Caucus of terrorists

Defiance on the streets of Rangoon, September 2007.


Burma’s ruling generals have a catchall word for all those outside the country who want to usher in democracy – terrorists. Whizzing about northern Thailand, meeting exiled politicians and activists, I feel somewhat let down – they are, in the main, a peace-loving lot.

They see themselves as part of the same struggle as the main actors within the country – the beleaguered National League for Democracy (NLD), the activists of the 88 Generation Students Group, the leaders of the ethnic resistance movements, dissatisfied citizens and, more recently, the monks. So I ask these exiles the unfairest question of them all: what is Burma’s future?

A composite answer emerges that doesn’t really surprise. After 46 years of military rule, Burma is ripe for change. It’s now 20 years since the mass uprisings for democracy which brought Aung San Suu Kyi to the fore. And it’s 18 since her party’s landslide win in national elections, which the ruling junta swiftly annulled. In all these years, the country has accumulated a long list of woes: grinding poverty, pitiful infrastructure, endemic corruption, zero human rights, drugs, HIV. In all these years, opposition has been building, though there have been long periods when it has been invisible. Cellphones and the internet have aided organizing in ways unthinkable in the past. Even though the NLD is limited to carefully worded press releases, its allies have been busy doing the spadework for a civilian administration so that, when change does come, a gaping void won’t open up.

But when, and how? I get differing answers. The Government could collapse. Or there could be a period of negotiation with the Government, possibly protracted. Or the regime, bolstered by countries putting economic partnership ahead of human rights, could carry on suppressing its people until there is revolution. One person says he feels the momentum of last year’s protests has been lost already. Others say the country is abuzz with underground activity.

In all of this, politicians in exile sometimes get lambasted by civilians in exile, for being disconnected from the NLD mothership. The exile group of former NLD members goes by the rather fanciful name of NLD-Liberated Area (NLD-LA) and they are happy to live with such accusations. Given that they are considered terrorists by the Burmese authorities, and given that the NLD operates under such threat inside the country, they cannot endanger their colleagues further by publicizing any communication between them. Instead, they are focused on preparing for any eventuality.

*Evolution, revolution*

According to Myint Thein, the joint General Secretary of the National Council of the Union of Burma, a broad-based coalition of exiled politicians and democracy activists: ‘We accept the dialogue process [with the SPDC] is primary for a strategic plan. At the same time, the people’s struggle for Burma is another way to solve the situation. We have to do many things, not just pursue one way, to get a genuine democratic process in Burma.’

Deep in terrorist base camp – or rather, the NLD-LA headquarters in Mae Sot, Thailand – Myint Soe, General Secretary of the party, explains: ‘The future of Burma could change suddenly; we have no idea. The SPDC dictatorship could collapse internally. The collapsed part [comprising the more moderate generals] could co-operate with the NLD.’

The mantra I keep hearing from most quarters – not just the politicians – is ‘tripartite dialogue’ followed by ‘national reconciliation’. But again, other exiles say angrily that these are just buzz words that please international funding agencies. So what do they mean?

‘Tripartite dialogue’ means the SPDC, the NLD and the ethnic leaders sitting down to genuine negotiations. No-one is in any doubt that this would mean a dwindling of the military’s role – without their losing face. The generals will not enter such dialogue voluntarily, but the hope is that events will force them. And there is no denying this is the strategy that sails best on the oily waters of international diplomacy, however unrealistic it may seem.

‘Aung San Suu Kyi is not just a political leader, she’s a national icon, an icon of freedom’

As for ‘national reconciliation’, this would be a great healing of the wounds inflicted by the military, particularly on the ethnic minorities. Myint Soe tells me: ‘We will need more and more reconciliation after “regime change”.’ Knowing grins break out on the faces of the party members around him.

Later, Nyo Ohn Myint, the Chair of the NLD-LA’s Foreign Affairs Committee, admits that reconciliation would be a mountain to climb: how can ethnic groups, whose women have suffered widespread rape at the hands of the military, ‘reconcile’?

*Referendum in the dark*

The regime has announced a referendum on a new constitution to take place this month, followed by elections by 2010. Some have seized on this as a realistic opening, but one which grassroots political activists have rejected. Here’s why.

The constitution emerged out of an interminable National Convention which began in 1993 and was attended by handpicked delegates who had no voice in the proceedings presided over by the generals. The constitution gives the military a 25-per-cent stake in Burma’s future government – but at the top of a decision-making hierarchy. It rules out Aung San Suu Kyi – no-one ever married to a foreign national could be elected – and limits the involvement of the NLD. Changes to the constitution are forbidden. Criticism of the document – which ordinary citizens of Burma have no opportunity to read – has been declared a criminal offence. People have been imprisoned just for joking about it. International observers are banned.

Photo: Howard Ford / PANOS pictures

Still, activists in Burma are doing all they can to educate the public and press for a ‘No’ vote. The stakes are high. As Htoo Paw of the Karen Women’s Organization puts it: ‘If we agree, we grant the military legitimacy and allow them to govern forever.’

Some predict a Balkan-style disintegration if the generals are toppled. But NLD-LA members insist extensive meetings with the ethnic leaders have borne fruit. Htoo Paw, who is Karen, explains: ‘We no longer ask for secession; our demand is for federalism, with self-determination for ethnic states. We have the Ethnic Nationalities Council; we are united; we are ready for the process of tripartite dialogue. The SPDC always say they have to be in power because the different ethnic groups will stand up and fight against each other. It is ridiculous. Nobody likes to fight. We fight because the Burmese troops came into our villages, killed our relatives, burned down our homes. We are not going to fight forever. We are fighting for equality and self-determination.’

Then there is the charge that Aung San Suu Kyi’s uncompromising position is leading to lost opportunities. Her enormous sacrifice makes a moral appeal which does not have the same resonance it did. Increasingly, governments worldwide are showing a callous indifference to peaceful struggles.

On the other hand, she is the one person who unites the entire opposition. As Nyo Ohn Myint puts it: ‘She is not just a political leader, she’s a national icon, an icon of freedom. She doesn’t want to be Prime Minister. She just wanted to be a bridge for people to cross to a better life.’

Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for international sanctions is sometimes attacked for causing undue suffering to the people at large. The generals can blame sanctions instead of their own pocket-filling economic policies. Nyo Ohn Myint feels that if sanctions were removed they’d lose that justification and hang themselves by their incompetence. But Htoo Paw makes the case succinctly: ‘I totally support calls for an economic boycott of Burma. Some argue that it affects civilians. The people in Burma are already poor; they are already starved. Even if they work for international companies, all the benefit goes to the SPDC.’

*International pussyfooting*

We are now squarely in the international arena. It is arguable that Burma’s agony has been protracted by the softly-softly approach of international players. The UN shows little leadership – resolutions against Burma in the Security Council are routinely opposed by China and Russia, both of whom also sell arms to the generals. The UN Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, gets brushed off and dressed down by the regime.

ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member) could exert the greatest influence. But India and China in particular are scrambling for Burma’s natural resources, and for dominance in the region. All their investments are extractive – benefiting the generals who get their cut but offering little to Burma’s people. India, which values the geographical buffer against China that Burma provides, claims that the country’s woes are its ‘internal affair’, thereby disregarding the voice of its people. China, which values stability on its doorstep, only asks the regime to show ‘restraint’. Both would probably benefit from increased stability under a democratic regime. But, with varying degrees of democracy at home, they prefer the status quo.

Sanctions imposed by Western countries do pinch the generals – who constantly complain – but not enough. Oil and gas are exempted. Burma’s trade in natural gas is the mainstay of its economy. If there were a more concerted effort on sanctions, there is little doubt the regime would collapse, or at least be forced into a more compliant stance.

‘If we agree, we grant the military legitimacy and allow them to govern forever’

There are many challenges that a democratic Burma would need to face, not least from within the movement itself – the low number of women in politics (there is no dearth of them in activism), the dominance of the NLD, the shortfall of trained people to fill administrative positions. Here again, international support could make a great difference.

Eventually, change will come from within, from those currently being hunted down, incarcerated, tortured, even killed. None of them would be willing to put their lives on the line if they didn’t believe that change will come. Almost all the Burmese exiles I meet have families torn apart by their involvement in politics.

As I write this, there is a young democracy activist, Nilar Thein, on the run in Rangoon. She has been in hiding for several months now. She has left her infant daughter behind. Out of hiding she says: ‘I love my daughter, but I also need to consider mothers fleeing with their children and hiding in jungles. My suffering is very small compared to them. Only if we end this bad system will the future of Burma’s people, including my daughter, be bright.’1 u

National Council of the Union of Burma

Burma’s generals, who have ruled since 1962, strut their stuff on an Air Forces Day Parade.


  • Kyaw Zwa Moe, ‘No Soft Touch’, _The Irrawaddy_, October 2007
  • New Internationalist issue 411 magazine cover This article is from the May 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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