April 13, 2021

Negotiated Settlement Is The Best Means To Solve Political Crisis In Burma

17 May, 2009 [CG Note: While the whole world is helplessly watching the latest episode between the military dictatorship and pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, the Chinland Guardian interviews one of Burma’s top opposition leaders

Dr. Lian H. Sakhong regarding the latest incident, the upcoming 2010 election scenerio, the effects of UN, US, EU policy towards Burma and more . Dr. Sakhong is winner of 2007 Martin Luther King Peace Prize and is vice president of Ethnic Nationalities Council of Union of Burma…]


Chinland Guardian:The SPDC shocked the world once again by transferring Aung San Suu Kyi from her house arrest to Insein Prison to “face charges”. It seems justice has been badly humiliated under the watchful eyes of the world’s civilized community and it surely is disheartening for those who advocate for democracy and human rights in Burma.


Dr. Lian H. Sakhong: Yes, this really is disheartening! Things keep going bad to worse in our country. As you said, the whole justice system has been humiliated in Burma since the military dictators first came to power in 1962. The latest episode is just a reminder of the true nature of current military regime, the SPDC. By transferring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Insein Prison, they openly declare that under this regime, there is “no law at all, but the use of force”, as General Saw Maung once admitted.


The intention of the military regime, of course, is clear: they want to extend Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s thirteen years house arrest, which is set to end on 27 May. But the bizarre coincidence is that the regime founded the intrusion of an American man who sneaked into her compound as a scapegoat. And now, she is transferred to the most notorious Insein Prison, and going to face a mockery trail. If she is convicted, she can face up to an additional seven years of incarceration.


We should not forget the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not alone. She will be joining another 2,000 political prisoners in Insein Prison, who committed no sin but wanted to live a peaceful life and enjoy freedom. What Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all these political prisoners in Burma are sacrificing for is nothing but freedom.


And, we have to remind ourselves that freedom transcends all the boundaries of nations, race, ethnicities, religions, and cultures. If we see freedom as a transcendental phenomenon, we then realize that what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi fighting for is not only for Burma but for the entire humanity. So, I would like to request to international community: who loves freedom, who stands for freedom, and who lives in the free world; please try to identify yourselves this time ―just this moment― with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and do something to free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.


For those of us who are fighting for freedom in Burma , Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not just our leader; she is our icon for democracy and the symbol of freedom struggle. So, when she is sitting in prison, or under house arrest, we felt that part of our life is imprisoned. What I am trying to say is that to free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for us is identical with to free ourselves and to free our country.


Chinland Guardian: The SPDC is determined to go ahead with their election plan in 2010. What is the ENC’s Stance in that regard?


Dr. Lian H. Sakhong: The ENC issued a statement in August 2008, saying that, “the SPDC’s Seven Step Road Map, including the 2008 military’s constitution and 2010 general elections, will not bring peace and democracy to the country”. Our reason is quite simple: if you look back at the way they conducted the “national convention”, the whole process was totally unacceptable. It was not inclusive: they even excluded the winners of the 1990 elections. The delegates were merely hand-picked by the SPDC: so where is the legitimacy of “national convention”.


The term “national convention” is very important. Since the term itself reflects the very nature of the entire nation and the people, the “national convention” should be the place where the people, with whom sovereign power of state actually belongs, can freely discuss and decide their own future: what kind of political system they want to establish and what kind of constitutional system they want to adopt. So, the delegations at the national convention must genuinely represent the people. They should not be chosen by one group or one person.


What I am trying to say here is that the process of the regime’s seven step road map, especially the way they conducted the national convention, is not only flawed but missing its legitimacy ― the most essential element of conducting a national convention. For this simple reason, we cannot accept it.


Secondly, if you look at the “substance”, I means, the result of the national convention: this is not just flawed but dangerous for the future of the Union of Burma, especially for ethnic nationalities. This is dangerous because the military’s constitution concentrates power in the hands of the president and the army chief. So, what will happen under this constitution is that Burma will becomes a country where the Army own the State, not the other way round: because the Army will stay above the law, and they will control the entire country.


Actually, this process began in 1962 but the difference this time is that the Army will legally own the State in accordance with the highest law of the land. Since the constitution allows the Army to stay above the law, people cannot expect the rule of law, and there will be no independent judiciary. The whole judicial system, including the courts, will simply be a mockery.


And there is no decentralization of administrative powers in this constitution, which is very dangerous for ethnic nationalities. The danger is not only centralization of powers but a unitary form of nation-building process. The combination of centralization and a unitary form of nation-building process, which blended in the model of “one language, one ethnicity, and one religion”, is designing for forced-assimilation by imposing the language of Myanmar-ska, the ethnicity of Myanmar-lumyo, and the religion of Buddhism, in order to build a homogenous Myanmar-naingngain, and fulfil the dream of “Buddha-bata Myanmar-lumyo”, which means., “to be a Myanmar is to be a Buddhist”. For us, nation-building process through the model of “one language, one religion and one ethnicity” is nothing but ethno-cultural genocide which we cannot accept.


But, as you said, the regime will go ahead with their own roadmap because this is the only way they can transform themselves from a de facto government to a de jure government. They will control and own the country legally according to the law that they promulgated, and thus complete a unitary form of the nation-building process. This is what they want, and this is what we oppose.


Chinland Guardian: It seems that you are still insisting on tripartite dialogue in spite of the fact that the possibilities of the talks seems very slim looking at how unfruitful the several UN Special Envoy’s missions to Burma during the past several years, including the present UN Special Envoy Mr. Gambari, have been.


Dr. Lian H. Sakhong: I sincerely think that a negotiated-settleme nt is the best means to solve political crisis in Burma . If we abandon a negotiated-settleme nt through dialogue, then the only option left for Burma will be a violent confrontation. If violent confrontations and suppression are the solution, then General Ne Win would have solved all the problems of Burma in 1962 when he came to power through a military coup and suppressed all the oppositions. But it was not the solution.


For me violent confrontation is not the solution for Burma , and fighting on battle grounds is not the end game for the ethnic nationalities. That’s why we are opting for a negotiated-settleme nt, although most ethnic nationalities are still fighting a six decade long civil war. The ethnic nationalities are holding arms only for self-defense purposes and we know that armed-struggle is not the solution. That is the reason why we endorse the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution that called for a “tripartite dialogue” with the regime, the 1990 election winning party, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic nationalities.


The essence of “tripartite dialogue”, for us, is not just three-party talks but solving three essential problems of today’s Burma . The first problem is military dictatorship, represented by the SPDC. Burma has been under military dictatorship for almost half a century, and we, ethnic nationalities, have been engaging in civil war for sixty years now. So, if we want to transform our country into a normal country; we have to solve this problem first. How are we going to transform the SPDC’s Armed Forces and ethnic fighting forces into normal civilians? We simply don’t need such a big army.


The second problem that we need to solve is democracy and democratization. The people of Burma already expressed their willingness to have a democratic government, and live their life peacefully and enjoy fundamental rights. But, after twenty long years, the military dictators are still in power while leaders of the democracy movement are either in jail or in exile, and in the case of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, she has spent 12 years of the past 18 of her life under house arrest. This is a big problem that Burma is facing, and it cannot be ignored. We must solve it, but not through a zero-sum game. We need to find a win-win solution. That’s why we are calling for a dialogue.


Thirdly, there is an ethnic problem. We, ethnic nationalities, are here in this country only because of the fact that we joined the Union of Burma as equal partners in 1947 at the Panglong Conference. We expected to enjoy autonomy in our homeland, the rights to protect and promote our culture, our language, our religion, our identity and our ways of life. And we also envisioned equal opportunities and equal rights among the member States of the Union. But what happened to us is, in the name of civil war, that successive governments of the Union of Burma have violated not only basic human rights but also our collective rights; in the name of national sovereignty the rights of autonomy for the ethnic nationalities are rejected; in the name of national integration the right to follow different religions, to practice different cultures, and to speak different languages are deprived; and in the name of national assimilation the rights to up-hold different identities and traditions are denied.


So, our conviction is that so long as Burma is under military dictatorship, so long as the peoples of Burma are demanding democracy and human rights, so long as we, ethnic nationalities, are engaging in civil war and fighting for our rights; we will still be calling for a negotiated-settleme nt no matter what kind of international situation present themselves to us. We must end this conflict, and we must find a solution. And we are opting to find the solution on a dialogue table not on the battle field. We have already sacrificed enough blood and lives. We also deserve a peaceful life, and we have to remember ― and remind ourselves all the time that our blood is not cheaper than anyone else’s.


Chinland Guardian: Some people say that the United Nations, the United States and the European Union’s approach to SPDC has had little or no impact at all in terms of the restoration of democracy and human rights in Burma. And it looks like what they are saying is true the fact remains that the number of political prisoners has been increasing so as the lengths of the sentences. What is your opinion on that?


Dr. Lian H. Sakhong: The problem seems to me is that the international community does not have a common policy towards Burma . While Western countries prioritize restoration of democracy in Burma , our neighboring countries, especially China , India and ASEAN countries, are concerned more about stability in the country and the region. So, the SPDC plays a game between the differences of the East and the West. Sometimes they are hiding behind the back of China ; sometimes they use India when they want to play games with the USA and EU, and so on.


My point here is this: so long as the international community applies different policies, the pressures from outside, including sanctions, will not be effective. That’s why we are calling for a “Multi-party Talks on Burma ” under the UN mechanism in order that the international community can adopt a common policy towards Burma . Such a process and mechanism are needed because the members of the international community who are dealing with Burma should consult each other, so that they can take concerted actions.


We are seriously concerned about the issue of “stability” because this is a matter directly related to us. Unfortunately, our neighboring countries have been buying the propaganda of the country’s military dictators since 1962. The generals are saying that if democracy comes to Burma, all ethnic nationalities will secede from the Union, and the Union will be disintegrate, and this will cause instability in the country and the region. So, what they are saying is that Burma needs a strong government with a strong army, not democracy.


We are saying that we are not separatists; what we are demanding is a Federal Union where all ethnic nationalities can live peacefully together, and enjoy autonomous status in our respective homelands. Federalism, as we all know, is not separation or independence. But there is a complication of the federal issue in Burma because the right of secession was included in 1947 Constitution. Actually, the reason for including the secession clause was nothing to do with federal principles. It was due to different historical and political backgrounds of the ethnic nationalities when they joined the Union at Panglong in 1947. For that reason, when ethnic nationalities and democratic forces together drafted the Constitution of Federal Republic of the Union of Burma [in 2006], we omitted the right of secession.


So, what we have been telling our neighboring countries is that democracy and federalism will bring peace and stability not only to Burma but also to the region, which is good for all of us.


Chinland Guardian: Many people said that former President Bush and first lady Laura championed Burma’s cause. You have visited the White House and had lunch with President Bush in Bangkok during his Asia tour. Now it is said that the Obama administration is reviewing the US policy on Burma. What kind of policy change would you like to see from the Obama administration?


Dr. Lian H. Sakhong: I agree. President Bush and the former first lady Laura Bush are among the best friends that we have had for the democracy movement in Burma . For activists like me an invitation from the White House and luncheon with the President of the United States was a great inspiration, and the impact was huge because of the media coverage. Such events sent a strong message to the generals that the democracy movement has some good friends sitting in the White House, and also gave hope and encouragement to the people of Burma that they have not been abandoned by the American people and the international community, and also that the suffering that they are enduring under this military regime is unjust but worth fighting for. So, we do greatly appreciate what the former President Bush and the First Lady Laura Bush have done for us.


I do hope that President Obama will follow the Bush Administration’s policy towards Burma , and continue the same commitment to the people of Burma . But, on the other hand, I want to see the new administration’s approach more “pragmatic” than the previous one. The Bush’s policy was based on “moral principle”, which is good but it takes time to materialize in reality. And I also want to see a more “multi-literal approach” in which the USA , EU and other western countries are closely working together with China , India , Japan , and ASEAN countries under the UN mechanism. So, I would request President Obama to organize a “Multi-Party Talks on Burma”.


The ENC has been proposing “Multi-Party Talks on Burma ” since 2007. Our proposed model is based on a combination of the “Six-Party Talks on North Korea ” and the “Quartet of International Mediators for the Middle East ” because we want the involvement of the USA , the UN, China , and the SPDC. Unless these four are involved, we cannot go forward.


I sincerely think that it is not too late to organize “Multi-Party Talks on Burma “. With the right policies, Burma can become a model democratic nation that respects the rich diversity of its peoples. With freedom, our country can also become the gateway to the world markets for both China ’s southwest and India ’s northeast, which will bring greater prosperity and stability to Burma and the region.


Chinland Guardian: Do you think the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD), especially the NLD, failed the people of Burma to restore democracy in the country in spite of your overwhelming victory during the 1990 election and their continue support?


Dr. Lian H. Sakhong: Well, you see, our movement is not just for changing the government in Rangoon , or in Naypyidaw. If our goal then, was to change the government, may be, we failed. But, I don’t see it that way. This is a long struggle: a struggle for rebuilding the Union of Burma based on the spirit of Panglong where the Union was founded in the first place.


A lot of people fail to see the nature of our movement, and they don’t really know what the root course of political crisis in Burma is. They see our struggle as a kind of saga similar to “beauty and the beast”, which makes them think that the movement has failed because the beauty is still under detention and the generals are still in power. To me, this is not just a beauty and the beast drama. Not even ideological confrontation between democracy and military dictatorship. We must try to see a wider picture. If we do, we realize that the root course of political crisis in Burma is the constitution: a constitutional crisis that is rooted in the problem of the denial of the rights of ethnic nationalities who joined the Union of Burma as equal partners in 1947 at Panglong.


Since I see the whole process as a long struggle, I do not admit that we have failed. So long as the people are with us, and as you said they are still supporting us, we are still alive and kicking. But I agree that we have to evaluate the whole thing: despite of winning election, why the junta is still in power and democracy forces and ethnic nationalities are either in jail or in exile or in the jungle. What went wrong? Who lost the 1990 election result?


There are many factors involved in losing the 1990 election result. But since your question focuses on the NLD and UNLD, let us speak about the factors related only to these two parties. I must say that the NLD won the election without any hard campaigning. People simply voted for the NLD in order to free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. In my judgement, the NLD leadership, without Aung San Suu Kyi, was not prepared to lead the country. It was obvious when the NLD convened the post-election convention in July 1990 at the Ghandi Hall in Rangoon . The expectation, of course, was high; and people expected that the NLD would form a government and come out from the convention with an agenda for transition, including a list of cabinet members and a date for convening the new Parliament, and so on.


I still remember the atmosphere of the moment: most of us felt a sense of loss when the NLD ended their convention without any agenda for transition, no cabinet list, and no specific resolution. They merely declared that they would draft a “temporary constitution” in order to take over power from the SLORC. It made many people appalled: A temporary constitution! What for? The power had already been given to them by the people.


Before the NLD’s Ghandi Hall Convention, we, the UNLD, also held our convention at the YMCA Hall in Rangoon , and demanded from the regime that power should be transferred to the election winning party without any delay. We argued that power can be transferred to the election winning party without a written constitution. I wrote an article in the UNLD’s Equality Journal and argued on the same line, giving England and Israel as an example where there is no written constitution.


After the Ghandi Hall Convention, the NLD and UNLD issued a joint-statement, known as the Bo Aung Kyaw Street Declaration, on 29 August. Before we issued the statement, we formed a Joint-Action Committee, composed of five members from each party. If I remember correctly, U Kyi Maung, U Khin Maung Shwe, U Kyaw Thein, U Soe Thein (Maung Wun Tha) and U Chain Aye (Maung Soe San) represented the NDL, and Naing Khin Maung, U Aye Pe, U Tha Ban, Naing Ngwe Thein, and I myself represented the UNLD. We conducted a series of meetings in July and August.


The irony was that we, the UNLD, pushed so hard for the issue of handing over power to the election winning party, that is, the NLD, but the NLD emphasized more the need for a National Convention in order to draft a new constitution. Actually, we had already highlighted the need for a National Convention and a new constitution in our election manifesto. So, we liked the idea of having a National Convention but we also felt that after the election, the transfer of power was a more urgent need for the country in comparison to convening a National Convention. But we purely ended up, in the Bo Aung Kyaw Street Declaration, demanding the SLORC to convene the Pyithu Hluttaw in September 1990, and also calling for the need of National Convention. Not a single word about the transfer of power was mentioned in the declaration.


I bring up this issue here because we need to re-evaluate the reasons or the factors behind losing the 1990 election result. In my humble view, the main reason was nothing but the “thought form” or the “thought pattern”: what I am trying to say is the reason behind the way we conducted politics in that particular moment ― soon after election. I sincerely think, in retrospect, that both of the NLD leadership and the SLORC’s generals conducted politics within the same “thought pattern” and both sides played a power game within the same paradigm of an old power structure.


Since they were adhering to the same paradigm, both the regime and the NLD leaderships believed that sovereign power of state can only be handled either by the junta who came to power through a military coup, or a civilian government that is formed under a written constitution. So, they both believed that state power cannot be handed over to a civilian government without a written constitution.


So, what happened? Since they realized power within the same paradigm, they seemed to agree, without saying so, that the only solution for the country was to draft a new constitution first, as such power could then be retained by the military junta so long as there was no written constitution in the country. So, what happened after the Ghandi Hall Convention was that the battle ground for the power struggle between the NLD and the SLORC shifted to the National Convention and the focal point centred on who would convene the National Convention in order to draft a new constitution.


Looking back, I think it was the turning point of the movement. The turning point, unfortunately, was not positive for the country and the people. I wish we could have done better or differently at that time, but what can we do now? We have to learn a big lesson from our own experiences and move on, but never give in.


[Dr. Lian H. Sakhong is the Chairman of the “Chin National Council” (CNC), the Vice-Chairman of the “Ethnic Nationalities Council – Union of Burma” (ENC), and General Secretary of United Nationalities League for Democracy-Liberated Areas (UNLD-LA). He was a post-graduate student at the History Department of Rangoon University when student-led democracy movement erupted in 1988. He quickly joined the movement and was arrested, interrogated and even tortured by the military junta on three separate occasions between 1988 and 1990. He fled his country in 1990 and has resettled in Sweden since 1991. He has published numerous articles on Chin history, traditions and politics in Burma, including his Ph.D. dissertation: Religion and Politics among the Chin People in Burma (Uppsala University, 2000) and his books, In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics and Ethnic Identity in Burma (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2003), and Federalism and Ethnic Issues in Burma: Selected Political Writings, 1988-2008 (Chiang Mai: Wanida Press, 2008). He also edited a series of ten books under the title of Peaceful-coexistenc e: Towards Federal Union of Burma (Chiang Mai: UNLD Press, between 1999 and 2006). He was awarded the Martin Luther King Prize for Peace in January 2007.]


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