In 2009, Moe Thee Zun (above), a famous leader of Burma’s 1988 pro-democracy movement flung his shoe at a car carrying then-prime minister Thein Sein outside the UN General Assembly in New York, writes Min Zin.
Now he is back in Burma after 24 years in exile after President Thein Sein revoked a no-entry blacklist of over 2000 opposition figures and told Irrawaddy that he planned to support the president’s reform process.
This latest “turn of events is dazzling — and also somewhat bewildering,” Zin writes for Foreign Policy’s Transitions, because the latest batch of returnees – including former student leader Naing Aung, foreign policy expert Thaung Htun, political party leader Aung Moe Zaw, and Maung Maung (right), a leader of the exiled Federation of Trade Unions-Burma – are not marginal dissidents, but heavyweight politicians.
The government clearly believes it can reap political benefits from their return, including their assistance in resolving longstanding ethnic conflicts and in lobbying the West to remove sanctions and attract development assistance. But their return may also help undermine
Aung San Suu Kyi’s status and leadership aspirations:
Not so long ago, international and domestic voices were demanding that the way to solve Burma’s crisis was by holding a tripartite dialogue between the military, Aung San Suu Kyi (standing for the pro-democracy opposition), and the ethnic minorities. All three forces are equally important players. But now the scene has changed. The military-backed president has emerged as the patron who reigns above them all as he guides diverse forces to their assigned roles in the state-led transition. This perception and policy shift is a huge victory for the Burmese military.
“If the government encourages the opposition returnees to run in the 2015 general election, it will likely undermine, or at least complicate, Suu Kyi’s campaign for leadership,’ Zin suggests.
Indeed, there are already tensions between Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and a younger generation of activists, reports suggest.
“I want to change society,” 88 Generation leader Ko Ko Gyi told AFP in the group’s small dilapidated Yangon headquarters, which plays daily host to a steady stream of monks, activists and foreign diplomats.
But it is not so far a political organization, concentrating instead on grassroots activity while other veterans of the democracy movement, most notably Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, concentrate on their new parliamentary roles.
“We deeply consider what we should do for the future. Some of the leaders are actively engaged in politics and some remain in social work. We are trying to cooperate with political parties and social organizations,” Ko Ko Gyi said.
Some advocate a continued presence outside the political sphere, so that the group can continue to champion causes on the ground, such as worker and student rights. But for other observers, their entry into the political mainstream is just a matter of time.
“Generation 88 is going to be a political party,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, a former journalist also released in January, adding that the only question is whether they will form their own party or integrate with the NLD.
“It depends on the discussions between them,” he said, hinting at some political disagreements between the Generation 88 and NLD that would have to be resolved.
“The resilience of civil society in Burma is remarkable, despite all the years of political repression,” says Stanford University’s Frances Fukuyama. “The fact that so large a degree of citizen participation exists in a country that has been one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships is nothing short of amazing.”
Nevertheless, the country’s transition could still be undermined by former military hardliners who have since donned civilian garb, he writes in the American Interest:
Indeed, the remarkable shift in power from the military and president to parliament has actually created problems for reform, since the current parliament is full of both former military officers (many of whose seats are guaranteed by the Constitution), and their civilian allies in the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). They are aligned with the crony capitalists who got rich working with the military government over the past decade, and they are now, among other things, holding up a new foreign investment law that the country desperately needs in order to kick-start economic growth once sanctions are lifted. Many of the current economic elite fear foreign competition and have been using economic nationalist arguments to limit future foreign ownership.
“While I have a relatively jaundiced view of economists these days, it struck me that what Myanmar really needed now was not more democracy activists but some competent economists like the Berkeley mafia that advised Indonesia,” says Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Foreign investors and western governments have lobbied for a new foreign investment law that, perversely, “could contribute to failure of Myanmar’s transition to democratic rule: inflexibility on the part of the parliament and the government that stalls essential reforms,” notes the Brookings Institution’s Lex Rieffel.
“An alternative approach that could yield better outcomes would focus on the many impediments in the business climate that discourage both domestic and foreign investment, such as a woefully inadequate banking system, the region’s worst information and telecommunications services, and a tragically suppressed education system,” he argues.
While some observers believe the reform process is irreversible, but there remain concerns on “whether the “flickers of progress” described by U.S. President Obama will develop into a steady flame,” writes analyst Moe Thuzar:
“Reviewing developments in 2011, the picture that emerges shows the beginning of a convergence of interests, the first in decades, between the military-backed government, the polity in Myanmar, the forces for democracy symbolized by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the international community.”
Thein Sein’s recent cabinet reshuffle, including the appointment of former Navy officer Nyan Tun as vice president, demonstrates the armed forces’ support for the beleaguered president and their commitment to the reform agenda, writes Burma specialist Larry Jagan:
His only hope now is that the greater emphasis on government efficiency will provide concrete results and clear the logjam in the reform process. “The battle between the hardliners and reformers has been exaggerated,” a presidential advisor told me recently, on condition of anonymity. “The fault line is between competence and incompetence; between effectiveness and ineffectiveness,” he added. The government must deliver on its promises, another insider said, and time is running out.
“Many people have begun to wonder when they’re finally going to see the long-awaited ‘democracy dividend,’” Jagan writes in Foreign Policy.
But the country’s military is still a wild card, analyst Bruce Gale believes:
President Thein Sein’s commitment to reform seems genuine. But his experience as an army bureaucrat rather than a combat soldier limits his influence among serving generals. He also has a heart ailment and uses a pacemaker. He may not be in control for long. Will reform continue if he is no longer around? Some observers believe that key military figures have little interest in real reform. The generals are supportive for now, but only because such reform opens up the possibility of reducing Myanmar’s dependence on China.
Aung San Suu Kyi will be among those present to pay tribute to five leading activists from Burma who will accept the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) 2012 Democracy Award honoring the Democracy Movement of Burma. The activists have endured prison and torture, and in some cases exile, in their efforts to secure freedom and democracy for the people of Burma. The award presentation will take place in the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 20.