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[ReadingRoom] The loss of Myanmar's democratic voice

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    The loss of Myanmar s democratic voice By Brian McCartan BANGKOK - Myanmar s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has received strong
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 2, 2007
      The loss of Myanmar's democratic voice
      By Brian McCartan

      BANGKOK - Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has received strong international condemnation for its crackdown on anti-government protestors in September, with the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations all calling on the junta to open dialog with the opposition and move towards democracy. But even if the SPDC were willing to compromise, which despite the international pressure seems unlikely, it's not clear with whom the junta should really be negotiating.

      The demonstrations which began in August were initially led by a group of former student activists and long-time political prisoners known as the 88 Generation Student Group, which has its activist roots in the 1988 pro-democracy protests the military brutally squashed. Within a few days the group's leaders were arrested and the gauntlet was taken up by the Buddhist clergy, which was also cracked down on. Myanmar's largest pro-democracy opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in the main stayed on the sidelines.

      The one-hour meeting between NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta's appointed liaison officer, retired Major General Aung Kyi, last Thursday has been widely viewed as yet another disingenuous move by the SPDC to pay mere lip service to the international call for dialogue. Only this time the NLD's credibility is also at stake.

      NLD secretary U Lwin set the tone for the party's stance on the demonstrations in an August 25 interview with Radio Free Asia, in which he said: "In fact, they [Myanmar's problems] won't be solved just through protests." He went on to question the relevance of the protests due to their small size. Although these statements were made at the beginning of the protests, the NLD's official line never changed, even when it became clear that the protests enjoyed widespread popular support.

      The NLD had two opportunities to demonstrate its leadership of Myanmar's battered and bruised pro-democracy movement and its claimed position as the people's elected representative. First, the arrest of the 88 Student Generation Group's leadership presented the opportunity for the NLD to assume the leadership over the protests, but instead it stayed silent and allowed the Buddhist clergy to take the baton.

      When the demonstrations grew to over 100,000 in Yangon and tens of thousands elsewhere, the opportunity arose again for the NLD to show its leadership and leverage its organizational powers to provide proper focus for the movement's democratic demands. Instead, other than a rather weak statement on September 14 that limited the party to blaming the generals for the protests and calling for political dialogue leading to national reconciliation, NLD participation in the protests came only through individuals rather than as a collective political force.

      To be sure, the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations were initially disorganized. Street protests which were at first organized around student groups from various university campuses around Yangon were later joined by newly formed trade unions and an underground monks' movement, but remained leaderless for several months. Although activists like Min Ko Naing and Moe Thi Zon had strong popular support, there was no real leader with the stature and charisma to bind all the groups under a cohesive banner until Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Aung San, made a speech to several hundred thousand people at Shwedagon Pagoda on August 25, 1988. This was five months after demonstrations first began in March of that year.

      Suu Kyi was later joined by former General Tin Oo and together with other politicians they formed the National League for Democracy (NLD). With the formation of the NLD, the Burmese people finally had leaders and an opposition party to follow. Although many other parties were formed in the lead-up to the 1990 elections, the NLD was widely recognized as the chief opposition party. This was borne out when the NLD won a whopping 82% majority of the vote during the elections, despite the fact that by that time both Suu Kyi and Tin Oo were under house arrest.

      Democracy delayed

      The military government, surprised if not shocked at the landslide election results against them, declared that a new constitution would have to be created before a new government could be formed, an announcement which effectively nullified the results of the election. A national convention was formed to create the new charter, but after several attempts the NLD walked out in 1995, declaring that it was unwilling to sign off on the regime's diktats. The convention stalled until 2004 when the SPDC revived the process, though this time without the NLD.

      At the same time, most of the other political parties had either been declared illegal or pressured into disbanding. Although several regional, ethnic-based parties survived, the NLD has remained as the only party with a national support base. Yet the NLD has suffered from its own internal problems. Although never formally outlawed, the party has come under tremendous military pressure. Suu Kyi has spent most of the past 19 years under house arrest. Tin Oo has also been in and out of prison or under house arrest for much of that time. The party's regional offices have been systematically closed down by the government, with only the decrepit party headquarters in Yangon now permitted to remain open.

      The party itself has suffered from periodic waves of pressure by the regime for its members to resign their affiliation. The resignations from NLD members in Yangon and elsewhere across the country are often published in the state media, usually alongside supposed coerced statements by the individuals that they now recognize the NLD as not working for the good of the country and that they will no longer participate in politics.

      Mass rallies, often organized by the junta's de facto political party, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), have ridiculed Suu Kyi and the NLD. The USDA has also been reportedly behind several violent attacks on NLD members. This includes the much-publicized attack on Suu Kyi's motorcade in Sagaing division in 2003, in which dozens of NLD supporters were beaten to death and many more injured or disappeared. Club-wielding members of the USDA were also reported to be involved in the crackdown on the recent protests, some participating in the violence before the army's direct armed involvement.

      Since annulling the 1990 election results, junta members have been reluctant to meet with Suu Kyi. The reclusive junta leader Than Shwe, who reportedly intensely dislikes the pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi, has only met her once, and that more than five years ago in 2002. Many of the previous meetings between the two sides were carried out by former intelligence chief and SPDC Secretary No 1 General Khin Nyunt, who was later appointed prime minister, then arrested, and finally placed under house arrest on corruption charges in October 2004. Since, talks between the two sides have halted.

      Off the pulse

      What recently happened in Yangon and other cities across Myanmar was largely the result of widespread grassroots discontent. However, the opposition group with its finger most on the public pulse and the ability to focus that discontent into large-scale protests was not the NLD, but rather the newer 88 Generation Student Group. Formed in 2006 by democracy activist Min Ko Naing, who spent 16 years in prison for his role in the 1988 demonstrations, the group includes other veteran activists from that period who are now in their late 30s and early 40s.

      Almost the entire leadership of this group was immediately arrested, leaving the protests leaderless. The Buddhist clergy, fired up by the beating of monks in a monastery in the town of Pakokku on September 5, took over the protest movement. The monks, however, were largely leaderless, outside of the individual leaders of each protest march. Without a central leader figure, the monks were still able to organize 100,000-strong marches in Yangon and galvanize tens of thousands of protesters in other cities across the country.

      With this large-scale movement calling for political change, it would have been logical for the NLD to come to the forefront, but instead the party remained on the sidelines. Individual members participated in certain marches, but nowhere was party senior leadership in evidence leading protests. On September 14, the NLD released a public statement blaming the SPDC for Myanmar's economic deterioration, popular discontent and the upshot protests. In the same statement, the party called for dialogue with the regime, but that was as far as the NLD was willing to stretch itself.

      Indeed, the NLD appeared to have been initially caught off-guard by the protests. This may be an indication of how distant in recent years it has become from the grass-roots population. Most of the NLD leadership is in their 70s or 80s and in recent years they have been repeatedly criticized for being too conservative and unwilling to up the ante of their resistance to the regime.

      To a large degree, they have performed as a sort of caretaker administration, inactive in the hope that Suu Kyi and Tin Oo will one day be released and have operated only within the tight strictures on activities and association set by the SPDC. In recent years, in apparent response to the rash of forced resignations of its members, the party has shown a marked aversion to pressing the boundaries of those junta-set limitations.

      This has played into the SPDC's hands, affording it a limp opposition movement that it can alternately blame for the country's ills and hold up to the world to show that it does allow some form of political dissent, despite the over 1,100 political prisoners it held before the recent arrests. The dedication to the detained Suu Kyi has become an excuse for junior party members to do nothing in maintaining their campaign of civil disobedience.

      The international community is now calling for dialog between the generals and the democratic opposition. Those calls have urged some form of talks between Suu Kyi and Senior General Than Shwe, despite the fact she has been cut off from her party and the outside world for over four years. The NLD has shown it is not willing to press for demands and defers to Suu Kyi's authority. Yet for the generals, Suu Kyi is a relatively safe option, in that they can and likely will revert to their time-tested claim that she, and not they, is unwilling to compromise.

      They can also be assured that the NLD is not going to make much noise in the meantime. For the NLD, it has weathered the recent storm organizationally intact and without another viable political alternative the generals will likely at some point have to talk to the party. For ordinary Myanmar citizens, however, while many still have hope for Suu Kyi, the NLD's stature has suffered.

      U Lwin's tepid public statements in particular resulted in frustration among many locals who risked life and limb by taking to the streets and the NLD's inaction in the aftermath of the crackdown has not gone unnoticed among democracy agitators. The question remains: can the pro-democracy movement that asserted itself in the streets move forward without effective and experienced leadership to focus, articulate and negotiate its demands? At least so far, the NLD has demonstrated an impotence in serving that crucial role.

      Brian McCartan is a Thailand-based freelance journalist.
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