June 30, 2012


Burmese Days (Christian Caryl, 7/12/12, NYRB)

My conversation with the 88 Generation leaders took place just days before the president made good on this overture. On April 1, Burmese in a handful of districts around the country voted in an unprecedented parliamentary by-election. For the first time in decades, the ballots included candidates from the NLD--including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who ran for a seat in a hardscrabble rural district on the outskirts of Rangoon. (She was released from house arrest in November 2010, shortly after the controversial vote that brought Thein Sein to power.) In their August meeting, Thein Sein had expressly invited Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to participate in the by-election, and after some hesitation the NLD leader accepted the offer, though with considerable misgivings.

The pro-democracy activists had good grounds for caution. The forty-six seats at stake in the election represented a tiny fraction (less than 7 percent) of the overall seats in the national parliament, so even a clean sweep would leave the NLD in a tiny minority, far short of the strength needed to change any laws. On top of that, the military-engineered constitution, crafted by a national assembly widely regarded as a pro-government body, reserves one quarter of the overall seats for members of the armed forces, and otherwise tilts the playing field in favor of the military's tame party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which commands an overwhelming majority. The most likely opportunity for changing this constitution, if at all, will come no sooner than 2015, when the next national election is scheduled.

The oppositionists thus worried that participation in the by-election might amount to legitimizing a government that they would be in no position to control. When I asked Min Ko Naing about this, he hastened to assure me that Aung San Suu Kyi enjoys the support of his movement, even if the 88 Generation Students Group has carefully remained independent of the NLD. (It was, indeed, Min Ko Naing himself who had an active part in persuading the Lady, as many Burmese respectfully refer to her, to enter national politics for the first time back in 1988.) Even limited involvement in the business of government was better than none, he explained: "She can bring the voice of the people into parliament."

He then described a government riven between supporters and opponents of Thein Sein's recent reforms, and stressed that everything should be done to bolster the reformists. "Sixty percent of the government is sitting on the fence," he said. Above all, he emphasized, this first modest entry into the political system was necessary to assuage the fears of many members of the ruling elite who--all too aware of Aung San Suu Kyi's immense popularity--know full well the fragility of their own position, and accordingly worry that if they lose control, they could be subject to retribution for the decades of maltreatment the government has meted out to its own citizens.

To underline his point, Min Ko Naing told me a remarkable anecdote. During his most recent stint in a remote provincial prison, he discovered that the inmates included a former army colonel who had an active part in one of his earlier arrests; the ex-officer had landed in jail after losing out in a power struggle in the upper reaches of the regime. Min Ko Naing told me how he had made a point of treating the man with respect rather than enmity. When the officer was released along with the other prisoners in January, journalists approached him for interviews. But he declined, and referred them instead to Min Ko Naing, who, he said, spoke for all the prisoners. "The main emotion I feel for him is pity," Min Ko Naing told me. "As for me, I have political beliefs. That was why I was in jail. But in his case, a tree fell, and he just happened to be one of the branches."

I was struck by this story precisely because I had already heard versions of it from other oppositionists. Burma's pro-democracy activists are confronting a dilemma familiar to many societies that have experienced complicated transitions of their own. In the past, South Africans, Chileans, and Indonesians have all found themselves in comparable positions: the trick is finding acceptable ways to reassure authoritarian power holders that leaving the stage will not expose them or their families to the pent-up demand for vengeance.

These precedents are well known to Burma's oppositionists; it is such experiences that Aung San Suu Kyi has in mind when she speaks of the need for "restorative" rather than "retributive" justice in a post-authoritarian future. Yet the Burmese approach is not based solely on hardheaded political calculations. Figures like Min Ko Naing share with Aung San Suu Kyi a devotion to Buddhist precepts that deeply informs their striving for democracy and the protection of human rights.1 It is an attitude that attests to a great inner strength. When I asked Min Ko Naing how he felt when he finally emerged from his prison on that January day, his smile never wavered, and he replied without hesitation: "To me, it felt like returning home at the end of a long day's work." [...]

Burma is a changed country. A little over a year ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was still an unperson; merely mentioning her name was to invite trouble with the authorities. Today she is an officially acknowledged interlocutor of the president and a member of the country's highest lawmaking body. She and her NLD colleagues took their seats in parliament on May 2. Her image is sold openly by vendors on the streets of Rangoon and newspapers breathlessly report her every move. Indeed, a few days before the April 1 election she invited journalists to a press conference on the lawn of the lakeside home where she has spent most of the past twenty-four years under house arrest; hundreds of us, both Burmese and foreign, showed up, marveling at the faint surrealism of an event that would have been unimaginable not so long before. One of my reporter colleagues recalled his previous trip to Burma early in 2011. He was able to get a visa only by posing as a businessman, and once inside the country resorted to a variety of conspiratorial measures in order to evade the security services and protect the identity of his sources. Now it all seems a bit absurd.

The implications of this shift are potentially as far-reaching as the democratic revolutions of 1989 or the more recent upheavals of the Arab Spring. As Thant Myint-U explains in his excellent political travelogue, Where China Meets India, Burma is a linchpin country in the evolving geopolitics of Asia. It shares borders with both China and India, and policymakers in Beijing and Delhi are feverishly planning ambitious infrastructure projects--pipelines, highways, and railroads--that will allow them to boost their trade between each other as well as with Burma itself, which has an extraordinary wealth of untapped natural resources. Though such plans antedate the current opening, they stand little chance of succeeding unless the Burmese government can find a way to calm the ethnic rebellions in its own borderlands--an aim that is likely to be furthered by liberalization. Meanwhile, an outbreak of democracy in Burma could also have a profound effect on its neighbors in Southeast Asia, where a rising middle class has already begun to challenge long-dominant authoritarian assumptions in some countries.
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Posted by at June 30, 2012 9:25 AM

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