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Looking for Hope in Burma

Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images
Aung San Suu Kyi addressing supporters at the National League for Democracy 
headquarters in Rangoon after her release from house arrest, November 14, 2010

In the ordinarily glacial world of Burmese politics, the last few weeks have been remarkably active. On November 7 the generals who run the country held the first parliamentary elections in twenty years, and only the second in half a century; a few days later, on November 13, they released the country’s preeminent opposition figure, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from seven and a half years of house arrest.

The elections themselves brought little surprise or excitement, and apparently much lower turnout in this country of more than 50 million people than the generals would have liked. They were also quickly labeled unfree and unfair by most Western governments, with the British ambassador to the country telling the BBC on the day of the vote, “Everything about this electoral process, I’m afraid, goes toward more of the same.” The party backed by the military won three quarters of the seats in Parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release has initially been a somewhat subdued affair, and by all indications deliberately so. Smiling, dressed in pink, and placing a flower in her hair as she leaned over the high, pronged gates of her lakeside villa on University Avenue in Rangoon, she greeted a crowd of several thousand enthusiastic supporters with words that made clear that she would remain firmly engaged in national politics, and yet nonetheless seemed very carefully measured. “There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk. People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal,” she told the crowd, before returning inside to consult with senior members of her National League for Democracy party, which chose to disband in May rather than declare void its 1990 electoral victory.

One widespread interpretation of recent events in the country is that the generals are gambling that after her long detention, Aung San Suu Kyi is a largely spent force, particularly among many in the country’s educated, middle, and professional classes. In dozens of interviews during a recent month I spent there, many such people criticized Suu Kyi for what they see as her past unwillingness to lower tensions with the military and seek compromise.1

I’ve told her to call for a lifting of the [international] sanctions, which the generals actually like,” said one prominent intellectual who has maintained good relations with her.

I want to tell her to impose a moratorium on politics for a while and concentrate on bringing a bowl of rice to the Burmese people, enough to eat, a bit of cooking oil. Then we can ask for a release of the political prisoners, and keep working on progress in the humanitarian situation and with poverty.

Others express dissatisfaction at the international attention focused on Suu Kyi. “They reduce our story to the lady and the thugs in green uniforms, turning the story of Burma into a classic fairy tale,” the leader of a prominent Burmese think tank in Rangoon—called Yangon in Burmese—told me. “Both sides have been stubborn, both sides have been arrogant, and both sides are utterly isolated.” Suu Kyi has been cut off from Burmese society and the world during her long periods of house arrest, and the military has retreated to its grandiosely monumental new capital, Naypyidaw, or “abode of kings,” and its illusory atmosphere of order, prosperity, and progress.

Criticisms like these against someone who has spent fifteen of the last twenty-one years of her life in detention will strike many as unfair, but they come mostly from progressives—people involved in social welfare or efforts to reduce poverty, and not from a merchant class clamoring for an end to sanctions so they can do business again. Early signs suggest that Suu Kyi is mindful of such views and is indeed eager to avoid a confrontation and to explore conciliatory contacts with the military, including support for the easing of international sanctions, perhaps in conjunction with the release of over two thousand other political prisoners who remain in detention. “I think we have to sort out our differences across the table, talking to each other, agreeing to disagree, or finding out why we disagree and trying to remove the sources of our disagreement if we possibly can,” she told the BBC.

Whatever the reservations of the country’s small professional class, the regime’s calculation that she is a spent force could founder; she appears to enjoy continuing strong and enthusiastic grassroots support. Her numerous past arrests came about not because the Western-educated elites were coalescing around her but because she had a powerful popular following, first as a leading figure in the 1988 uprising against military rule, then as the rightful but denied winner of the country’s last elections, in 1990, which were nullified by the army. In view of what Burma has been through more recently, especially the horrible destruction of Cyclone Nargis—which struck on May 2, 2008, killed at least 138,000 people and devastated much of the country’s best rice-growing lands, and was followed by severe droughts—there is no reason to expect a lessening of the popular hopes invested in her. Signs of the recent drought were apparent everywhere I traveled in the middle belt of the country, particularly in rural areas around Mandalay and Bagan, where automobile traffic is rare and where villagers complained of major crop failures and there were many beggars, including children.

Outsiders trying to make sense of developments in Burma, which, renamed Myanmar, remains one of the world’s most closed and willfully opaque societies, have tended toward the view that with both her release and the election that preceded it, the military junta, led by General Than Shwe, who came to power in 1992, is currying favor with the international community, hoping to win a measure of respectability. The junta, it is said, even hopes to eventually build relations with other countries as a useful counterweight to Myanmar’s increasingly important and imposing neighbor, China.

In differing degrees, Burmese analysts inside the country acknowledge these factors, but they tend to ascribe secondary importance to all of them. For these intellectuals and professionals who have lived through the country’s tumultuous recent history, the complicated and shadowy maneuvers now underway all have something to do with the preoccupation of General Than Shwe—who is officially almost eighty—with succession. They involve a new constitution carefully engineered to preserve the power of the military, even as the country has been making a transition to nominal civilian rule, parliamentary elections, and finally Suu Kyi’s release.

The leader of a prominent local NGO who has extensive contacts with the military, and advocated participation in the recent elections, tried to explain the mindset of a leader who by most accounts has made only two or three broadcasts to the nation in his nearly twenty years in office and has concentrated power ever more tightly in his own hands during the last decade of his rule. His style of governing is often likened by Burmese to that of a king. The NGO official told me:

Our Dear Leader, and I deliberately call him Dear Leader, because here we have a textbook case of totalitarian rule, doesn’t want to see another Dear Leader succeed him, because he knows what he did himself to his two predecessors, and all of these maneuverings are part of a script to protect his own security and that of his family in the future, and to make sure that he doesn’t end up at The Hague.

The complicated arrangements underway include a new parliamentary system that will decentralize power and, many analysts also say, allow the regime’s current number two and perhaps other military peers of Than Shwe to be skipped over in favor of more junior army figures who will lead a new, seemingly civilian regime yet to be formed. Most of the officers elected to parliament were forced to resign their military commissions before they ran. They and the military officials will also allow Than Shwe to continue wielding considerable power from behind the scenes, somewhat like China’s Deng Xiaoping during the last phase of his long political life. “Than Shwe is creating a deliberately fractured landscape,” Thant Myint-U, a New York–based Burmese writer and former official in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs told me. “This should mean that however old and decrepit he becomes, he remains more powerful than any other player.”

Since the army took power in 1962, changes of leadership have often turned on the sudden and brutal demise of high military officers who have been pushed aside and eliminated by their former deputies. Although the circumstances are murky, there is widespread belief among Burmese that Than Shwe was somehow involved in the deaths of two of the country’s previous military leaders. Ne Win, the founder of the military junta, was living in poor health under house arrest, after a long period of semiretirement, when he is said to have suffered a serious fall while bathing; he was allegedly denied adequate medical care, which led to his death. The country’s next head of state, Saw Maung, suffered sudden and profound mental disability during his four years in power. At virtually all levels of the society, people claim that he was poisoned by injection or drugged, preparing the way for Than Shwe to take power in 1992.

The outlines of Than Shwe’s life and rise from obscure origins as a rural postal clerk and later as a member of the military’s Psychological Warfare Department to a deeply superstitious and reclusive head of state are reported as solidly as possible for such an elusive and undocumented subject by Benedict Rogers in Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant. Rogers makes it clear that the long period of Than Shwe’s rule has been marked by the stark impoverishment of the society—in contrast to other countries in a region of rapid growth and social transformation—as well as by rampant corruption and tightening political repression.

In other Asian economies, rice powerhouses like Vietnam and Thailand, the governments have invested in rural roads and electricity,” I was told by the leader of an internationally respected Burmese NGO, who spoke of a “silent humanitarian crisis” with eight million or more peasants in the country’s dry zone where lives are at risk. “In our rural areas people are still using oxcarts. Oxcarts are in museums in Thailand. If you take a photo of a village in Burma with its thatched huts and rutted roads, it looks exactly as it would have a hundred years ago.”

Burmese economists say that military rule has decimated the civil service, which is afraid to pass on bad news or debate policy directives, however bizarre, or even to maintain accurate records. The result, they say, is that those wielding power have little or no grasp of economics, and few sources of feedback.

We have gotten to the point where mismanagement, isolation, and disinvestment are all converging,” said one economist, who like most Burmese professionals spoke only on condition of anonymity. “The military is isolated from its own society, socially, politically—across the board, and no bad news filters up to the top, and they’ve gotten even worse since they moved to Naypyidaw. Sitting there, they think everything is great.”

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    Photographs taken during this trip can be seen at www.howardwfrench.net . 

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