One of Burma’s leading ethnic insurgent groups called for peace talks today, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon praised pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for ending a boycott of parliament, but some analysts fear the standoff may have played into the hands of military hardliners eager to sabotage the fragile reform process.
“Disarray in the reform process will only strengthen the hands of conservatives who have grave misgivings,” said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus with the Australian Defense Force Academy. “They will say ‘We told you so.’ “
Suu Kyi “has been under quiet, though sensitive pressure from recent high-level visitors to resolve the impasse, which was threatening to derail the reform process,” said one observer.
Aside from the ethnic conflicts, the main threat to the reform process is not any imminent backlash by military hardliners, but a sheer lack of capacity, a Washington meeting heard last week. Decades of neglect and under investment have resulted in a striking and potentially disabling lack of organizational capacity, skills and expertise in government as well as civil society, said a leading analyst.
The international financial institutions that helped fund and advise on democratic transitions in post-Communist Europe and elsewhere have been conspicuously absent from Burma, the analyst observed. So reformist technocrats will be assured by the news that the World Bank is to open offices in the country.
The military-backed civilian-led government, headed by former general Thein Sein, pledged more reforms – including a revised print media code –after meeting with Ban, while the UN leader urged Western states to remove remaining economic sanctions to incentivize further reforms.
The European Union recently suspended sanctions, while the US has relaxed measures on not-for-profit funding, but insist on retaining some sanctions as a guarantee against backtracking or a hardline backlash.
“We recognize very clearly that there have to be provisions and capabilities to be able to respond if there is a reversal or a stalling out (of reforms), that leverage is an essential component of our strategy,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, recently told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Many democracy and rights advocates fear that the reform process has not gone far enough and remains vulnerable to regression, but the Obama administration is under growing pressure from business groups eager to exploit investment opportunities.
“Failure by the United States to take similar steps (to the EU) will do more than put American companies at a commercial disadvantage vis-a-vis their competitors,” the US-ASEAN Business Council said in a recent statement.
Ban described Suu Kyi as a “real leader” for demonstrating “flexibility” by making the “very difficult decision” to take a parliamentary oath pledging commitment to a constitution that entrenches military prerogatives.
Suu Kyi this week announced that the National League for Democracy party would pledge to “safeguard” the army-drafted constitution.
“We have always believed in flexibility, in the political process… that is the only way in which we can achieve our goal without violence,” she said.
The opposition was taking a principled stance designed to promote democratic standards, some observers noted.
“But digging in too hard over the oath could have raised questions among foreign aid groups, overseas governments and hard-liners at home concerning the party’s willingness to engage in practical politics rather than confrontation and political grandstanding,” others said.
Diplomats and analysts are relieved at Suu Kyi’s climb down, reports suggest:
“This is the real starting gun for a new phase – although this farcical false start has hardly inspired confidence among parliament’s hardliners about dealing with MP Suu Kyi,” said one western diplomat……On social media websites and in Yangon’s tea-shops last weekend, the resulting disappointment over the dispute had turned widespread euphoria over the NLD’s victory in April 1 by-elections into bewilderment and even vexation.
“We didn’t vote for THIS mess,” wrote one commentator on a chat site.
In her most defensive performance yet, Ms Suu Kyi last week said she was committed to supporting Mr Thein Sein in the reform process. But, said one local critic, “If she was really committed to helping the president she wouldn’t put him in such an impossible position.”
Encouraging Ms Suu Kyi to participate in elections was a high-risk strategy for Thein Sein, the reformist president, who must now play a balancing act between hardline elements and reformers in both government and parliament. In her new capacity as MP, it is one that she too must navigate, with all the uncomfortable compromises that may bring.
The impasse over the oath was “the worst place to start a supposed new era”, noted one Yangon-based diplomat. “It confirms all the worst suspicions of the hardliners, that she [Ms Suu Kyi] is going to be nothing but trouble.”
According to Swe Win, a journalist working for Irrawaddy Magazine, “a protracted standoff would undermine [the reform process’s] still-fragile legitimacy. And it could cast doubt over President Thein Sein’s recent promise that ‘there won’t be any u-turn’ in the democratization process.”
The stakes may be even higher for the N.L.D., Win argues:
Many people here are bewildered by the oath issue: what, exactly, is the difference between “safeguarding” and “respecting” the Constitution, and is it worth fighting over? If the party refuses to back down on a matter this trivial, it risks losing the public’s heartfelt support, which is its greatest political asset.
Score 1 for top-down reform. Score 0 for the Burmese Spring.
But many Burmese democrats insist that constitutional reform is a necessary precondition for a sustainable democratic transition.
“It will be very difficult to amend the constitution,” says Ko Mya Aye, a well-known former political prisoner. “The army has 25 percent of seats but any change [to the constitution] requires 75 percent of the parliament to vote for it,” he added.
Khin Ohmar, a Burmese exile who heads the Thailand-based Burma Partnership, suggests that more widespread public support for constitutional change could be necessary if the NLD is to have any success prior to the next nationwide elections scheduled for 2015.
“It [changing the constitution] is possible only if outside parliament civil society movement is mobilized,” she says.
“Since the general election in 2010, the Burmese military has proved itself to be quite savvy,” says analyst Min Zin.
“The new generation of leaders has focused on modernization in order to bring their forces up to the level of their Southeast Asia counterparts. Their strategy is to decrease their reliance on China … and to seize the opportunity to intensify their dealings with the West,” Zin writes on the Democracy Lab channel’s Transitions, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute:
Sources close to the U.S. government told me that U.S. delegations to Burma are generally impressed by the openness of the leadership of the Tatmadaw (the armed forces)….In its efforts to court the West, the Tatmadaw wants to avoid cracking down on any Arab Spring-style of popular revolt that may arise at home. Therefore, military leaders are tolerating political liberalization, the incorporation of urban dissidents and ethnic rebels into the regime-led transition, and even the surging assertiveness of opposition forces. This toleration will likely continue so long as the reform process does not challenge the military’s veto-wielding political supremacy and economic interests.
“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,” Brian Joseph, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Senior Director for Asia and Global programs, said recently.
It is encouraging that while the reform process can generate uncomfortable unforeseen consequences for the military, including the NLD’s sweeping victory in April’s by-elections, rather than trying to stall or sabotage the process, the military “made another smart move by strengthening its position in parliament,” Zin writes:
Many observers interpret the influx of new blood to mean that the military is preparing a counterbalance against the incoming NLD parliamentarians, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. …In any case, the fact that the Tatmadaw is attaching importance to the parliament is a good sign. It’s a step toward acknowledging that parliament is more than a rubber-stamp legislature that simply endorses decisions made elsewhere. Instead, the military may actually begin to rely on the legislature as a mode of governance, a forum for articulating policy preferences, and a tool for mediating the broader interests of a diverse society. …..Its political will and potential capacity to build legislative institutions should not be disregarded, since all the other institutions in this ill-fated country so far remain completely dysfunctional.