How the Game Was Lost
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Saturday, June 15, 2024

How the Game Was Lost

By ADAM SELENE Thursday, March 1, 2012


Yesterday, The Irrawaddy speculated on the possibility of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi being offered a role in government after the by-elections on April 1 [“Is Suu Kyi Heading for a Cabinet Position?”]. As has been the case for years within opposition and (foreign) activist circles, the political developments described in this piece are measured against democratic ideals and demands that are in themselves just, but, frankly speaking, irrelevant to the decisions that have been made by Burma's army leadership.

The possible ministerial role of the Lady is portrayed by The Irrawaddy as a reward for her political standing by soft liners within the Burmese military. I would argue, however, that such a move could rather be seen as yet another way for the army to use Suu Kyi for its own benefit.
The fact that reforms are currently underway is because the goals of the army partly overlap those of the opposition. Deepening poverty led to unrest in 1988 and 2007. Developing the economy is necessary to prevent further political instability, but can only be achieved by placating the West through democratic reforms. The sanctions have to be removed for Burma to flourish again. This will at the same time result in less dependence on China—another goal of the Tatmadaw. To summarize: the army wants political stability through development, as well as personal security (which is guaranteed by the Constitution) and protection of its economic stakes (which it achieved through the selling off of state property to a handful of business cronies on a large scale in 2010/2011). We don't have to resort to astrologers to realize that this clique of business friends will return the favor.
Before we get to the point of Suu Kyi being offered a cabinet post, let us first take one step back, to the strategic error which ultimately led to the Lady being checkmated.

We all remember the heated debates within the NLD in the run up to the November 2010 elections. The NLD decided not to register and voluntarily left the playing field—a blunder for which it is paying the price now. What would’ve happened if the NLD had instead played along? There are two possible scenarios. In the first, the regime would have found an excuse to kick the NLD out. This would have meant that the the outcome of the elections would not have been acceptable to the West and Asean. In the second scenario, the NLD would have taken part and the regime would have been forced to allow the NLD a larger share of Parliament seats than it allowed the National Democratic Front and the Democratic Party.
But that is not what happened. What happened was that the NLD left through the backdoor.
Suddenly, the party was surprised by a president who started to reform. Continuing to stay on the sidelines posed the very real danger of the NLD withering away or being overtaken by opposition parties who were willing to play ball. This cold realization ultimately forced the party back into the game, under bad conditions. Entering the system again means that the NLD will legitimize the government internationally without getting any real power in return. Even if the party wins all the seats that are up for grabs, it will still only be a very small minority. If the by-elections are free and fair—which the government can easily afford for them to be—the sanctions will be lifted, which means Suu Kyi will lose her main trump card and much of her international influence.

All of this tells me that the NLD keeps looking at the political reality through the lens of its own ideals and demands, instead of trying to understand what motivates the Tatmadaw and to strategically get a step ahead of the opponent.
Now let's get back to the question of a cabinet post for Suu Kyi. Will the army absorb her in government? Sure, if the generals are in their right minds, they will offer her a job at the speed of light. Why? Because it is the easiest way to diffuse the danger and dampen her popularity. If Suu Kyi is allowed to join the ranks of government, she will get a difficult ministry—health or education—while at the same time the military-dominated Parliament will make sure she never gets the budget she needs to really achieve anything. They will make her fail. She will lose much of her aura in this way.

At the same time, President Thein Sein and his colleagues at key ministries will take popular measures that have an impact on the daily lives of many Burmese. Thein Sein has proven himself to be a shrewd politician. He is already jockeying for position with the next elections in mind. In three years time he will have some real progress to show for.

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Adam Selene Wrote:
Tom Tun wrote: "You will see, Burma will change for better."

I agree totallsy. Whatever the reasons may be for the generals to reform now, this certainly is the beginning of better times for Burma. After 50 years of misery I can only be elated about that...

Tom Tun Wrote:
For you, the game may lost, but for Burma it is just begin. Our attitude is, tomorrow will always be better than today. What ever happened yesterday, it is in the past. There is always something better we can do today and tomorrow. You will see, Burma will change for better.

Daniel Wrote:
The SPDC had effectively ground down the NLD for 20 years by Nov 2010. And NLD had poor strategy over that time that left them with only bad options. The boycott was the best bad option. The entire SPDC strategy over 2 decades was to erase the 1990 election results and discredit the NLD. It makes NO sense that they would spend 20 YEARS obliterating the NLD and prepping the election only to feel obligated to allow NLD seats. The 2008 and 2010 votes both showed they could rig the vote as thoroughly as they chose and didn’t care how free or fair the vote appeared. And ASEAN wouldn’t and didn’t care either.

A confluence of circumstances in 2011, some of which are in the article, changed the landscape. The gov’t knew it needed to change course and play ball with the NLD and DASSK. That was not in the cards in Nov 2010. The NLD also knows now that the gov’t is the only game in town, and sitting on the sidelines won’t accomplish anything. They’re willing to risk engaging on an unequal playing field.

Adam Selene Wrote:
AYOKSO: "Saying "people were afraid to act for themselves" fly in the face of all evidence and is truly laughable!"

Just look at the facts. In 1988 millions demonstrated and there was a national strike. The army cracked down mercilessly. In 1996 it was a small group and in 2007 again it was relatively small.

After 1988 many people were afraid, and rightly so, and less inclined to demonstrate. Only some truly brave did. At the same time people started to look at Aung San Suu Kyi. She became the symbol of hope that would change and relieve from dictatorship. Together with one sided reporting from western reporters this is one of the factors why she got so big.

I might add that it was quite a big burden the people layed on her...

Adam Selene Wrote:
Tocharian wrote: "Game? What game? The fate of a country and its inhabitants is not a game!"

Strategy is a game. Policy making is not. But you're very right, this is for real and has an impact on many human lives. That's exactly why some critique on the NLD is in order. They could've done better. The fact that so many voted for them in 1990 and that they are the de facto leaders of the opposition brings the responsibility to achieve something. If you are a democratic party you can be held responsible for mistakes. Thats the way it works.

Adam Selene Wrote:
Hi Honus. Two things. The first is that the piece you're commenting on now is not a prediction but an analysis of what happened. You didn't react on the content. Please try to reply to the piece instead of pulling an ad hominem on me.

I still stand for what I wrote in 2010, although I could've added in my comment (not an article nor an analysis) that the junta might rig the elections. By the way, I already wrote what was going to happen in the epilogue of my 2008 book. Although I didn't think the NLD wouldn't participate in 2010, which I still think is a big mistake.

Everybody who acts suprised now should've read the writing on the wall long ago.

Latt Wrote:
I do not think Ms Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD can just give the present quasi military government the full support without the ex-Generals first giving a committment for a target date for a new free and fair national elections.That would be stupid.But one thing at a time.

Honus Wrote:
Adam, you failed to accurately predict Burma's political future in 2012 (see: comments). You might want to start with some short-term predictions and get a few of those correct before tackling the subject matter above. But thanks for the entertainment.

Zaw Min Wrote:
Hello Adam,

You are right. NLD made mistake in 2010. Their boycott was not success. Most of the young people in my place went to polling stations and voted. Most young people are not interested in politics that much, but they wanted to experience it for the first time in their life. Of course, they voted for NDF, a splinter party of NLD. Not because of they liked NDF but because they did not have much choice. China card is very useful for the government I think. It scare the U.S and the West.

tocharian Wrote:
Game? What game? The fate of a country and its inhabitants is not a game!

I agree with Daniel's analysis, and disagree with the author Adam Selene. Saying "people were afraid to act for themselves" fly in the face of all evidence and is truly laughable! The true Bravehearts just regained freedom after being illegally imprisoned and fortured for dozen of years. The true heroes were the men and women who went to prison, not the many "Thuras" in the tatmadaw.

Mr. Selene is also erroneously misjudging DASSK's intellect - in the traditional sense of the word, as well as in the political sense. She is not just extremely courageous and passionate about her people. She is anything but naive!

Adam Selene Wrote:
Daniel said: "Big network? The NLD was decimated..."

Win Tin told me in May 2010 that they were prepared to continue underground and that they still had about 300 core groups around the country...

"Contesting would have meant expelling DAASK, who was still under arrest, and endorsing the system without any sense of how it would work. Good plan!"

The regime wanted the NLD out. They knew the ASSK demand would do the trick. As it did. The NLD should've seen through the this. Even if they would've 'expelled' ASSK everybody would've known she was still the de facto leader. This was why at the time I pleaded to go along and let the regime expose itself... Do you get it now?

The army manipulated ASSK all the way. She was always a step behind.

Adam Selene Wrote:
Daniel, in fact the writing was on the wall before the elections. The privatizations told me that the military in fact planned on slowly letting go (sharing) some power. This was their way of safeguarding their economical assets in a semi-democratic Burma.

The NLD didn't see it. In Sept 2010 U Tin Oo wrote a letter to the European commission in which you can clearly read he didn't have a clue as to what was going on... They just wanted to stop the process and herass everybody (Myanmar Egress/NDF) who was trying to get to grips with the new reality of a regime trying to arrange a safe exit.

Adam Selene Wrote:
Daniel wrote:

"Holding out gave leverage that contributed to amending election laws, creating dialogue and exacting concessions from Thein Sein, including the legalization and legitimization of the NLD and release of prisoners."

All of this was planned beforehand by the military. The NLD followed the script, as a mere pawn. They were lured back in because it would mean lifting of the sanctions, developing the economy (reducing the risk of political instability) and balancing out the influence of China. The NLD and ASSK let themselves be used. Why? Because they didn't have a sound strategy, which you would know if you would've talked in depth to some of its board members...

MHK Wrote:
Simply hope that the 88GS will not become another type of "Failed ASSK/NLD".
otherwise i simply want to see new faces starting from 2015 and wish that old faces from both sides will be fading out.

KI Wrote:
Daniel: its common sense that it would have been much more difficult to rig the 2011 election with the NLD contesting. the NLD is well known in Myanmar and also well known in the west. a lot more people would have voted for them instead of splitting votes on NDF, ethnic parties and other opposition parties. the west would have expected a outcome with the NLD as winners, there are a lot of factors that make it harder for the government to rig a election with the NLD contesting.

Daniel Wrote:
Big network? The NLD was decimated and 'illegal' by Nov 2010. Contesting would have meant expelling DAASK, who was still under arrest, and endorsing the system without any sense of how it would work. Good plan!

Holding out gave leverage that contributed to amending election laws, creating dialogue and exacting concessions from Thein Sein, including the legalization and legitimization of the NLD and release of prisoners.

Regardless of the by-election outcome, the NLD made gains in 2011, with the boycott playing a large role. Were the gains planned or certain? No. The boycott and participation were both calculated risks based on the available options. They had a chance to see the gov't in action and meet with them. Changed circumstances made engagement the better play this time, with an eye towards 2015.

Nothing wrong with criticizing the NLD, but your interpretation doesn't fit the facts.

Adam Selene Wrote:
Daniel, I meant "would've NOT accepted" of course...

Adam Selene Wrote:
Hi Daniel,

"why would the SPDC have been “forced to allow the NLD a larger share of Parliament?”

NDF and DP were new, small, unorganized and underfinanced. NLD was the winner of the 1990 elections and had a big network. In the rationale of the army this meant the elections were harder to rig with the NLD on board. They always wanted the NLD to bow out voluntarily, which the party dutifully did. Even ASEAN would've accepted the NLD getting 10 seats or something...

"A more plausible Nov 2010 scenario: The NLD wins a paltry few if any seats and has little leverage moving forward."

You mean, like they will on April 1st? ;-) So what will they have gained? The government will be thankful for legitimizing their 'democratic' rule, right?

Try harder next time.

Adam Selene Wrote:
Ma Tine wrote: "So ASSK is a loser???????"

Aung San Suu Kyi is a brave person and a moral leader (as Myo Chit pointed out) but she is not a politician. She never accepted that politics has to be played as a strategic game to gain something. That's why Aung San Suu Kyi always was "right" but never anything tangible. A politician is a representative of the people and should deliver. In that respect she failed, yes.

To her defense. She was elevated by the western media and the people to unrealistic heights. When people were scared to act themselves they projected all their hopes on ASSK, which is unfair and too heavy a burden for anyone to bear.

Ma Tine Wrote:
So ASSK is a loser???????

Ki Wrote:
agree with you... very interesting article. thanks

Myo Chit Wrote:
So, my advice to the West and DASSK and NLD.... just accept that politics is a strategic game, don't assume a moral high tone of democracy, human rights and freedom from fear, and just go with the tide....

Myo Chit Wrote:
Thanks so much, Adam! That's what I have been always thinking about the strategic loss of DASSK these days. Yes, NLD has lost out! The so-called democratic West has lost out too! But both never really had a strategy. Do you know why? Because DASSK was always just a moral leader! She didn't become a leader out of performance or strategic calculation. She became a leader out of rhetoric of democracy and human rights. The West pushed her to the extreme front because her rhetoric resonates with the West's. Now, both she and her supportive West have lost out to the USDP and Myanmar military. The West has been shamelessly courting the USDP because they know they have already lost out to China and they know it is very difficult to deal with the Myanmar generals. The West and DASSK have to accept the 2008 Constitution and 2010 election results.

Siang Bawi Wrote:
Insightful analysis. But I think you've made the NLD, remember it's not just Aung San Suu Kyi that's running the show, and the Burmese people to be clueless as to what the government is doing. Also, as you've rightly mentioned, there are other players besides NLD like the 88ers, UNFC, ethnic parties, and religious groups who know how to play ball.

Win Maung Wrote:
I am impressed with your realistic and accurate assessment of the state of affairs regarding the government and NLD.I hope that many of my fellow countryman would agree with it.I also hope that NLD politicians are astute enough to realize the situation themselves. There is also the unthinkable possibility that NLD may not win many seats.

Daiwah Wrote:
NLD’s strategy has always been blinded by the ideology and hatred towards the regime rightly or wrongly. As a political party, it has to be pragmatic and opportunistic especially in the country ruled by the iron grip. Also, it is hard to formulate any serious strategy based purely on ideology let alone hating the regime. This allows very little room for any kind of innovation and hopeful reconciliation. I believe the game is only about to begin.


Daniel Wrote:
This “analysis” is based on faulty logic and a healthy dose of nonsense.

Neither “possible scenario” in which the NLD hadn’t boycotted shows any grasp of the facts or basic common sense. First, why exactly would the SPDC have kicked the NLD out of the election? And why would that have led to the results not being “acceptable” to ASEAN? The elections were thoroughly rigged - ASEAN knew it and still endorsed the results. Second, why would the SPDC have been “forced to allow the NLD a larger share of Parliament?” What facts or reason justify this statement?

A more plausible Nov 2010 scenario: The NLD wins a paltry few if any seats and has little leverage moving forward.

The situation prevented numerous NLD members from participating, including DAASK. The NLD’s refusal to participate became leverage in 2011.

Further, the populace are not likely turn on the wildly popular DASSK in a short three years time, no matter how egregious whatever “failure” the author indicates but fails to articulate.

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