The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
GUEST COLUMN
Can the Opposition Remain Relevant?
By MIN ZIN AUGUST, 2010 - VOL.18 NO.8

The opposition in Burma should be measured both in terms of the public support it draws and its ability to achieve both its intermediate and ultimate goals

Since Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, the country has been fraught with a spectrum of contentious politics ranging from armed insurgencies to nonviolent movements against the state. The current political environment, however, marks the first time in Burmese history that the  opposition is faced with the challenge of remaining relevant. And if they are going to remain relevant, the question is how?
There are two basic factors in determining the relevancy of an opposition group. The first is public support, or legitimacy. The second is the ability to achieve desired outcomes.

Legitimacy

In Burma’s contentious political environment, repression and the resulting grievances have inspired public action—and provided legitimacy to the opposition—whenever state interference with people’s everyday routines has been compounded by brutal and unjust events.

For example, the demonetization combined with police brutality against students in 1987, and the 500 percent fuel price hike combined with police brutality against Buddhist monks in 2007, each sparked political conflict and nonviolent movements that the public deemed legitimate. The endurance, commitment, courage and sacrifices of the activists strengthened the legitimacy of those movements in the public’s eyes, and the opposition was considered highly relevant despite the fact that activists could not operate in an open political system and faced a military government with a propensity for repression.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile.
Therefore, because in the past the Burmese regime created a political environment that compelled the public to support opposition movements, in examining whether opposition groups will remain relevant following the 2010 elections, it is important to consider whether the repressive nature of the state will continue.

The new Constitution and the 2010 election will not transform the incompatible goals of the military elite and the opposition, and therefore will not change their inherently conflicting relationship. In addition, the new, post-election government has little prospect of solving the issues facing the country, including human rights violations, corruption and economic mismanagement, all of which are associated with the military’s unchecked power, interests and behavior.

One change that will take place is the transformation of the one-dimensional military junta into a hybrid form of government—political and military. The new format, which the regime clearly intends to manipulate to maintain its grip on power, could ironically be viewed as a prospect for political realignment and therefore embolden the general public to rally behind the opposition groups.

But regardless of whether this takes place, the ongoing repressive nature of state-society relations will again legitimize the opposition groups and make them relevant by continuing to allow the opposition to rally the public against the military-backed hybrid regime.

However, as social scientist Doug McAdam says, “Movements may be largely born of environmental opportunities, but their fate is heavily shaped by their own actions.” In other words, actions lead to outcomes, and in addition to its ability to achieve its ultimate goals, the opposition’s actions and its ability to achieve intermediate goals will in large part determine whether it remains relevant.

Achieving Desired Outcomes

The prevailing general impression is that since 1988 the opposition groups have failed to accomplish their professed goals. Following its decision not to re-register the party, the National League for Democracy even officially apologized to the public for its failed policies in the struggle for democracy. However, sweeping statements about the opposition’s relevance based on its inability to achieve its ultimate desired outcome should not be made without evaluating factors such as resilience, leverage and endgame strategy.

Resilience

Resilience consists of more than psychological qualities such as endurance, commitment and courage, all of which the opposition groups demonstrate admirably. Resilience is also about the strength of a movement’s repertoire (forms of struggles) and mobilizing structure.

Since 1988, the dominant forms of struggle employed by the opposition groups have been political parties (mainly the NLD), underground/clandestine movements, civil society organizations, armed insurgencies and international advocacy movements.

Due to the cease-fire agreements between the junta and the ethnic resistance groups since 1989, the armed insurgencies have mostly been contained. However, international advocacy movements have been strong thanks to the political-moral strength of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the increasingly large Burmese diaspora communities around the world.

Student protest in Rangoon during the 1988 mass uprising.(Photo: THE IRRAWADDY)
One key opposition weakness might be the movement’s unwillingness or incapacity to diversify its repertoire, or forms of struggle. For instance, the NLD leadership, instead of allowing (or even encouraging) those who would like to set up a political party to contest the 2010 election, tended to vilify the moderates within the group. It seems that the leadership was not strategic enough to be aware of the advantages the whole movement could gain by sanctioning different forms of struggle. In this case, their tendency to put all of their eggs in one basket has led to a strategic blunder that could have long-term consequences for the opposition.

Another element of Burmese opposition resilience is its mobilizing structure, which is in many cases hierarchical. However, whenever Suu Kyi was free, she traveled to provinces where she empowered and inspired local and grass-roots party members to mobilize. In fact, she sparked initiatives of civil society by encouraging youth and women leaders to set up volunteer groups on wide-ranging issues such as assisting HIV/AIDS patients and providing legal protection for child soldiers and the victims of forced labor.

In addition, when Min Ko Naing and other 88 generation student leaders were released from prison in 2004-05, they broadened the opposition’s civil society practice within its nonviolent repertoire by reaching out to Buddhist monks, human rights advocates, lawyers, journalists, local NGOs, intellectuals, writers, the artistic community and others to strengthen the informal connective tissue of the movement. Before the activists had sufficient time to organize, however, the 2007 protests broke out. Though their initiatives contributed to the emergence of the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, their lack of leverage allowed the regime to crush the movement in a violent crackdown.

Leverage

Although leverage is not the ultimate outcome sought by the opposition, improved leverage is, like resilience, a positive outcome that can be a stepping stone to achieve the desired endgame of regime change or even a negotiated outcome.

Since 1988, Burma’s activists have relied to a large degree on marches, protest demonstrations and public statements making political demands or requests. As social scientist Kurt Schock notes, these methods may be effective in mobilizing members of the aggrieved population and the support of third parties, and thereby obtaining legitimacy, but they are less effective in directly undermining state power to achieve desired outcomes unless used in tandem with methods of non-cooperation.

This lack of tactical innovation by the opposition has been compounded by the fact that the social groups most prominent in the movement—students and Buddhist monks—while providing maximum symbolic value, provide weaker leverage than workers or peasants because the state is less dependent on students and monks to maintain its power and survive. Thus far, no organization has emerged in Burma that is capable of effectively forging ties between students, monks, workers and peasants.

The opposition should also take into account the crucial role a third party can play in improving  opposition leverage. For example, China’s current diplomatic support and political protection of the junta in the international arena, as well as its economic and military support, are one of the most challenging constraints on the opposition movement. However, China is increasingly aware of the risks of a purely opportunist policy toward Burma, and if the opposition movement manages to sustain its resilience and improve its leverage by broadening its active support base, China might be persuaded to change its unconditional support for the military regime and actively advocate the goal of national reconciliation in Burma, thereby exponentially increasing the opposition’s leverage.

Media access also plays a crucial role in strengthening the leverage of the opposition groups. Although Burma’s domestic media is subject to severe news blackouts and censorship, the people of Burma listen to foreign short-wave radio stations, upon which they rely heavily for information.

In the run-up to the 1988 uprising, the Burmese-language radio services of the  BBC and VOA played a critical role, virtually coordinating public protests by disseminating information about the riot police’s brutality against students and the country’s economic crisis. In the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the protesters had the advantage of significantly increased media access and information technology, and thereby managed to broaden the protests. When the regime cracked down on the Buddhist monk-led protests, the pictures and video footage of the marching and killing were sent to the outside world via the Internet, increasing the protesters’ leverage both at the time and for the future.

In contrast, one way in which opposition activists lose leverage is by focusing too much on their own political demands—such as the transfer of power to the NLD due to its victory in the 1990 election—or on political dialogue that is not perceived to be directly related to the people’s daily struggle for survival. When the opposition becomes self-centered, leverage is diminished because the public becomes indifferent to politics and leaves the activists on their own to achieve their personal political demands.

Endgame Strategy

One of the crucial reasons the 8-8-88 mass uprising failed was that the opposition did not provide the strategic leadership necessary to achieve the endgame of regime change. When the street protests reached their peak in late August through September 18, government mechanisms collapsed. However, the opposition leaders did not unify and either create or seize the opportunity for regime change or negotiated transition in the power vacuum.

Burma’s opposition leadership has always been enthusiastic when it comes to mobilizing mass movements, but has failed to capitalize and achieve the intended results when protests have reached their crescendo. In other words, the opposition always tries hard to achieve the means (instigating a mass movement) as if that is the end in itself.

While public pressure alone can challenge the status quo, whether a public movement leads to a genuine political transition depends on whether the opposition employs an effective endgame strategy. Of course, mass movements will remain the sine qua non for Burma’s opposition so long as the intransigent regime refuses to initiate inclusive political reform.

In summary, the question of relevancy for Burmese opposition groups must be viewed from two perspectives: their legitimacy and the outcome of their effort. At this time, it appears that while the opposition groups will remain relevant in terms of public support and legitimacy, they will have to improve their performance with respect to their ability to maintain resilience, obtain leverage and formulate effective endgame strategies.

This will require opposition groups to diversify their repertoire, adopt tactical innovations, persuade influential third parties to support their cause, broaden their social base and balance between a principle-based and an interest-based approach. If able to do so, they will not only increase the likelihood of accomplishing their goals, they will increase their relevance far beyond their current moral legitimacy.  

Hindsight might not be merciful, but it helps break the cycle of repeating the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Moreover, it helps in the process of exiting the mindset of nostalgia and entering the forward-looking strategic realm, which is exactly what the generation that lead Burma’s 1988 popular movement must do to make themselves relevant in the country’s current political landscape.

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