A Reconciliation Burma Needs

Published on December 30, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Korea Times – December 30, 2009

With the year 2009 closing to an end in a few days, both the Burmese people and the international community are cautiously awaiting the proposed 2010 general election. Though the electoral laws are yet to be announced, the military junta sees the election as an opportunity to legitimize its rule. But still, there are umpteen major issues the country needs to resolve before any flourishing society can emerge.

Sooner or later, the Union of Burma will need some sort of reconciliation. An outside aid or intervention can help facilitate the democratization process, but the real reform lies with the Burmese people themselves. Had there been a plan for military action by a powerful country such as the United States, it would have been the swiftest method to remove the recalcitrant military junta.

Successive military-led governments from the 1962 Revolutionary Council, to 1974 Burma Socialist Programme Party, to the 1988 State Law and Order Restoration Council, and to the 1997 State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) have governed this reclusive Southeast Asian nation by brutally suppressing the voice of the opposition groups.

The new constitution reserves 25 percent seats in parliament for the military, which will be appointed by the commander-in-chief. In the event of a ‘state of emergency’, the commander-in-chief will assume full legislative, executive and judicial powers. To amend the constitution, it will require the support of more than 75 percent of the votes.

Without an amendment, the constitution is by and large a forgone conclusion that the military will continue to rule the country under the guise of democracy. Election is likely to be held across the nation in an attempt to impress the international community that the new leadership is elected by the people. In fact, there will be a transition from SPDC to a parliament controlled by the military.

Holding of general election is the fifth of the seven-step the junta’s roadmap toward a “disciplined” democracy. The remaining two steps will be convening of elected representatives and building a modern, developed, and democratic nation.

Though the nation is headed toward an election year, it is still unclear whether the main opposition party will participate, and or will be allowed to take part at all. Whichever way it may lead to, the absence of National League for Democracy (NLD) will become a huge issue. The Western nations will use it as a case to annul the election result. And if NLD participates, it will be tantamount to abandoning the result of the 1990 election.

Since the Obama administration’s engagement policy began in September, there seemed to be a snail pace of rapprochement between the NLD and the junta. Though it may be too early to construe as the beginning of a successful reconciliation process, it still is a positive development for the country’s democratization process.

In the last few months, Aung San Suu Kyi had sent two letters to chairman of the SPDC; the first in September and the second one in November. In response to the first letter, Than Shwe granted Suu Kyi a meeting with representatives of the United States, the European Union, and Australia primarily on the issue of sanctions.

Again in response to the second letter, Suu Kyi was allowed to meet with three senior members of her NLD party – 92 year-old party chairman, Aung Shwe, 88 year-old central executive committee (CEC) member Lun Tin, and the party’s secretary U Lwin on December 16.

The second letter proposed a one-on-one meeting between Suu Kyi and Than Shwe to further discuss activities related to easing Western sanctions on Burma. As the junta’s ultimate power stays in the hands of the military chief, any meeting between Than Shwe and Suu Kyi could be a significant step toward national reconciliation.

Washington was hopeful of the development. Ian Kelly, spokesman of the U.S. state department, on December 16, said, “We continue to urge the Burmese government to engage Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition, ethnic leaders, and other stakeholders in a genuine dialogue to find a positive way ahead for the country.”

The international community needs to engage Burma with the objective of establishing a peaceful democratic society that will benefit the entire nation regardless of creeds and ethnicity.

China and India, which compete for business deals and strategic influence, need to realize the severe consequences of decades of military dictatorship in Burma. Not much story need to be elaborated: the continued influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighbouring countries and the rise of homelessness and poverty are just to name a few.

It is not military or economic collaboration with the junta that will solve the problems in Burma. The problems in Burma are ethno-political in nature. China and India’s military supplies to the Burmese government add to the woes and sufferings of the country’s ethnic minorities.

The voice of members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to be heard loud and clear at least on human rights and release of political prisoners. ASEAN leadership can no longer blame Washington for not engaging Nay Pyi Taw. It is high time that Burma starts to pave the way for national reconciliation.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers in Asia, Africa, and the United States of America.