Sunday, August 9, 2009

8.8.88 Commemorating the present

Looking for answers at Burma’s midnight crossing

By May Ng

The Burmese people hold the key to their own liberation, and once again, hear it knocking.

'Twenty years on' by Burmese artist Htein Lin
The 1988 uprising in Burma was fundamentally a declaration of independence from military domination by the people of Burma. The uprising put an end to any remaining doubts about the incompetence of Burmese Army rule since 1962, which ruined one of the richest economies in Asia, to one of the poorest in the world. Since 1988, ongoing disenfranchisement has led to aggravated local revolt, including the more recent Saffron Revolution of 2007. In the words of U Pyinya Zawta, senior leader of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance who led the 2007 uprising, “people granted the army rule over Burma in the past but now people are taking away that privilege from the military.”

The 1988 uprising signaled the people’s declaration to abolish the one party system under the 1974 constitution, according to student leader Min Ko Naing. They no longer accepted the prolonged military dictatorship and were reestablishing their right to alter or abolish destructive and abusive governance.

As a result, the army junta held a relatively free and fair election in 1990, in a bid to win back its legitimacy. But, after losing to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party (NLD) in a landslide election, the SLORC declared that a new state constitution was required before the parliament could be called, instead of handing over power.

A National Constitution Convention was initiated in January 1993 and, despite the process being completely dominated by the regime itself, the proceedings did not end in unified agreement. Eventually, the army ratified the Constitution in 2008, claiming a majority vote in the midst of terrible destruction caused by Nargis.

This is not to say that the constitution heeded the concerns of its populace. As the influential Burma Lawyers' Council has remarked, a constitution can only be trusted by concerned individuals to protect them and their rights if it is drafted based on their wishes. While the current constitution seems to disregard this prerequisite and therefore puts its legitimacy into doubt, the constitution proposed by the opposition National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) would not only allow for effective subordination of the military to the civilian government, but would also offer a federal structure, as analysed by Miriam Coronel Ferrer in 'Framework for Autonomy in Southeast Asia'. Ferrer says that the NCUB’s constitution claims to guarantee the “right to self-determination” for the states, defined as utmost autonomy in internal affairs and freedom from undue interference from the federal government or the governments of other member states, in order to preserve ethnic cultures and traditions, and fulfill political aspirations.

A modern race
Efforts to defeat or neutralize ethnic insurgent groups in the countryside can also be seen as part of the regime's continuing determination to impose its own peculiar vision of the modern Burmese state on the entire country. According to Andrew Selth, a diplomatic scholar, the Tatmadaw's, armed forces’, rigid centralist policies and the predominance of ethnic Burmese in its higher ranks will further encourage the country's minority people to see the armed forces simply as an instrument of race domination and oppression.

According to Martin Smith, an independent analyst and author on Burma, the perception of many Burmese military leaders was that the politicians (NLD, KNU, CBP) were not to be trusted and that ethnic minority movements would immediately resurrect secessionist demands at the first sign of weakness in the government. So far, the ethnic communities have little cause to feel real loyalty to the central government in Burma. Even large portions of the junta-formed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) have been forced to join, or have joined the military simply because of the material benefits of joining the USDA, the government militia, or cooperating with the army.

In 2005, the military handed down heavy prison terms to eight Shan NLD leaders – 106 years to Sao Hso Ten, 92 years to Htun Oo and 75 years each to the other six - even though they were calling for step-by-step transition towards democracy rather than for a full-fledged regime change. More recently, the military imposed hundred years’ imprisonment on student leaders and monk leaders involved in the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Shelved solutions
Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe and Lian H. Sakhong suggested in The New Panglong Initiative that in order to prevent abuse of ethnic minorities by the Burmese government, the ultimate goal of democracy movements in Burma should not just be to change the government in Rangoon but to establish a genuine democratic federal union.

Though members of the armed forces have always been promoted as the guardians of the people and protectors of the Union, since the 1988 massacres and the heavy-handed crackdown in 2007, the Tatmadaw faces a resentful and alienated population, who see them as blunt instruments of military oppression. For this reason, Andrew Selth argues in 'Burma's Armed Forces' that “unless the army is prepared to retreat from their current hard-line position, and allow a much greater measure of popular participation in government, they will always be weakened by their alienation from the civil population and face the potential threat of armed opposition.”

Sensing the disconnect, while understanding that the Tatmadaw remain the largest and only real organization capable of instituting countrywide action, ASSK appealed to the professional elements of the armed forces in the 1998 uprising without encouraging mutiny. Suu Kyi continues to express the need to work with the armed forces but not against them. Such an engagement would not only benefit the Burmese people, but it would also be in the long term interests of the army as well.

Democratic US Senator Jim Webb will travel to Myanmar over the next two weeks, as the first US lawmaker in more than 10 years to do so. The Junta’s verdict on Aung San Suu Kyi on August 11th involving false charges against her, will no doubt decide his tone on this trip.

But, with careful consideration, a guardian of Burmese people and protector of the Union of Burma should have no need to look elsewhere to find answers for Burma's future. The answers do not lie with either China or the US. The answers for peace and prosperity in Burma lie with the people of Burma, for they alone can grant the right to be ruled.

As Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent student leader in the junta’s prison has said "There is fear. There is doubt. And the only thing the military need to be afraid of is that others no longer fear them."

May Ng is a Burmese activist who was born in the Shan State of Burma and now lives in the United States. You can read her poems here.


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