Burma’s Democracy Challenge Flickers Out


The arrests of key activists and violence against protesters in Rangoon and other Burmese cities over the past two weeks have left the fragile opposition movement increasingly isolated, bereft of effective international support and faced with the quandary of who will lead it and what direction it will take.

Although it was the first significant protest in more than a decade, driven by a five-fold increase in the fuel price and increases in other commodities, it is largely over. Activists arrested and jailed include prominent former student leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. Four prominent women activists, including labor rights activists Su Su Nway and HIV-Aids activist Phyu Phyu Thin, remain in hiding as authorities conduct house-to-house searches across Rangoon and Pegu, north of the former capital.

The crackdown coincides with the junta’s completion of the first stage of a new constitution – with six “stages” to go. The largely meaningless process began 14 years ago, in 1993, after the military refused to give up power to the National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won free and fair elections in 1990. The constitutional procedure has been roundly denounced by the international community as well as Burmese at home and abroad as a sham. There is no indication of when a drafting committee might be appointed to write the new constitution.

The latest episode of protest and subsequent repression began two weeks ago with peaceful marches shortly after Min Ko Naing and prominent activists returned from a religious ceremony at the home of the late veteran politician Col Kyi Maung, marking the third anniversary of his death. The “return home” march was spontaneous and caught the attention of curious onlookers, including security officials. After the march, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi spoke to the Washington-based radio station Radio Free Asia.

According to the many Burmese who listened to the interview, the two spoke out strongly, but made no call to topple the regime. At one point in the interview, Ko Ko Gyi pointed out that the army was enjoying double rights at the military-sponsored National Convention, due to be completed this week.

White-shirted marchers

The thin-skinned junta bridled at the criticism. A series of articles in The New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s mouthpiece, contained warnings of a possible showdown and “punishment.” Reports also surfaced that the regime had been training thugs and criminals who had been released from prisons.

The generals appear to have thought it was time to contain Min Ko Naing and other activists because they were the only ones whose boldness and defiance gained international recognition. If the regime intended to force through its constitutional “road map,” including a national referendum, Min Ko Naing and his group were a thorn in the their side.

The Sham Process

In June, the military government reopened the national convention for what it claims will be its final session, at which the drafting of guidelines for a new constitution were to be completed. Many delegates were handpicked and freedom of discussion was severely limited. The generals, intent on remaining in control, are determined to push on with the process despite boycotts by the NLD and ethnic groups. Analysts see the final session as a farce intended to confirm guidelines for a new constitution while leaving people in the dark about what happens next.

A study of the regime’s “seven-point road map,” introduced in 2004, shows that any expectations of democracy are unrealistic. The just-concluded final session is only the first step. Steps two and three are only vaguely defined, with step two described as an “implementation of the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and disciplined democratic system.” No one knows what that means or how long will it take.

Stage three envisages the “drafting of a new constitution in accordance with basic principles and detailed basic principles laid down by the National Convention.” That implies that it may take many more years before a new constitution emerges. Then a national referendum is to be held, followed by elections. It’s clear that the regime is buying the time it needs to install a handpicked government. Democracy has no place in this plan.

Knowing that, Min Ko Naing and other activists were preparing to take to the streets. However, the generals, who always consider security a priority, appear to have believed that after democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest in 2003, they had to contain Min Ko Naing.

Repeat of the 1988 uprising?

The recent peaceful protests coincided with the sudden fuel price increase and with smoldering resentment over the collapse of the country’s educational system. Businessmen in Rangoon say the regime is considering privatizing fuel distribution, along with the sale of government-owned retail outlets to a private company. The increased fuel prices appear to be a move to make the chosen company initially profitable. But there was no public announcement, again highlighting the country’s economic woes and the incompetence of the ruling generals.

Analysts warned that the military rulers have made the same kind of blunder as occurred in 1987, when then-absolute ruler Ne Win’s government suddenly announced the demonetization of bank notes. That action and Ne Win’s speech in August 1987, in which he proposed “economic reform” and admitted “mistakes” in the past, only provided ammunition to the outraged public and dissidents who were fed up with the socialist regime. A year later, Ne Win was pushed aside by the current crop of uniformed strong men.

The regime anticipated the social and political unrest, putting its hired thugs and security officials on alert to attack and arrest activists. Until recently, soldiers and riot police have not been seen in public – only hardcore members of the regime’s mass association known as the Union Solidarity Development Association and Swan-Ar-Shin or “Masters of Force,” together with security officials, who are maintaining “order” by encouraging mob rule.

The current campaign of violence was foreshadowed in the New Light of Myanmar, which repeatedly warned Min Ko Naing and other activists that they faced “evil consequences.” The warnings included ominous hints that death could await them.

The junta’s gangs have followed and intimidated demonstrators, often beating them and hurling them into waiting trucks. Women are also being beaten, prompting onlookers to angrily intervene and risk arrest themselves. In Rangoon, large crowds often made clear their disapproval: “They were upset and angry,” said a Rangoon journalist who reported on the violent dispersal of one group of protesters.

These tactics to break up street demonstrations and opposition gatherings were developed as early as 1996 and 1997. The first victims were Tin Oo, the head of the NLD, and Suu Kyi. Again in May 2003, Suu Kyi and her convoy were attacked by junta-backed mobs in central Burma. The attack was used to justify Suu Kyi’s detention. It received international condemnation after an unknown number of people were murdered.

The recent crackdown has received worldwide attention, although to little avail. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, UN human rights investigator on Burma, last week in Geneva said that he received allegations that some detainees have been "severely beaten and tortured." US First Lady Laura Bush phoned UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to urge action against the crackdown. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the UN Security Council and European Union to discuss the crisis in Burma. But the regime continues to ignore world opinion and arrests and intimidation continue.

Certainly the generals feel they can afford to ignore their critics. Beyond criticism and editorials across the world, there appears little that could deter them. Although Burma is the subject of long-running sanctions, China and India in particular are rushing to get at the country’s considerable natural resources, including gas, timber and other assets. China, which lends political support to the regime, teamed with Russia last year to shoot down a US initiative to bring the Burma issue to the United Nations Security Council.

In the face of that, the participants in rare demonstrations are indeed courageous. But for anybody who has ever visited the country and talked to its people, it is clear that they speak for the vast majority of Burmese. It is rare to find a country in which the residents hold their leaders in such utter contempt.

It is likely, however, that there is little they can do about it.

Aung Zaw is the editor of the Irrawaddy magazine based in Thailand.