The ‘Third Force’ in Burmese Politics
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Burma

The ‘Third Force’ in Burmese Politics


By WAI MOE Wednesday, April 30, 2008


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Burmese at home and abroad say they don’t think the junta-backed constitution offers any democratic guarantees, but some have decided to vote in favor of it, anyway, saying that a ‘Yes’ vote could nudge the country towards democratization.

One of those who have taken this stance is Aye Lwin, a student leader in the 1988 popular uprising. He was briefly arrested for demanding democracy in March 1988 and was later arrested again for a business-related offense. He has since done a complete about-face, abandoning his pro-democracy stand in favor of supporting the country’s ruling military regime.

In 2005, he formed the junta-sponsored Union of Burma 88 Generation Students group, set up to counter the better known and almost identically named 88 Generation Students group, founded by Min Ko Naing and other prominent student leaders, some of whom had spent more than a decade in prison.

Aye Lwin claims his group is neither pro-junta nor pro-opposition; it is, he says, part of the “third force” in Burmese politics that is seeking a more pragmatic response to the country’s needs. In 2006, it launched an anti-sanctions campaign, urging Western countries to stop standing in the way of the country’s economic development. More recently, it has reportedly been actively involved in efforts to win support for the military-drafted constitution ahead of the May 10 referendum. 

There are others like Aye Lwin, some of them former members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), including elected representatives Soe Lin, Kyi Win and Tin Tun Maung, who have also formed their own “third force group.”

Dissidents who refuse to back the junta’s agenda note that former colleagues usually win hard-to-get business licenses and lucrative contracts soon after undergoing their political conversions.

A well-known journalist in Rangoon, Nay Win Maung, and several other intellectuals, such as Ma Theingi and Khin Zaw Win, have also claimed to occupy the middle ground. According to Rangoon-based journalists, Nay Win Maung has told them that although the junta’s constitution lacks basic democratic foundations, it is better than nothing.

Nay Win Maung also recently called on Aung San Suu Kyi to endorse the constitution to ensure that the NLD is not “disenfranchised.”

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should provide a goodwill gesture by saying ‘Yes’ to the constitution,” he wrote in a letter circulated within a circle of Burmese intellectuals. He claimed that such a gesture would provide junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe with a face-saving way to step down from power.

Nay Win Maung is quite well-connected to the ruling generals—he reportedly has concessions in the timber industry and is also an executive member of Kanbawza Bank, which is closely connected to the junta’s No. 2, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye.

Besides economic rewards, members of the “third force” also enjoy greater freedoms than dissidents. Unlike democratic opposition figures, who are typically forced to remain in exile if they ever leave the country, Nay Win Maung, Ma Theingi and Khin Zaw Win have all been permitted to attend international conferences on Burmese issues in foreign countries, arranged by diplomats in Rangoon.

Tin Maung Than, a well-known Burmese writer now living in the United States, said in his regular Democratic Voice of Burma radio program on April 4 that the “third group” could have a significant impact on the referendum outcome. But others—notably Moe Thee Zun, a prominent former student leader of the 1988 uprising—say that Tin Maung Than is overestimating the influence of the “third force” groups. 

“The ‘third force’ is only a few people who claim to be the ‘new elite’ and intellectuals. They are only known among some diplomats,” Moe Thee Zun wrote on his blog.

“Unlike the democracy icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing and the 88 Generation Students group, nobody from urban and rural areas of Burma know about the ‘third force.’”

Thakin Chan Tun, a veteran politician in Rangoon, also said that people in Burma don’t know anything about the “third force.” They are the product of a handful of diplomats who want to create a “new political elite,” he said, and would be completely unknown if not for the attention they receive from Burmese radio stations based abroad.

“The Burmese political conflict is between the rulers and the subjected people. The opposition, particularly the NLD, is only a tool of the democracy struggle,” he added.

“During the struggle period, there is no third group. They are merely apologists for the rulers, rather than advocates for the subjected people.” 

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