(Commentary) – Life is full of contrasts, contradictions and surprises, and nowhere is that more true than in Burma today. In the past fortnight, I travelled to meet internally displaced people in Kachin State along the China-Burma border, where I heard some of the worst stories of human rights violations that I have ever heard in almost 15 years of involvement in Burma.
The following week, I travelled to Rangoon, where I found an atmosphere of hope that I have never seen before, and an openness that was extraordinary.
It is 10 months since I was deported from the country, and yet I was able to return, on a valid visa, with no one even batting an eyelid at the airport and not a hint of anyone watching me during the week. I was able to meet people who for years have been out of reach, in prison or house arrest, or who, even during the times they were free, were just so sensitive that a meeting would be bound to attract the authorities’ attention. Yet I walked in and out of the offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and 88 Generation Student leaders’ homes without anyone appearing to notice.
It would be too simplistic to say that the fortnight was like a journey from darkness to light, because the crisis in Kachin State is not without hope and the political changes in Burma are just the beginning, with a very long way to go and many challenges ahead. But the contrasts illustrate the situation in Burma today, a country possibly on the brink of unexpected change but with many serious questions still to answer.
In his memoir Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens quotes John Maynard Keynes’ famous words: “When the facts change, then my opinion changes: and you sir?” I am no Keynesian, and I do not believe Burma has yet changed enough to merit a total 360 degree shift in policy, but I left Burma with more hope than I have ever had for the country. The facts have not yet changed, but they are changing – and as a result, so is my analysis. The phrase on most lips is “cautious optimism,” and that sums up my views perfectly, with equal emphasis on both words. There is good reason to be optimistic now – but there are also plenty of reasons still to be cautious.
Why be optimistic? The change is largely atmospheric, but changing the atmosphere is an important first step. Allowing a foreigner who was deported less than a year before, and other foreigners who have been blacklisted for years, and exiled Burmese journalists with decades of opposition to the regime, to visit the country may be clever public relations, but it is nonetheless different from the past. In shops and street-stalls, T-shirts, calendars, posters, booklets and DVDs with pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi are on sale, and at the traffic lights young men tout copies of the movie, “The Lady.” A year ago such activities would have landed a person in jail.
From the atmospheric to the substantial, there are also significant reasons for hope. The process began last July, and within just six months Aung San Suu Kyi had met President Thein Sein, re-registered the NLD, and agreed to contest parliamentary by-elections in April. It is highly likely that two months from now, she and other NLD candidates will be elected members of Parliament. The international community has repeatedly told Thein Sein that for sanctions to be lifted, he needs to release all political prisoners, ensure the by-elections are free and fair, stop attacks on ethnic civilians, announce a nationwide cease-fire, and develop a dialogue process with Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy movement and the ethnic nationalities. To his credit, he has undertaken a good number, though not yet all, of these steps. The release of large numbers of political prisoners, including prominent political activists such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and other leaders of the 88 Generation Students, Khun Htun Oo, Zarganar and Su Su Nway, is significant and must be welcomed. A dialogue with Suu Kyi is underway, and the regime knows it is in its interests to ensure the by-elections will be fair. Even on the issue of a cease-fire with ethnic armed groups, significant progress has been made, although serious human rights violations continue and the conflict in Kachin State remains unresolved. It must be acknowledged, though, that even on the ethnic question, so crucial to the country’s future, there is some movement.
Almost everyone I met in Rangoon emphasised the changes taking place, and stressed how important it is to recognise this and encourage President Thein Sein and the reformers in the government. Within just six months, the focus has moved from bringing the generals to justice for the crimes against humanity they have committed, to encouraging and working with the reformers. That has implications for international policy.
It has long been my view that sanctions should be targeted, and should be imposed or lifted proportionately, in response to events on the ground. It is very clear now that Thein Sein has indeed taken some of the steps we have been urging, some sanctions should be lifted. It is vital that the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia send a clear message: we will be true to our word and we will recognize progress. That has already started, with the US decision to send an ambassador and upgrade diplomatic relations, and with the EU suspending the visa ban on the president and other senior figures. I welcome these steps.
Yet just as it is important to be true to our word, and to recognise the reforms so far, it is equally important to maintain pressure for more. To lift all sanctions in one go would not just be premature, it would be strategically stupid and tactically tactless. Removing all the cards from the table in one go is never a wise move. Everyone I met agrees some sanctions should be lifted, but they all emphasised that it must be done step-by-step, in proportionate response to developments. Until there is a significant improvement in respect for human rights, institutional and legislative change to secure the reforms, and a genuine peace process, some sanctions should remain in place.
Visa bans seem to be the most obvious measures to relax. If we are serious about engaging with Thein Sein and his government, we should invite them to Europe and the United States. Exposing them to open, liberal democracies would surely be a good thing. Increasing contact at all levels is part of encouraging the process of reform. I just hope that too much exposure to the mind-numbing non-entities and mind-boggling red tape in the Brussels bureaucracy and the insomnia-curing proceedings of the European Parliament will not put them off democratisation.
Just as visa bans should go, targeted sanctions on key sectors such as oil and gas, mining and timber, and asset freezes, should stay – for now. Until there is truly irreversible change, it would be wrong to pour money into the generals’ coffers. Any forthcoming foreign investment should be directed at sectors that benefit the people and the economy as a whole.
As part of the “cautious optimism” equation, I have set out the reasons for optimism. Why caution?
First, as one experienced foreign observer told me, the process is still “fragile.” Much rests on the shoulders of two individuals: Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, as it did with FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. If something happened to one of them, would the process continue? Are there enough reformers in the government to forge ahead in Thein Sein’s absence? Are there people in the democracy movement who command enough trust and respect to work with the government? Are there hardliners within the regime waiting to manoeuvre against Thein Sein? Is there a risk of an internal coup, bringing the “Burmese Spring” to an end? As one Burmese journalist told me last week, for the first time in 50 years Burma the people are praying for the president to survive, not to die. Thein Sein is known to have a heart condition. “We are all praying for his pacemaker to keep working,” I was told.
Second, although there is substance, such as the release of political prisoners, much of the change is atmospheric. There is still no institutional, constitutional or legislative change. Laws such as the State Protection Law 1975, which allows detention without charge or trial, the Unlawful Associations Act, banning contact with groups deemed to be ‘illegal’, the Emergency Provision Act, used to silence dissent, and the Electronic Transactions Law, used to stop the distribution of information the regime deems to be detrimental to its security, remain in place, and until these are repealed or amended, and the rule of law developed, political prisoners who have recently been released could be jailed again tomorrow.
Third, what will the NLD be able to do in Parliament? One sceptic believes Suu Kyi is falling into a trap, and will be exactly where the government wants her: within the system, unable to do much, and severed from her party and the people. A more optimistic view is that the NLD MPs would work with reform-minded MPs in other parties, including the majority Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), to amend the constitution, drive forward institutional change and pursue a political solution for the ethnic nationalities. It remains to be seen who is proven right.
Finally, and most importantly, the situation in the ethnic states remains grave. During my week in Kachin State, across the border from China, I heard horrific stories of torture, rape, forced labour, attacks on villages, the destruction of houses, looting of churches and killing of civilians. I interviewed over 20 people who had fled their villages, and about 70 per cent of them had stories involving killings. They were civilians, not Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers. They were farmers shot dead in their paddy field, or a mother shot dead in her home, witnessed by her 12 year-old son. I met a pastor who was repeatedly and savagely beaten and tortured for six hours. I met a man who had been shot and survived – he showed me the bullet and the wound.
The KIA has itself been accused of abuses, and such allegations should not be ignored. They should be discussed and investigated. But in terms of sheer scale and severity, the Burma Army’s violations are far more widespread and systematic, and as long as these continue, any optimism we have for Burma must inevitably be tempered by caution and deep concern.
I was with the leaders of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) at the time when talks were taking place with the government in Ruili, China. I was deeply impressed by their commitment to seeking a genuine peace, making several points abundantly clear: they are for the Union of Burma, not secession (despite their name); they want to talk and they want peace; but they do not wish to go back to the cease-fire they had for 17 years, which was simply an absence of war rather than a real peace. They want a political solution that will ensure a meaningful peace. They submitted detailed proposals to the government for a political process to accompany a ceasefire – a political process that must involve all Burma’s ethnic nationalities.
The ethnic question will only be resolved when Burma’s government, and the democracy movement, agree with the ethnic nationalities on a political structure that guarantees them a degree of autonomy, recognises their ethnic identity, upholds equal rights and does away with Burman superiority and racial prejudice. For too long, ‘federalism’ – the desire of the ethnic nationalities – has been misunderstood and misrepresented as an idea that would lead to the fragmentation of the country. Yet the opposite is the case – federalism, as the examples of the United States and Germany show, is a structure that strengthens a country. Unity in diversity should be the principle for Burma. A national convention, in which the government, the democracy movement and the ethnic nationalities participate, should be held to establish Burma as a genuine federal democracy. International expertise in conflict-resolution, inter-ethnic identity and relations, and federal constitutions should be brought in to contribute advice and expertise to all sides. It is far less complex than some would have us think, and if this is done, Burma has a chance of a genuine and lasting peace and an end to more than 60 years of civil war.
Many will question the regime’s motives. Why the change, why now, and why so quickly? It is hard to believe the senior members of the regime, including Thein Sein, have had a road to Damascus experience and woken up one morning realizing that the past 50 years have been all wrong, and democracy is their heartfelt belief. Even if Thein Sein is genuine about reform, his motives are likely to be mixed. He wants sanctions lifted, he wants the Asean chairmanship, he wants international legitimacy, and he recognizes that the status quo is unsustainable. It is highly likely that the former strongman, Senior-General Than Shwe, has approved the process because his priority is to protect himself and his family, and he would prefer a gradual change in which his livelihood and wealth is secure, to a popular uprising as in the Arab Spring. He and Thein Sein saw what happened to Gaddafi and Mubarak, realized that their own days were numbered, and concluded that a slow transition was the only option.
Cynics will point to the fact that Thein Sein has been part of the system all these years, and that he has blood on his hands. No doubt – but it was ever thus. In any transition process, except where a popular uprising leads directly to a dictator’s downfall, reformers come from within the system and, by definition, they have mixed motives and bloody records. South Africa’s FW de Klerk, the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev and Indonesia’s B.J. Habibie were hardly closet democrats all their lives, waiting for the moment when they could reach the top and unleash reform. They were complicit with their regimes’ crimes, but they recognized that, for their own survival, things had to change. In the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom appointed reform-minded ministers in a cynical public relations exercise to appease growing international criticism. In the event, the reform-minded ministers proved to be more reformist than Gayoom intended, and the process led to free and fair elections which the opposition leader, Mohamed Nasheed, won. In 2006, I visited Nasheed when he was under house arrest; two years later, he was elected President. Could something similar occur in Burma? I would not discount it.
Saw Tamla Baw, president of the Karen National Union (KNU), said recently that the peace process still involves “thousands” more steps. He is absolutely right. There is still a very long way to go. But for the first time in more than 20 years, Burma has a chance of change. And as the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
– Ben Rogers is the author of “Than Shwe – Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant.”
He works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.