe the junta is just waiting for the arrival of new government to seek a mandate to eliminate the armed defiance with full force. This is a plausible concern. But if it is to happen, it should happen only after another effort to solve it politically is exhausted. Given that two thirds of the parties that stood in the election are ethnically formed and no less than a third of national level seats (200-250) are expected to be won by them, the new legislature should be the most legitimate place to decide the matter. The Shan National Democratic Party (SNDP) from Shan State which envelopes the Wa autonomous region is poised to win fairly and be influential on minority affairs.

Then, if prayers are answered, Aung San Suu Kyi is coming out on Saturday, at a time when people are still excited by the regime’s controlled mobilization for election purpose. But mild excitements may grow bigger as stories of vote riggings by the regime’s own child, the USDP, keep coming in.

On the other hand, increased freedoms and tolerance on the side of the regime will be taken for granted by the general public under a perception that they deserve such decency now. The people have responded to the election quite positively despites Suu Kyi’s urge to boycott it. Voter turnout has been 60% in Rangoon where anti regime sentiments are traditionally strongest.

The new public mood also coincides with Suu Kyi’s release date which can complicate the fluid situation farther. The regime has brought in a previously marginalized political force, i.e., the ‘Third Forces’ parties that stood in the election. Many of them felt the regime has bought them up too cheaply. At balance, it amounts to adding up one more political element to contain besides Suu Kyi and ethnic minorities. If Suu Kyi can soften her stance and work with given situation, the shape and trend of new power relations, the new dynamics, is anyone’s guess.

The 90 days before the first session of the legislature begins would be critically important. The election in theory is the first step of controlled liberalization. Even if the whole of junta’s political transition process namely, Roadmap to Democracy is nothing but continued selling of ‘the old wine in the new bottle’ as critics accused, the new bottle should be, at least, more attractive.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nobody can stop Burma, why?


Burma Herald    

November 01, 2010

Nobody can stop Burma, why?

Amid domestic and international rejections, Burma’s military regime is going to hold an election on Sunday.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Opposition leader and Noble winner is in custody. Her years of incarceration count 15 in total, still continuing. Students and minority leaders are kept in prison cells all over the country serving long prison terms. Repeated universal appeals for their release went unanswered.

Drunken soldiers and officers often assault, shoot and kill lads who dare to mess-up with them. Youths are picked up from roads, market places, cinemas, on the way to school – army recruits.

Rapes of minority women by soldiers in insurgent areas are still happening. Peasants’ farms are confiscated for army cantonments, state led development projects, for crony businessmen.

Newspapers and weekly journals require approval from the censor board before stories go for print. Telephone lines are cut right in the middle of conversation by regime’s agents in the exchange. Foreign websites are shut off. Foreign journalists are banned, kicked out of country if found with tourist visas.

You cannot list the sins of the Burmese junta that goes by the name, State Peace and Development Council, in a sitting.

However, adding stories to the already voluminous junta-bashing literature wastes everybody’s precious time. It is time for the rest of the world to ask itself a hard question, a very hard one.

Hard questions usually begin with reality check.

Reality on the ground: Washington is helpless vis-à-vis the junta. Kurt Campbell, the U.S Assistant Foreign Secretary, was in Burma in May, fourteen years after Madeline Albright. No breakthrough though. Economic sanctions are ‘no more than a modest inconvenience’ to the Generals, according to him.

The UN is helpless. Creation of a Commission of Inquiry is far too distant to scare the junta, especially after

ASEAN, a small regional bloc, needs Burma more than it needs them in return in the ultimate sense.  All members are birds of a feather anyway.

Even Beijing, the Asian superpower believed to hold sways, sometimes laments; “they just didn’t listen to us,” according to Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at Council of Foreign Relations.

From this reality, the hard question why Burma cannot be stopped arises.

Policy failures are due to wrong policy goals. Wrong policy goals, in turn, are shaped by wrong policy feeds. Finally, the reliance on wrong policy feeds reveals two things: policy makers’ taste and policy feeders’ self seeking opportunism. The buck stops here.

The issue has been hopelessly ailing for two decades in the hands of senile senators, Burma experts who neither speak nor read Burmese, self serving policy feeders - the highly opportunistic exile communities, and aggravated by media Orientalism.

A reassessment has to be made finding ‘who wants what’ in the issue, and how desperately.

Washington adds up Burma in its equation along with China and North Korea whereas Burma lists up sanctions and normal relations. These are hard facts, national interests that come before democracy rhetoric. The difference between levels of desperation also is to be factored in.

Andrew Silth, an Australian scholar on Burma, identified two important aspects of the new U.S policy: that Washington now accepts a long, step by step process in changing Burma; and that domestic actors, not external powers, are to be heroes who do the lifting.

He also pointed out junta’s ‘open for business’ attitude toward the West, and the new U.S Government’s direct high level engagement approach.

Indeed, one side’s positive attitude and the other’s direct engagement together constitute a good starting point.

What is necessary to accomplish Washington’s new step by step policy?  Realistic policy steps demand correct and comprehensive policy feeds not selected, distorted feeds. It is highly important for the Administration to get rid the old sources of policy feed and replace with new, alternative sources.    

Next, though with new approach and new policy feeds yet the game itself is two decades old. It cannot be started back from square one. Burmese regime survived seven U.S administrations – from Ronald Reagan down to Barak Obama. 

During these years it has done re-entrenchment steps such as stability, economy and foreign relations expansion. These cannot be undone.

Washington can only make the Burmese regime victim of its own successes, not foiling.

The election is to produce a civil-military hybrid government supposedly to replace the direct military rule. A veteran Burmese politician, U Thu Wai, construed it as the strategic, initial step of retreat of the military from politics. Some Burmese share his view. He is one of the 500 civilians known as, ‘Third Forces,’ standing in election. They are to compete with 2000 pro regime candidates for the 498 national level seats. The military will send 156 officers directly to the legislature, 25% of the grand total of 664.

Unprecedented, this civil military partnership is an experiment to all those involved.

The new constitutional makeup can shape but the form only, not the political essence. Numerical superiority in the legislature alone will not guarantee the military its projected political course. The classic ‘tyranny of majority’ cannot prevail in this day and age. 

Imagine a hypothetical situation that Aung San Suu Kyi were in the new legislature, how she could have shaped many important political decisions. Even if Third Forces can secure only 20% of the seats (100 seats) they still can create impacts. This is just a conservative estimate that fits well within Washington’s first step of the ‘step by step’ policy.

The post election months in Burma will be a very fluid, historic moment, watched by the world with wide eyes. This will be the moment high caliber individuals have a chance to take over the masses in or outside the chamber and shape the course.

New Burmese legislators may be fighting each others with fists and curses like in Indian, Taiwanese, South Korean, Russian and Ukrainian parliaments. Nevertheless, the introduction of new rules of the game will be a net gain, should be Washington’s first step.

Washington’s next step should be to drive perfecting the imperfect new constitution. One such aspect is the institution of presidency. The President should be elected by direct popular votes, which is not the case at this stage. So is the unelected military portion of the seats in the assembly. Earmark them for the second step.

Aung San Suu Kyi will be freed by then. If she wills, she can help perfect the constitution so that she can be back in the political process and prepare for the next election in 2015.

The new attitude can be shown with the resumption of normal relations appointing an ambassador, with the end of calling this country by its old colonial name ‘Burma’ and starts using its proud indigenous name, “Myanmar.”  

If Washington could self-edit its moral high ground rhetoric that irks the Generals, excellent. These steps are more important yet easier than lifting sanctions which requires a fight at home.

The new approach will be cost effective. It involves no sending of tens of thousands of troops, no wasting of billions of dollars like in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington only needs to make certain that the regime lies in the bed it has made.

Help a military regime make a regime-change done by itself - a metamorphosis. 

Enlightenment is the key word for the whole thing. Burma can stop its evils only by itself, given the arising multipolar world order.

Myint Shwe

Monday, November 1, 2010

Burma elections : Suu Kyi Contemporaries offer second choice

Burma Elections: Suu Kyi contemporaries offer second choice

Rangoon October 31
Though Burma’s powerful opposition party led by the legendary Aung San Suu Kyi boycotts the coming elections without a plan B, 29 million Burmese voters - from them she has been cut off by the junta government - are not short of second choice.

As many as 500 politicians are to compete with regime backed candidates in the coming pools. These civilian candidates refer themselves as, ‘Third Forces,’ politically independent of either camp: the junta or the opposition National League for Democracy.

As Burma’s universally denounced elections- one in twenty years - is only a week away, a few Third Force candidates are confident of their victory despite government manipulations. 

Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, daughter of Burma’s parliamentary era deputy prime minister, U Kyaw Nyein, and a contemporary of Aung San Suu Kyi, said she is confident of her win in the elections. She will stand in a constituency which is her father’s native town one hundred miles north of Rangoon.

“I am astonished with the prospects in my constituency. I am almost certain to win. U Thu Wai (chairman of her party, the Democratic Party- Myanmar) and my running mate sister Nay Yi Ba Swe are also doing well,” said Cho Cho.

Local people nicknamed the DP-M, ‘Party of Princesses’ referring the three lady candidates: Than Than Nu, Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein and Nay Yi Ba Swe, who are daughters of Burma’s parliamentary era prime-minister and deputy prime-ministers, U Nu, U Kyaw Nyein and U Ba Swe respectively.

Cho Cho is the most quoted Burmese woman politician after Aung San Suu Kyi by Western media at the moment. Since the time she announced her decision to stand in election she was frequently asked a question by many Western journalists, diplomats and dignitaries who visited Burma.

The question is, “Why would you stand in the election which Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD have boycotted?” 

The most recent foreign dignitary who asked her this question was the Norwegian Minister for Economic Development who has visited Burma in May. Before him, the team members of the US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell also raised the same question, she related. 

Three years junior to Suu Kyi, Cho Cho knew the Noble laureate well since their childhood.
“I admire Daw Suu very much but I am always an independent politician.”

In the last, 1990 elections in which the NLD had won a landslide victory, Cho Cho also had contested but on her own separate political party which is now defunct, and lost. She is a bit uncomfortable at the assumption that every politician in Burma is obligated to subscribe the policy and actions of Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD.   

Meanwhile Suu Kyi, Burma’s democracy icon is still in junta government’s custody. She, along with NLD, boycotts the election on the ground that the junta has failed to revise the undemocratic aspects of the new Constitution as demanded by the NLD. International supports to her motion failed to soften the Burmese regime though.

Burma also rejected the suggestions to monitor the election sanctity by neighboring countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and the regional organization which it is a member, the Association of South East Nations, ASEAN. It also barred foreign media. Request by the UNSG, Ban Ki Moon, to release political prisoners including Suu Kyi prior to the elections is ignored.

Civilian parties lack money and freedom to effectively compete with the regime nurtured Union Solidarity and Development Party, USDP, which boasts of having 24 million members and rumored to have unlimited state funds and facilities at its disposal. Campaign modes are also severely tamed by Home Ministry and the Election Commission.

 “We are in a ‘take it or leave it’ situation. Nobody can do ‘nothing’ about it, even Western Governments.” Cho Cho argued.
Nineteen of Suu Kyi former followers led by U Khin Maung Swe who spent 17 years in prison have formed a political party named, ‘National Democratic Forces,’ entered the elections. The NDF is by far the largest party on the civilian side of the political divide. 

Cho Cho’s DP-M, the sixth largest among 37 political parties, can send only 49 candidates to the elections.

On the other hand, Burmese are not alone with this decision. About two third of the contesting parties are ethnically formed, mainly in Burma’s seven ethnic state constituencies. Even the giant USDP and NUP have to choose their candidates from respective ethnic groups for these areas.   

Besides the media enticing aspect, Third Forces parties stand a slim chance. Most of the seats are destined for the USDP’s 1100 candidates. Behind it, National Unity Party, the formerly ruling socialist party reincarnate, follows up closely. The NUP sent about 900 candidates.

The new Constitution awards the military 25% of the seats in each of the two assemblies that will translate to 156 seats out of the total 664. Soldier legislators are suspected to be allying with hundreds of USDPs and NUPs in the legislature.

Other Third Forces election hopefuls include mostly from the NDF. The NDF enjoys the quiet supports of the ex-NLDs who are idle now. But even NDF cannot win big, according to Minn Aung Aung, an editor at one of Rangoon’s best selling weekly news journals, “Snap Shot.”

“They (NDF) might probably get half of their number.” He said.  The NDF sent 163 candidates to the election.

Being their stories require pre print approval by Government censor board, Burmese journalists’ pessimism about the election is understandable.

However Cho Cho is optimistic. She said, “even if we (Third Forces) can secure a mere ten percent of the seats, we still can create impacts in the new legislature.”

“The bottom line is; we will have new (rules of the) game; we can publicly argue with military officers face to face, standing on the same floor instead of the current ‘taking-orders’ from them above us.” She insists.

Myint Shwe

Myint Shwe is a Burmese exile based in Toronto, a York University alumnus.