1. The west-driven support to Burma's pro-democracy movement has reached its limit.
2. The regime has maintained its intuitional apparatus to crackdown domestic oppositions after the monk-led protest and the Cyclone Nargis.
3. The military is facing dilemma to proceed to the transition in 2010 because of the distrust of the oppositions and the lack of civilian partnership.
4. Factional mobilizations can lead to instabilities after 2010.
5. Conflict prevention based on reconciliation and nation-building should be priority after the coming election.
6. The emergence of moderate political forces is critical to promote reconciliation after 2010.
The Burmese regime has claimed to hold a new election in 2010 to facilitate a formation of a civil-military government in accordance with the military-orchestrated constitution which was approved in a widely slated referendum held last year. The prospect of the new election is a moral and strategic dilemma to the oppositions, especially the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its supporters who are entrenched in their upholding of the NLD's victory in the eighteen-year-old election.
Any proponent of the new election will undoubtedly find it hard to make a moral advocacy without risking an inadvertent endorsement of the reprobated constitution. However, the participation of moderate pro-democracy forces in the 2010 election is strategically sound and practically necessary to avoid instability and foster much-needed reconciliation for Burma's political and ethnic crises. This essay addresses why the 2010 election is important, and how the moderates can nurture reconciliation after 2010.
The State of the Opposition Movement
Before we think of the future, we should honestly assess our pro-democracy opposition movement, especially its west-driven support.
The attack on Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade in Depayin and the crackdown on the NLD in 2003 marked a turning point in the conflict. The Depayin incident was also an enlightening moment for some opposition members to re-evaluate their strategies in Burma's protracted conflict.
The Depayin clampdown invigorated ferocity and anguish among the Burmese opposition communities. The emotional instinct called for escalation of the conflict to punish the military's onslaught on the NLD. Furious responses from the international community, including the abrasive condemnations coming from the US senior official, appeared to convince Burmese oppositions that their supporters in the west were ready to boost up Burma's opposition movement beyond rhetoric and miniscule financial supports.
Nevertheless, Burma's pro-democracy movement was merely a moral case for the west. Moral concern is usually inferior to strategic needs in international relations.
Even the Bill Clinton's administration approved about $ 100 million to support the Iraqi oppositions in 1998.1 Compared to this amount, less than $10 million of US funding, including the money to assist refugees and humanitarian programs, was a drop in an ocean of need to boost up an opposition movement.
The Depayin crackdown revealed the reality of the international support to the pro-democracy movement. A few exiles had reached a conclusion on the international front—the west-driven support to Burma's pro-democracy movement has exhausted its capacity in the international system.
On the political front, the NLD explicitly called for the intervention of the United Nations Security Council. The actual reason behind the NLD's SOS signal was its leadership's realization that the government had effectively clamped down the party's capacity to mobilize inside the country. While Aung San Suu Kyi and her able colleagues were under detention, the junta's restrictions had potently demolished the party's grassroots foundation.
The Burmese oppositions and their supporters in exile well heeded the NLD's distress call. Some activist lawyers in Washington prepared a lengthy and controversial appeal, commissioned by Former Czech President Vacláv Havel and noble laureate Desmond M. Tutu. The document argued that Burma under the military junta was a threat to regional stability although all neighboring countries refused to endorse this claim. Burma's threat to peace allegation came neither from the Pentagon nor the US intelligence community. It was a pure agenda from the activists using it as leverage to elevate pressure over the regime.
Despite the understanding in advance that such appeal at the UNSC would not survive, the US Congress and the Bush administration rode the flow of the activists' agenda. In contrast, the Clinton administration chose not to pursue the similar agenda at the UNSC after US ambassador to UN Madeleine Albright met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 because of the same reason of an eventual failure. The result is the history.
Both the free Burma movement and the free Tibet campaign share the same fate. Both movements have been remarkably successful in awareness campaigns. However, awareness is only the first step to mobilize international support in transnational causes. The actual policy making depends on the willingness and capability of the international powers. Both free Burma and Tibet movements grind to a halt when their fates fall into the hands of the international system.
In the domestic front, the junta faced two major crises almost simultaneously within 8 months. The monk-led uprising brought thousands of people to the streets for the first time in eighteen years. Cyclone Nargis virtually destroyed the rice bowl of Burma in the delta region and killed over 130,000 people, marking it the worst natural disaster in Burma history. Nevertheless, the regime survived both crises.
The military proved its institutional capacity to shoot, arrest and torture even monks who are regarded one of the three most revered in Burmese society. The Cyclone deepened poverty and forced people to prioritize their economic survival over political dissatisfaction. The regime has successfully preserved its capacity to quash political challenges after two major crises.
The Limitations of the Military Junta
The major difference between Gen. Ne Win's military coup in 1962 and the current junta is the former's ability to consolidate its power by institutionalizing a one-party state 12 years after the military takeover. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) successively claimed it was a coup d'état government. The nature of the current junta is transitional. Unlike Ne Win's coup, the current junta is not capable of institutionalizing its rule into a formal political system.
In addition, the regime is under constant pressures domestically and internationally although the junta is capable of withstanding them from pushing it to collapse or concede the oppositions' demands. The Depayin incident accelerated the regime's eventual end game, 7-step Road Map to a political transition.
The transition plan is based on the regime's orchestrated constitution which the junta forced through in a rigged referendum amidst the cyclone crisis in May 2008. According to the Road Map, the regime will hold a new election in 2010 and form a new government. The military will have 25 percent of seats in the Parliament, and the military's interests will be protected.
However, the interpretation of the constitution in practice will depend on the degree of participation by civilian politicians in the election and the authority of the elected representatives in the government. The constitution itself does allow elected members to hold substantial power in the new government. The legitimacy of the 2010 election depends on the participation of pro-democracy civilians and their roles in the new government.
The regime is also facing a dilemma based on three major concerns. First, the military is reluctant to open up political space for the civilian politicians to mobilize to contest in the election because the regime learned a hard lesson after it had released former student leaders and allowed them to organize their supporters. Their mobilization paved a way to the monk-led protest in 2007. The regime is very careful this time not to repeat the previous mistake.
Second, the regime is concerned with the repetition of the NLD's another victory in the 2010 election. The dominance of anti-military oppositions in the civilian portion of elected representatives will encourage the oppositions to challenge the military after the election. In other words, the military wants more 'moderate' opposition to contest in the election than the hard-liners. The release of student leaders in 2004 partially aimed at creating a so-called 'third force' between the NLD and the regime. However, the student leaders chose to take hard-line stance.
The regime's strategy appears to minimize the influence of hard liners, including the NLD, in the opposition movement. The recent arrests and severe jail-terms imposed on the activists are a part of the plan to steer clear hard-line elements before the election comes. On the other hand, an alternative third-force in the opposition movement is not in an organized form. Because of the nature of polarization in Burma's conflict, many moderate individuals are reluctant to engineer a third-force platform which is a politically derogative term for the Burmese oppositions.
Third, the regime is worried that the emerging civilian-led government would undermine the military's institutional interests. The military wants to avoid creating a Frankenstein monster by its own Road Map. The military therefore embedded protective clauses in the constitution to guarantee its own interests because of its distrust on civilian politicians.
Overall, the SPDC does not have viable civilian partnership in the new government after 2010. Lack of confidence on civilian politicians and amicable partnership has fostered siege mentality among the military leaders who cling onto the constitution and use suppression to safeguard their interests.
Civilian Forces in the 2010 Election
Depending on their roles and stance towards the coming election, there are four types of civilian politicians, in addition to the pro-military elements to contest the election. The majority of the oppositions strongly condemned the regime's road map. They will continue to reject the 2010 election and refuse to participate. These hardliners among the opposition movement are mostly in exile. Most hardcore activists inside the country have been placed under detention since the crackdown of the monk protests. The hardliners' voice will make little impact on the holding of the election.
The second type of oppositions sees the election as a step towards a confrontation with the military. Despite its call to recognize the result of the 1990 general election, the NLD is likely to participate in the 2010 election because it is the only option for Daw Suu's party to reclaim its legitimacy and remobilize its supporters after 2010. For many hardliners, including the Burmese Communist Party, the coming election is a tactical battleground for further escalation of the conflict.
The third political group views the coming election as an enticing opportunity to pursue their interests. Many ceasefire groups fall into this account. They will seek to strengthen their legitimacy through the existing electoral process regardless of the degree of fairness and freedom of the election. Some ceasefire groups are also inclined to transform into the fourth category, the third force.
Most individuals in the so-called third force inside Burma are non-NLD pro-democracy activists who disagree with the NLD's sanction-oriented policy and confrontation with the regime. They regard themselves moderates and share a view that the current NLD-led opposition movement is a failure. Many individuals in the third force include former political prisoners, elected representatives from the NLD, current leaders in NGOs, and environmental activists. Although they have not emerged as an institutionalized political force, they are likely to establish their political platform to contest the 2010 election.
Potential Instability after the 2010 Election
Under the current constitution, the likely polity in Burma is inclined towards illiberal democracy after 2010. Illiberal democracy is the most potent ingredient for instability when poor economic performance and factional mobilization characterize a new transition, according to the study of world-wide instabilities since 1955.2
Any new government, regardless of the forms of transition, will not be able to revive the country from current economic pauperization in a short term. Poverty will continue and quality of life remains poor after 2010. Economic destitutions are usually channeled towards political discontent. Under poverty, Burmese people will remain dissatisfied with the government as long as the military is a part of the ruling institution.
Illiberal democracy also expands political space for formerly suppressed oppositions who were deprived of political mobilization under the previous system. Economically dissatisfied public is vulnerable to political instigation stirring up unrests. The hardline oppositions will utilize newly emerging political space to mobilize poverty-stricken angry publics to pressure the new government. Their objective will aim to scrap the existing constitution and boot the military out of politics.
On the other hand, the military is likely to be politically defensive after the 2010 election while taking shelter under its brainchild constitution. The military's 25 percent of representatives in the parliament and its supporters will continue to preserve the military's institutional interests threatened by the oppositions' mobilization. Alternatively, the military may disenfranchise potential hardliners in the 2010 election and continue to deny their political freedom even after 2010. In both scenarios, the confrontation between the military and hardcore oppositions is likely to escalate after the election.
Another challenge for the post-2010 government is disarrangement and demobilization of ceasefire groups. Twenty-year old ceasefire has not addressed political settlement of fifteen major ceasefire groups whose strength reaches over 40,000 armed troops, approximately four-time larger than the size of Taliban in Afghanistan. Any misstep in the 2010 transition can trigger the revival of major armed conflicts in the country. The outbreak of wars will inevitably promote the role of military in Burma's politics.
Realistic Reconciliation after 2010
The only way to avoid potential instabilities, destructive confrontation and the revival of suppression is to purse realistic reconciliation after 2010. Reconciliation needs political space, common ground and readiness of both parties. The opposition's call for reconciliation in the past has failed because of the lack of all major premises.
The transition in post-2010 may not foster willingness to reconcile but will create political space to expand shared common ground where confidence can be restored among major parties in the conflict. In the past up to this point, both sides use 'reconciliation' merely as a political lexicon to take advantage over another while neglecting common grounds to cooperate on shared interests of the nation.
It will be the first time in 22 years both civilian politicians and the military representatives will be sitting under the same roof in the Parliament. It will also be the venue for both the military and civilians to interact in policy making and mutually envisioning the future. Against all odds, the transition in 2010 offers an opportunity to jumpstart confidence building to seek much need reconciliation for the country.
Realistically, the regime's Road Map is inevitable. The military will not drop its Road Map and seek an alternative political settlement with the opposition. Any political outcomes have to go through the military-led transitional process. In the past, the military is asked to sit down at a table set up by the opposition. It is now inexorable for the oppositions to proceed to the table prepared by the military.
The reconciliation after 2010 may not be an immediate tripartite dialogue among the military, pro-democracy oppositions, and ethnic minorities. The process will be likely initiated in phases, starting with the military and moderate political forces in the parliament and the government. The ceasefire groups in the political process can play a crucial role in steering the dialogue towards the issues of ethnic minorities.
Prevention of destructive conflicts and nation-building should be the priorities after 2010. These two critical processes are the indispensable steps towards successful democratization. Factional mobilization will be detrimental to any progress of liberalization and democratization. The grim truth about democratic transition is the fact that among 108 democratic transitions, only 12 countries have consolidated democracy since 1955.3 In many cases, instability follows transitions. Some countries fell back to some forms of autocracy. Many transitional countries are still struggling with factionalism.
Burma conflict is vastly factionalized, and the polarity between the military and the oppositions is deeply entrenched. The traditional opposition forces will likely take the path of confrontation with the military after 2010. Confidence building won't be materialized as long as both the civilian politicians and the military fail to cooperate in shared common interests, such as economic development, health care, security and public welfare. The essential approach is collaboration in common grounds instead of all-out confrontation.
As long as the junta sees no viable civilian partnership after 2010, the military will restrict the participation of civilian politicians in the coming election and their capacity to mobilize. The only civilian force willing to categorically cooperate with the military is moderate non-NLD pro-democracy activists who feel discontented with the status quo in the opposition movement. Although the military may not trust this so-called third force, it is the only viable civilian partnership the military needs to implement its Road Map.
The military and the third force share similar interests in development-related fields which can be the initial point of cooperation to foster confidence in civil-military relation. Pro-democracy orientation of the moderates can bridge the relationship between traditional oppositions and the military. The third force can function as a requisite buffer between both ends of hardliners by minimizing polarization in Burma conflict.
The major drawback of the potential third force in Burma is the lack of substantial leadership and institutionalization. The moderate force has not been able to organize its political platform and leadership structure to function as a feasible political institution. The election in 2010 will likely be a breeding ground to shape the structure of moderate force in Burmese politics. As long as the military's Road Map is the inescapable point for a change in Burma, the emergence of competent third force is strategically important to jumpstart reconciliation after 2010.
(Min Zaw Oo is a security analyst focusing on South and Southeast Asia region. He is also a PhD candidate at George Mason University, writing his dissertation on the analysis of 108 democratic transitions. Oo holds a MA in Security Studies, Georgetown University, and a MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolutions, George Mason University.)