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What does Aung San Suu Kyi's release mean for Burma?

Dr Maung Zarni

Since the release of a single dissident Aung San Suu Kyi - while holding 2,100 of her fellow dissidents behind bars who are serving up to 90 years imprisonment - the loud calls for lifting sanctions are repeated by some well-known supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi such as East Timor's Jose Ramos-Horta, as if pouring more foreign direct investment in Burma's gas and oil sector and increasing trade with the country's kleptocratic, dysfunctional State would automatically translate into public welfare.

But the more fundamental and pressing issue confronting the people of Burma is the continued refusal of the Burmese generals to take the conciliatory hand extended by Aung San Suu Kyi reflecting the multiethnic popular sentiment and desire for reconciliation and peace for all, including the generals and the military.

Dr Maung ZarniThe regime's most blatant refusal to work for peace and reconciliation was evidenced in its decision to disenfranchise 400,000 minority voters when it declared it was not opening polls in 5 major ethnic minority regions, as well as its refusal to even register community and political leaders of Kachin minority either as independents or as an ethnic national party.  

If the past 22 years is any indication Aung San Suu Kyi  is not going to get a chance for meaningful dialogue with either senior generals in their 70s or the next generation successors in their 50s.

New generation doesn't necessarily mean less militaristic and more liberal in Than Shwe's Tatmadaw or Royal Armed Forces.  I can tell you that for certain, based on my in-depth interviews with army defectors, and nearly one-decade of first-hand engagement with junior generals.   

Afterall war is highly profitable, serves the military's interests, and reinforces its self-justificatory perception that its primacy and monopoly control over all aspects of life in Burma are necessary.  They are defending the (imperial) nation-state when they torch, burn and raze to the ground ethnic minority villages, or extract natural resources, with absolutely no ecological concerns or regard for the well-being of these ethnic communities. 

There is also an external dimension to Burma's conflicts even post-Cold War.For their part, Burma's energy-craved neighbors couldn't care less about Burmese public's human insecurity as long as their energy security needs are met.

In addition, the widespread fear of balkanization one senses especially from governments in Asia, from the world's largest democracy India to autocratic city state of Singapore, has served the regime in power well.  For it frames the military-State as "too big to fail". However, if one listens carefully to Burma's different ethnic resistance groups, everyone is prepared to live within a single nation-state.  All that the ethnic communities are asking for is that the state's power structures are transformed into a federal - as opposed to unitary - structure and remove the monopoly grip on the country of a single ethnic group and/or professional class (for instance, the military).   Leaders of ethnic groups are very realistic in that they know no country in Burma's neighborhood will go to war with the Burmese regime in order to support their secession from Burma.

Foreign advocates of the military as the guardian of Burmese state conveniently ignore the objective reality on the ground: the militarized State in Burma is a categorical failure as a nation-builder, has been unable to ensure even domestic stability..

Facts speak louder than ideology.

The 'collateral damage' of Burma's domestic conflicts, both armed and unarmed, include: 2,100 multi-ethnic dissidents behind bars; hundreds of military officers who fell from favor serving lengthy prison sentences; a huge number of political exiles all over the world; several thousand minority villages razed to the ground in East Burma; an estimated half-million war- or development projects-induced displaced individuals throughout the country; 125,000 officially recognized Karen refugees in Thailand;  an equal number of Rohingya Muslim stateless people  along Bangladesh-Burma border, and thousands of unrecognized Shan refugees dispersed across Northern Thailand;  30,000 Kokant Chinese refugees who fled the fighting into China a year ago; and the 20,000 recent refugees that escaped the fighting in Thai-Burmese borders into neighboring Thailand within 24 hours of the generals' election.

Until and unless this foundational problem kept alive by successive regimes out of their imperial feudal visions for Burma, and equally important, the vested interests of the generals, this generation or next, neither peace and stability nor reconciliation will materialize in South East Asia's largest mainland country.

For the foreign governments and entities which fear balkanization in Burma, the best way to prevent or even preempt this eventuality is to start recognizing that the generals and their militaristic autocracy is not the panacea for addressing real and felt ethnic grievances and come up with conflict transformation or serious mediation initiatives.

Posted 24 November 20

Maung Zarni (m.zarni@lse.ac.uk|) is Research Fellow on Burma in LSE Global Governance and founder of the Free Burma Coalition.

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