UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will travel to Burma later this week to encourage reform and observe the country’s tentative transition from military rule to democracy. But the fragile transition reached an impasse this week when newly-elected opposition MPs, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, refused to take their seats in a dispute over the oath of office.
The National League for Democracy’s stance has divided analysts and activists, with some applauding its principled opposition, while others suggest such posturing threatens to play into the hands of military hardliners opposed to the reform process.
“To most observers on the outside, it’s clearly time to negotiate a transition here,” said Priscilla Clapp, a former charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. “You can’t be so hard-nosed as not to compromise.”
The military has reacted to the standoff by replacing up to 40 military parliamentarians with more senior officers, Democratic Voice of Burma reports: According to an announcement from the Union Election Commission, 39 major-ranking military representatives in the People’s Parliament (right) were substituted with more senior officials, which included four brigadier generals, nine colonels and 26 lieutenant colonels. Similarly, 20 major ranking military representatives in the National Parliament were also replaced with four brigadier generals, five colonels and 11 lieutenant generals.
Parliamentarians are negotiating a compromise on changing the oath’s wording, a lawmaker told Mizzima: Sources said that a group of MPs are negotiating with MPs of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but the USDP – the government-backed party – had a hardline attitude, as of Monday. Myat Nyarna Soe, an NLD MP-elect, told Mizzima that there could be a compromise on Wednesday.
“I think the NLD should participate in the parliament and then they should propose comprehensive political and economic reform strategies,” he said.
The NLD’s boycott is a “strategic blunder” that may jeopardize the reform process, says exiled Burmese analyst Min Zin.
“By participating in the election, Aung San Suu Kyi chose to play by the regime’s rules,” he writes for Foreign Policy’s Transitions. “Now she needs to pick her battles rather than wasting valuable energy in a fight over symbolism.”
Other observers suggest that the NLD’s “grandstanding” demonstrates the opposition’s inconsistency and the challenges of making the transition from purist oppositional politics to the messy compromises required for political engagement.
“Standing on principle for the last two decades required immense courage and a certain amount of stubbornness, as Ms. Suu Kyi demonstrated by serving 15 years under house arrest,” one analysis suggests. “However, this year she chose to participate in government and her party won the trust of voters. She now has a responsibility to work within the system to achieve substantive reforms. Refusing to take the oath of office treads close to grandstanding.”
The NLD is refusing to take a vow to “uphold and abide” the 2008 constitution on the grounds that it institutionalizes illegitimate military rule, but taking the oath and entering parliament does not preclude amending the charter, says exiled writer Zin, but it could undermine the regime’s reformers behind President Thein Sein.
“There’s an old Burmese proverb: If you choose to live like a bug inside a chili pepper, you can’t really complain if you start feeling hot.”
“In short, while fulfilling the NLD’s demand might make many members of the opposition feel better about their implicit cooperation with government institutions, hardliners within the military and the regime are likely to gain powerful ammunition in their fight against Thein Sein,” Zin contends. “If the president and his fellow reformers compromise on this issue, they expose themselves to the accusation that they are giving too much away to Aung San Suu Kyi and the West.”
The European Union yesterday announced that it will suspend nearly all sanctions on Burma for a year, citing the “historic changes” taking place. The new policy will relax trade, economic and personal penalties, but retain an arms embargo, the Associated Press reports. “The E.U. praises the peaceful nature of the process and the readiness of the parties to work toward the same goals,” according to a statement.
The new measures will also facilitate increased development aid to further encourage a reform process which has seen the release of political prisoners, relaxation of media censorship, cease-fires with ethnic minority insurgents and April 1 by-elections that saw sweeping victories for the opposition NLD.
Most – but not all – Western donors groups have been unwilling or unable to fund civil society groups operating within Burma.
“While the worldwide economic recession put a significant amount of pressure on donors, forcing them to reduce their support for border-based aid groups, analysts say that providing aid to groups inside Myanmar has become more attractive for donors,” reports suggest.
But NGO activists working with refugee and exiled groups of Burma’s borders “are concerned that the funding is being withdrawn too quickly, without proper withdrawal plans, and before the refugees are ready to go back.”
“We have definitely noticed a shift,” says Francois Noisten, who has been working on the border for 20 years treating malaria. “Funders are more interested in funding inside than they were before.”
According to the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) responsible for providing food rations to the refugees, the reduction in funding has had several negative effects on the camps in Thailand.
“According to Sally Thompson from the TBBC, the cease-fires are a step in the right direction. She doesn’t see the camps still being open in five years’ time, but still, she voiced her doubt.
“Cease-fires are only the beginning of a process of peace building and national reconciliation. There must be political dialogue,” Ms. Thompson says.
“It is a long road ahead to build trust after 60 years of conflict. The government will have to deliver significant improvements in the daily lives of people in former conflict areas to demonstrate their sincerity.”
The continuing insurgencies and military atrocities along Burma’s borders represent a real threat to the reform process and raise questions about President Thein Sein’s control of military commanders in the regions, says a prominent analyst.
“This lack of control would be a highly disturbing trend but not surprising, given the fact that Thein Sein is not respected by all field commanders and that field commanders have a long history of being able to run regional commands with sizable autonomy,” writes Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations.
A recent flurry of state media reports on the Kachin conflict in particular indicates that the regime “may no longer be trying to downplay the conflict, and may instead be trying to wins hearts and minds both in the Kachin area and among the majority Burman population for its handling of the fighting, in order to isolate Kachin regions from the broader reform effort and possibly split them from sympathy” with the NLD.
“Burma is still ruled by a military government but the pace and scope of political and economic change has been astonishing, despite the country’s low levels of literacy, pervasive poverty and lack of information,” said Brian Joseph, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Senior Director for Asia and Global programs, addressing “The State of Democracy in Asia.” But many democracy assistance groups and Burmese democracy advocates note that the reform process has yet to be sufficiently consolidated or institutionalized and remains vulnerable to a hardline backlash.
“People talk about President Thein Sein being reform-minded. That may be true. There’s always been reform-minded people, even under the repressive system,” says Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, an Asia-based coalition of pro-democracy groups. “But what we need in Burma is institutional changes, not changes based on personalities.”
She said the litmus test of political reform would be 2015 national elections, when the military’s control of parliament will be challenged. Even after winning 43 of the 45 seats contested in recent special elections, Suu Kyi’s party still controls fewer than 7 percent of the seats, and refused to take them up when parliament convened Monday due to a dispute over a single word in the oath of office — a sign of the formidable hurdles that remain in political reconciliation.
“For decades, the U.S. has been providing unwavering support for the Burmese democracy movement — rhetorically, financially and diplomatically. Every administration and members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle, have maintained a strong human rights policy on Burma,” Jean M. Geran recently observed:
There has been a strong set of sanctions in place, but even more important has been the significant financial support we have given through the National Endowment for Democracy to the many small exile organizations along the Thai and Indian borders with Burma. With American support and protection, these activist organizations run by exiles have been tracking political prisoners inside the country, planning for a federalist system, documenting horrific human rights abuses of the military regime, convening diverse ethnic nationalities so that they may work together, and reporting or broadcasting news into the closed country.
For years, the influence of these groups was minimal, but it was for such a time as this that the preparations were made to take advantage of small openings and translate them into big change.
A new Freedom Collection features several of “the most inspiring women’s voices from diverse ethnic groups in Burma,” she notes, including Khin Ohmar, Charm Thong, Cheery Zahau, and Dr. Cynthia Maung from the Burman, Shan, Chin and Karen ethnic groups respectively. Charm Thong and her colleagues in the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) highlighted the continuing problem of rampant sexual violence by Burma’s military in their 2002report, Licence to Rape.