National Convention: Achilles heel of Burma’s political transition

Published on February 24, 2005

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Burma, like many other nations, is the haven for diverse ethnic groups. The country, known for one of the world’s worst and longest dictatorial regimes, is simultaneously enlivened with favors and cherishing endearments by its neighboring countries. The international community is intriguingly divided on the question of the military regime’s legitimacy and preparedness for the country’s democratization process.

While Asian countries tend to stay silent, the western world led by the United States of America has been  staunch proponents for a transparent democratic change in Burma. With the present concept, the national convention becomes the “Achilles Heel” of Burma’s political transition.

On the 17th of February 2005, the first step of the then Prime Minister, General Khin Kyunt’s masterpiece road map for democracy called “National Convention” was reconvened despite scores of critical rhetoric from different quarters. Stiffening toes and deafening ears to others’ criticisms, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) stuck itself to the barrel. Thus, the government’s ingenious formula to implement the seven-step road map for democracy has always become a question to be reckoned with.

In conjunction with the government efforts to legitimize its administration, Burma’s Prime Minister General Soe Win and Nyan Win, the Foreign Minister, began touring neighboring countries by soliciting their co-operation. At their closed-door meeting on the 21st February of 2005 in Manila, General Soe Win and the Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo touched issues on boosting economic ties as well as the promotion of human rights.

Philippines extended a red-carpet welcome and a 21-gun salute to Soe Win and his entourage at the Palace grounds while protesters chanted slogans such as “Don’t do business with dictators” and “General Soe Win, How many Burmese did you kill?” This reflects the replica of how repressive the dictatorial regime is.

Burma, while waiting for its turn to chair the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2006, is leaving no stone unturned to appease the constituent member countries. With its policy of non interference on member country’s internal affairs, ASEAN has been opting to stay away from Burma’s political imbroglio.

To the Burmese military leaders, winning the support and confidence of its neighbors is construed as legitimizing the dangling hierarchy of the junta. Soe Win’s approach to garner the political backing from neighboring countries was keenly followed by Nyan Win, Burma’s Foreign Minister, visit to Bangladesh from February 24-26.

Amidst volley of criticisms and oppositions both within and abroad, the procrastinated National Convention was resumed. Not overlooking the stringent voices of the international community and exiled Burmese pro-democracy activists around the world, the intransigent approach of opposition groups within the country is plausible.

The cohesive stance of Committee Representing People’s Parliament (CRPP), formed in 1998 and an umbrella organization of different parties representing the diverse ethnic groups, is encouraging. Among others, U Thong Kho Thang, an elected Member of Parliament from Tamu Township in Upper Sagaing Division, open denouncement of the inclusion of his name among the 1088 convention’s attendees is an epitome of resolute politicking.

Many independent political observers are skeptical of the six laid objectives and 104 basic rules embedded with the road map for democracy.  Although it is a positive initiative of the SPDC to convene the convention by reaching ceasefire agreements with a number of armed revolutionary groups, the image of the convention is loomed and overshadowed by the continued detention of NLD leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the party’s Vice-President, U Tin-Oo.

The convention’s image was subsequently tarnished by the arrest of leaders from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) including its chairman, U Hkun Htun Oo. With the convention rolling on with its exclusive nature, the outcome will partially or entirely be null and void. The basic democratic values are hijacked and distorted by the regime. Drafting of any constitution, which will be the guiding principle of the country, without equal representation, is a “hard nut to crack.”

The strategic framework of the government emanates critical political errors. In order to solidify the fledgling Burmese political structure, the country needs to be a congenial place for all parties and groups regardless of their political affiliations. Barring a group or party in the shaping of a national political machine will be counter productive.

Burma needs a national convention where the military leaders, the National League for Democracy and ethnic groups amicably negotiate for the future of the Union of Burma. With its present concept, the convention itself becomes the “Achilles Heel” of Burma’s political democratization process because of the non inclusion of all parties.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).