Misreading Naypyidaw: Premature hopes of change in Burma
27 September 2011: There has been much commentary recently by academics, activists and other observers regarding recent changes that have taken place inside Burma. These are said to include steps taken by the regime towards democratic reform of the country’s political system, the adoption of a more conciliatory attitude towards Aung San Suu Kyi and even a stated desire to end the country’s civil war.
Some have viewed these developments quite positively. Amongst those are the foreign ministers of ASEAN who described Burma’s recent elections and release from detention of Aung San Suu Kyi as representing “sure signs that the country is heading toward a more democratic system.” This sentiment was echoed by the International Crisis Group’s in its report Myanmar: Major Reform Underway which calls on the international community to actively support the regime’s new programmes. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has given weight to these optimistic views after describing these recent events as “positive developments.”
It bears noting that many of those expressing positive views of the developments such as the Aung San Suu Kyi, the International Crisis Group or Professor David Steinberg of Georgetown University have offered their analysis replete with caveats recognising the new political system as ‘flawed’ and ‘imperfect’ but nevertheless representing a ‘positive move’ towards democratisation.
However, on closer examination of these developments (even putting aside Burma’s appalling human rights record) we see that they fail justify the optimistic view held by some analysts and observers.
This is made rather clear with the view (or for some a hope) that the recent elections represented, if not a democratisation of Burma’s political system, then at least a liberalisation opening the door to change further down the road. Marie Law, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Asia Programme who has offered such an assessment, noted that while the elections were “hardly a move towards democracy” they still represented a change that “could allow for more movement for civil society in Burma.”
The view however, fails to recognise Naypyidaw’s intended purpose of this new political system as demonstrated by the conditions placed upon parties permitted to contest the election.
Restrictions placed during the campaign on the ability to criticise the military or its policies made clear that the intended role of these parties as being subordinate to the military regime and its policies. This intention is made clear under the Political Parties Registration Law which states “A political party is defined as one which is convinced of ‘disciplined multi party democracy’ on the basis of a political ideology.” These conditions have ensured that no political party that disagrees with the political vision of the country’s military leaders is allowed to legally participate within the country’s political system.
It is clear then that Burma’s new political system is in essence more in resemblance of that of China’s, where the Communist Party is ‘supported’ by the country’s eight other legal political parties, rather than representing a move towards a true multiparty democracy. Those parties in Burma granted legal status directly resemble the other ‘legal parties’ that exist in addition to the Chinese Communist Party, in that their purpose is to co-opt and direct the energies of segments of society viewed as possible sources of dissent. While in China these are intellectuals, teachers and scientists, in Burma we see these parties largely serve to co-opt elements of the nation’s ethnic minority communities.
Despite these restrictions on its ‘opposition’ the regime further sought to ensure that its party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, would win majorities in all of the national, regional and divisional parliaments by holding these elections in what Human Rights Watch has described as “an atmosphere of intimidation, coercion, and widespread corruption, with laws and regulations strongly favouring military controlled parties.”
While the recently held elections, that have been welcomed and viewed so positively by some, recent announcements that Naypyidaw wishes to pursue one-on-one peace talks with armed opposition groups have also been interpreted as another positive sign of change by the regime.
This apparent newfound interest in ending Burma’s civil war is said to be demonstrated by the recent call by the regime through state controlled media for armed groups to contact state/division governments as a prelude to direct negotiations with Naypyidaw. Further signs are also said to include the recent announcement of a ‘Peace Committee’ by the new national parliament and statements by President Thein Sein regarding the need to end the country’s ongoing conflicts with its ethnic minorities. These have been seized upon by some such as the International Crisis Group and visiting representatives of the European Union who have viewed them, albeit with some caution, as conciliatory gestures that reflect a genuine desire for peace on the part of Thein Sein and others in the regime.
This willingness to see the message from Naypyidaw as reflecting a positive desire to engage in reconciliation with the country’s armed opposition groups is actually somewhat surprising. There is actually no evidence to suggest that the regime is pursuing anything other than its longstanding policy to encourage groups to become auxiliaries of the Burmese army in exchange for economic incentives. This policy was especially successful between 1989 and 1994 when General Khin Nyunt succeeded in negotiating over 25 ceasefires with armed groups. These and other successfully negotiated ceasefires, both with groups and even breakaway factions, allowed the regime to tear the heart out of several anti-government alliances and allowed it focus on defeating more stubborn organisations such as the Karen National Union.
This strategy fell apart when Naypyidaw demanded that ceasefire groups all come under the direct command of the Burmese Army and become ‘Border Guard Forces’. This demand led to the collapse of ceasefire agreements with the Kachin Independence Organisation, New Mon State Party and elements of Shan State Army-North and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Since the outbreak of open conflict with these groups the Burmese Army has performed poorly against them, suffering heavy casualties in the process. It is therefore more likely that these current overtures are more likely motivated by a desire to reduce the strain on the regimes armed forces as well as seeking to placate international criticism over these ongoing conflicts.
Evidence that Naypyidaw is not seeking a genuine reconciliation is found in its unwillingness to hold talks with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance that represents most of the regimes armed opposition. Although the UNFC has called for direct negotiations with the government it is clear that the regimes current strategy remains to attempt to hold negotiations with each group separately. Despite this effort, the prevailing attitude amongst the member organisations of the UNFC runs strongly against the negotiation of separate ceasefires with the regime, as recently expressed by the Secretary of the New Mon State Party, Nai Hang Thar, when he said “We will only accept group talks led by the UNFC. Otherwise, we will only waste time and energy”.
It would appear that given what is being witnessed, contrary to the hopes of the International Crisis Group and others, is the continuation of Naypyidaw’s longstanding strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ that has served the regime so well in the past. Indeed, the regimes apparent willingness to seek peace with Burma’s armed groups, much like the nations political ‘reforms’, seem more focused on convincing the international community that a change has occurred rather than any actual effort to engage with its domestic opposition.
While it would be possible to provide further examples of how recent developments in Burma fail to represent “positive developments”, and even show how some of these are recycled promises that have similarly raised hopes only to then disappoint, it is clear on the basis of the two issues discussed here that the case for optimism has been overstated.
Instead it would appear that what we are witnessing is an attempt by the regime to improve its image without surrendering power or modifying its behaviour. For this reason the international community should remain deeply sceptical of Naypyidaw’s intentions and not countenance a rewarding of anything less than genuine and verifiable steps taken towards democratisation and national reconciliation.
By Phillip van Gaalen-Prentice
The author is working on the development of a new project to study Burma’s civil war. He recently completed a Postgraduate Diploma of Arts at the University of Melbourne in addition to a Master of Counter-Terrorism Studies from Monash University.
 The UNFC is made up of the Kachin Independence Organization, Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, Chin National Front, New Mon State Party, Shan State Progress Party, Pa-O National Liberation Organization, Palaung State Liberation Front, Arakan National Council, Lahu Democratic Union, Wa National Organization and Kachin National Organization.