The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Breaking the 'Stagnant Embrace'
By BURMA OBSERVER Sunday, September 1, 2002

As Burma moves toward a negotiated settlement to end its political impasse, the transition to democracy promises to be a messy one. The idea that negotiations between the Burmese military regime—the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition, will lead to a democratic transition in Burma sooner or later is an idea whose time has come. A negotiated settlement is in the pipeline since there is no viable alternative to dialogue and a negotiated transition. However, this is not to say that both the camps are as committed to this path as it appears. Each would certainly prefer a less messy, more clear-cut solution: on the one hand, the overthrow of the military regime, and on the other, the collapse or "disappearance" of the democratic opposition. Nonetheless, like it or not, the two camps will just have to hunker down to fighting a different kind of war, a very political kind, which neither is comfortable with or very skilled at. They will have to talk, negotiate, and compromise, because it is not likely that what each camp hopes for will be fulfilled. Compounding the problem is the fact that they are poles apart in their vision of how Burma should be constituted, and how politics is to be played, or who should participate in the political arena. The military regime’s goal is to establish what it calls "disciplined democracy", a regime like that of former Indonesian dictator Suharto, which—unfortunately for the ruling top brass in Burma—has collapsed, and worse, is no longer a fashionable model, and is even considered pathetic, if not ridiculous. The regime’s blueprint for the future is irrelevant as far as the global trend is concerned. The regime is, moreover, illegitimate, having foolishly (in hindsight) held a general election in 1990 and lost overwhelmingly. As it were, the military was publicly slapped in the face by the electorate, as was a similar regime in 1960. It is also clear that the regime lacks even a rudimentary capacity to govern. Everything it touches has turned to ash. And although it has managed to desperately cling on to power by virtue of its command of the armed forces, the Tatmadaw (the Burmese Army) is bloated and badly decayed. The men are demoralized, the mid-level officers dream of political change, and half of them dream of becoming ministers, while officers in the higher echelons are almost all corrupt. The regime is a hollowed-out shell—and this is more so the case considering the fact that the top generals are held together primarily, if not only, by fear of the people’s wrath. The goal of the democratic opposition is well known and is in tune with the global trend toward openness, transparency, accountability, good governance, the rule of law, and in the context of a multi-ethnic society, a federal arrangement that its leaders believe will solidify and sustain national unity. However, the balance of power is not in its favor. Although the movement is worldwide, its elements scattered all over the globe, it has not received much assistance from the international community or from sympathetic governments. The reason is that Burma is low on the priority list of most governments, and is furthermore just barely on the radar screen of the governments of neighboring states—India, China, Japan and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—or regarded as a troublesome nuisance. What one finds currently in Burma are therefore two totally different dreams locked in a stagnant embrace, like two over-the-hill boxers who cling to each other in an exhausted stupor. Given the political standoff, where neither camp can hope to win a clear victory, the coming negotiations and the politics of transition will be very protracted and likely very messy. Once negotiations begin in earnest, it is likely that there will appear fissures and divisions in both the main camps and within the ethnic nationalities. The SPDC’s camps would break up, perhaps not openly, into hardliners, pragmatists, moderates, extremists, and idealists or true believers, as would the opposition camp and the ethnic nationalities. The above is all the more likely since all the protagonists are held together more by what they are against than by what they are for. Far from their minds is the likelihood that the solution or the settlement—or possible settlements—arrived at will be far from satisfactory. As such, leaders who understand that democratic transition will be a long, drawn-out process, one that requires inventive compromises, sophisticated bargaining, tough give-and take, and so on, will be hampered more by true believers within their own constituencies than by their opponents sitting across the negotiation table. For example, a military caretaker government might have to be agreed on, in exchange for recognition by the regime of an interim parliament—the "1990 parliament"—to oversee the transition process, to which the care-taking body would, in turn, be accountable. Or a decentralized, but not fully federal, constitutional arrangement might have to be adopted for a period of years, pending the drafting and adoption of a fully federal constitution at a later date. The above hypothetical interim arrangements would obviously not satisfy anyone, and might be challenged by outraged purist elements and by opportunist demagogues, the rabble-rousers, and others trying to outbid the mainstream leaders in both camps. Evidently, any solution arrived at will not be satisfactory to anyone—not the SPDC, the democratic opposition, or the ethnic nationalities who comprise close to 40% of the population and occupy about 60% of the total land area. The challenges facing Burma in the coming negotiation and in the politics of transition will thus be very formidable. And if the international community labors under the illusion that a settlement can be worked out among Burmese stakeholders because of certain cosmetic moves made by the regime, it will certainly be very rapidly disillusioned. The above is not to say that Burmese stakeholders, including the ethnic nationalities, are incompetent and bloody-minded. The fact of the matter is that the existence of military dictatorship in Burma since 1962 has radically knocked out of joint all functional relations and the modicum of trust that hitherto existed between the state in Burma and the broader society. What we have had in Burma since 1962 is a military-monopolized state that has no relation with broader society other than one that is harshly controlling, repressive, and predatory. Therein lies the root of mistrust among the stakeholders in Burma. Given this context, sustained international focus on Burma’s transition, as well as the involvement and even guarantees of the international community, might be very helpful, and would certainly be very positive. The author is a long-time Burma watcher and scholar, and has worked with the democratic movement in an advisory capacity for many years. The views expressed here are the author’s alone, and do not represent in any way whatsoever the views of any leaders or organizations within the democratic movement.

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