The loss of Myanmar's democratic
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.