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Can the Military Elite Rule Burma forever? A political essay on Burma

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SPDC top leaders on the Army Day

BY Banya Hongsar, Canberra

Burma has been ruled by the military for over twenty years, and soldiers are everywhere in the country. Although the military cannot rule the nation as a government, it can control Burma and treat it as a commodity. Ordinary citizens live in constant fear of attacks from all sides, from both political and armed groups. Western nations have been watching and listening to all the suffering of Burma’s people for over two decades; it is time to change the game. The upcoming election has been designed by the military elite to include a constitutional amendment that will see the inclusion of 20 percent of the Defense Force into the quota of Nation Parliament. This is an assault on the fundamental rules of democracy.

Calling an election without popular support from the public is shameful. The election desired by Burma’s military elite has no credibility unless political leaders are freed from prison and candidates are freely allowed to campaign for at least 60 to 90 days before Election Day. Our nation is grossly underdeveloped and struggling to meet basic needs. Over 200,000 people have fled across its borders to Thailand, Malaysia and other neighboring countries for survival. When they arrive they are quickly blacklisted as ‘illegal immigrants’ and are not protected from exploitation, discrimination and violence as they struggle to earn their livings working in appalling conditions. This is a direct result of military rule in Burma. The military government simply cannot provide social welfare to its people but blames others, like opposition or ethnic resistance groups, for causing their inadequacies. This cyclical “blame game” of dirty politics has been ongoing for half a century.

In the case of Mon State, over 10,000 children are unable to attend primary school each year due to displacement and related conflicts between military and anti-military groups. The Education Report released by the military government is not a reliable source of a public record. Lack of access to education for children both in the border areas and in Thailand has a substantial negative impact on the nation and on regional security at large. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the current military government, has denied all accusations that it has caused conflict and crisis in the country.

Burma has the potential to be a place of human enlightenment, as for centuries it has been enriched by Buddha’s teachings and laws, yet its place in world history reflects only its crises and its standing on the world stage as an unsafe country. However, the military leaders take no responsibility for any impact their actions have had on its global reputation, despite their rule destroying the country’s civil society, community harmony and social capital. Burma’s younger generations have sacrificed too much in their attempts to build a peaceful and prosperous country. Over 3,000 young students and monks have been killed for calling on the regime to change in the last 20 years. Our colleagues have been, and still are, detained, tortured and imprisoned without legal charges, on the grounds that they are a threat to national security. On the contrary, daily reports from inside Burma suggest that the real threats to national security are the military soldiers.

World-renowned, well-loved, and internationally recognized Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democracy icon, has been detained for most of the past 15 years, and forced to live under house arrest in her home in Rangoon, Burma’s former capital city. She has made compromises and attempts at meaningful dialogue with the military junta in attempts to solve the Burma crisis through equal representation. But Senior General Than Shwe, the country’s leader who cares about nothing more than his own power and his military men, has repeatedly rejected her requests. He attempted to conclude the sham National Convention in late 2006 and designed a new constitution without proper legal safeguards and popular debate among elected parliamentarians, but called for a referendum in May 2008. The new constitution is nothing more than military laws, which rule the nation via top military commanders in all States and Regions. There are no civil right that are guaranteed under the constitution. In all circumstances, appointed military commanders will rule the nation, as demanded by Than Shwe.

This military rule is backed by China’s business investments and interest in Burma’s resources. China sucks all resources for its economic boom from Burma for dirt-cheap prices. China’s expansion into Burma is not only for business and investment interests, but also for geo-political interests, to counter nations like India and the US’s influence on Burma’s future government. A poor country like Burma already relies heavily on imported goods from China, beginning with household items and ending with highly complex military hardware for the ruling military junta. Burma’s unofficial opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi understands the relations between China and Burma, and as such has not made any public criticism toward Chinese leaders.

Historically, China is not Burma’s best ally; it has been attacking Burma since 13 AD. However, the current Chinese leaders have a new regional outlook on economic power and this couples well with Burma’s ruling junta’s need of an ally while it is under pressure from the western nations like the US and UK. The ruling junta has expanded its national infrastructure, including bridges and a new capital city, with the technical support of China. For over 20 years, China has aided the ruling junta to remain in power.

According to Tony Abbott, an Australian Member of Parliament and current leader of the opposition, “Time is everything in politics.” While this may be true in democratic Australia, the same cannot be said for Burma, where the political game is played by only one side. The opposition leader in Burma has been banned from meeting with the media and other politicians from her own party for over 16 years. Burma’s people understand local politics better than any foreigners or so-called “Burma Experts”, but the punishment of making a complaint to local, national or central public authorities is quite severe, earning lengthy periods of imprisonment. There are no laws in place to protect members of the public if they wish to raise any issues that impact local education, health or community safety. Anyone can be charged by the military if the State declares he or she is a threat to “State Security” in any way. The state security act is a tool for the ruling military junta to elicit fear from the public.

The police and military can shoot-on-site anyone if they assume he or she is a threat to “State Security”. They do not require strong evidence. Therefore, our young activists have fled and left the country to find alternative ways of fighting for civil and political rights in the country. We are aware that Burma will not become a democracy within days, but with persistence the transformation of the ruling system is a possibility. The western nations were fighting for civil rights not so long ago, but the ruling system is still not perfect. However, a democratic nation could provide essential services like health, housing and community services to the public with a strong public services system in place like in the UK, Australia and USA. The ruling military elite has no capacity to provide these essential services to a population of over 50 million. The Western leaders’ call for democratic change comes from a genuinely good place, however Burma’s ruling elite have easily ignored it for over twenty years.

Our country has been wasting our human resources for over twenty years by forcing young people to flee the country for in search of work in Thailand. Thailand exploits every opportunity to use cheap labor from Burma. Even so, Burma’s migrant workers have been better off across the border than at home, with countries including Thailand and Malaysia providing a haven for some young people, even though they live with little access to local healthcare and education. Children who have been born either on neighboring borders or in Malaysia have missed basic education and community language classes, with significantly negative impacts on childhood development. Ignoring this plight is a serious breach of Human Rights standards concerning the welfare of children. We have seen countless photographs from Burma news websites that displaced children are at risk being denied child safety and early childhood development. It is unthinkable that the ruling military elites can turn a blind eye to the plight of these children for so many years. It is irresponsible of the head of State or the King under the rule of Burma’s culture to take no action to provide welfare for disadvantaged citizens. Our land is rich in resources and holds sufficient wetlands and water for cultivation of rice and corn but farmers are struggling to meet their basic needs. The ruling military junta is responsible for forcing children and families from their homes and lands, and for placing them in dangerous situations either in border areas or in other countries as illegal immigrants.

There is no logical thought that Burma can be ruled by the military elite and the ex-military men who it has selected as candidates for the next election. Safeguarding the role of the military representative to the National Parliament under the constitution is an assault on fundamental democratic principles. However, the ruling military junta shamelessly amended the new constitution with its desire to rule the nation as a quasi-military and civilian government. This creates potential further conflicts of interest among these candidates and other civilians on power sharing and exercising or executive power at the administrative level. This, once again creates a tension between ex-military candidates and civilian representatives at the National Parliament. Hence, the ruling junta can easily claim that the National Parliament does not hold the capacity to lead the nation and so, the Defense Force has no alternate option but to seize the State power for its sovereignty. This tactic was applied in 1962 and in 1988 when the country was in unresolved political crises between the ruling military backed elites and the non-Burmese ethnic minority leaders and democratic forces. The ruling system has been broken for half a century remains unfixed in the present day.

Politics in Burma are not about party politics but rather national politics. The Burmese elite ruled other non-Burmese ethnic people in the early 17th century, a time when they claimed to the British that Burma was one unified state by the time Independence was granted in 1948. The Mon Peoples’ last capital, Pegu, was invaded by Burma’s troops in 1757 followed by other invasions across other ethnic States. All citizens lived equally under the British rule of law for over one hundred years. However, Burma’s elites claimed a “One Burma” policy prior to granting independence with political manipulation of other non-Burmese ethnic people under the ‘Pa Land Agreement’ in 1947. This has been the root cause of the crisis in Burma for over sixty years. It is not a simple party’s politics between the ruling military elites and the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues; those are ex-military servants. The western media wrongly reported and perceived that Burma’s crisis is just between the current ruling military elites and the democratic force led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Indeed, Suu Kyi is the best candidate to unite Burma’s people from all sides of politics and she has more credibility than other leaders. However, the crisis did not start with her and she has no political capital to confront the ruling elites with the support of non-Burma’s ethnic leaders. Despite her attempts to break through and hold mature dialogue and roundtable political meetings with the ruling junta from time to time in the last three to four years, her humble requests have been dumped into Senior General Than Shwe’s trash bin.

It is time for groups from all sides of Burmese olitics, the ruling military junta, the democratic force led by Suu Kyi’s party, and Burma’s ethnic peoples’ leaders, to find a common ground in this crisis. An election is not a suitable option in the country while no one trusts each other, and no side of politics holds the will to find common ground. Politics is about people. It is about the nation’s welfare and people’s wellbeing. It is not about power for someone or some groups. The nation has been ruled by one group of the elite for too long and this perception has to be challenged and changed. This is a new battleground for democracy activists, and new politicians in the country and in exile. They value thier country, however they have lost thier common ground in politics.

Politics is about finding common ground in this century. Power is not simply about power, rather it is about people. It is time that we discuss the best options for running the country, that enhances our desires under the rules of law. Creating a new system that allows for each party and each leader’s participation in the National Convention is the key to any real “Road Map to Democracy” in the Burma. Participatory democracy is a new system that requires Burma’s leaders to walk and talk around the country. Extremism is dead in politics. Nationalism cannot find common ground to break thorough between ethnic peoples and Burma’s military elites. It is a new era and it has to come up with new a vision for Burma’s politics. We have seen that our leaders played many cards in Burma’s politics to gain power via shortcuts but they failed to deliver to the nation and the people.

We have the best opportunity to change the mindset in our own situation. The system has been broken for many years for many reasons. There is no time to blame the past system, but there is always time to discuss to the current system and what went wrong in the first place. We have the capacity and skills to fix it with the support of good friends from western nations and neighboring countries. The country needs all resources from all human capital both at home and in exile. The last option is just to find a common ground in new politics.

The ruling military elites have a choice to make prior to the election. It is the choice of finding a common ground that guarantees the people security and safety after the election regardless of the outcome of a popular vote. People will vote for the best candidate in each election based on the time and circumstance of politics and local environment. The ruling military elite has to communicate well and build trust between civilian politicians and leaders of the non-Burmese political party who have a vision of finding common ground in politics. There are some old and new politicians who are never willing to find common ground in politics; they hold extremism for individuals’ sake. We have to ignore those who have a lack of political vision in creating a new political system for Burma. In fact, Burma does not belong to one elite group or one ethnic group, it belongs to each individual who was born in the country. Our old and new political leaders have a common purpose that is to serve the best interests of the nation and people. This foundation can be found by stepping forward towards a better understanding of different political goals in modern Burma’s political landscape. The system is an ongoing evolutionary process and it has to be remade and remodeled again and again so that it may best serve its purpose. Neither a democracy nor a socialist system is perfect in modern politics, but they both hold a common purpose, to serve the nation and the people.

Burma is moving towards a democratic system that is ruled “by the people, for the people” in the new 21st Century. We are not alone in our struggle for change and for a set of new political beliefs and system. Most countries in Asia and the Pacific region have experienced this journey and have done so not without cost. Our new leaders and leaders from all racial backgrounds have a moral responsibility to save the country before it wholly collapses. Moral corruption is the most dangerous feature in politics. Our old leaders from 1940 until now have been a morally corrupt group of people, who held narrow views and have been capable of carrying out harsh acts of selfishness. Man can rule the country with a gun for a short time, but the gun will be his own downfall. Modern politics is beyond a gun and power. Sharing common purpose for the welfare of the people in the same situation at the same place is a new norm in politics. We will be dealing with hundreds of thousands of social and other economics problems under financial uncertainty in a free world market. However, each individual has a role to play in modern politics when the government cannot hide behind their lies, as free press and ever-expanding global media ensures they are held accountable. People know what is right and wrong for them and indeed for the community. The military elite or civilian politicians will not have the same luxuries as before. if they are committed to change national political system under a democratic system. Prime Minister and Ministers will be under the watchful eye of the media for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they have to answer all questions to the public. This is a test for Burma’s new political system in the coming years.

The ruling class of Burma has changed in the last half century. It has been under the hand of the military elite and so, the nation has been in poor condition in every way. It is time to create a new political system where each stakeholder works together towards a common ground in politics. Burma will be changed not as a result of the election, but as a result of building a mature trust amongst leaders and politicians. This is the step forward that is needed on the “Road Map to Democracy” and it is the necessary and noble task of both the military elite, and the civilian politicians in Burma.

15 February 2010, Canberra
Note: This articled is edited by Emily Dulton, Melbourne based Post Graduate Student.

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