Talking Nonsense on Burma

by Kyaw Zwa Moe, Commentary, The Irrawaddy, October 21, 2007

Several ministers and diplomats of Asean countries warned recently a sudden regime change in Burma could lead to an Iraq-type anarchy with rival factions battling each other for power.

Are such people that ignorant of Burma, which belongs to the 10-member Asean grouping?

“We should not think of a so-called regime change,” said Asean Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong of Singapore, which could lead to another Iraq. “Such change implies a dramatic power vacuum,” he said. Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said the same.

First of all, Ong Keng Yong and others must know that no one has called for a regime change in the military-ruled country.

No one says there isn’t a need for the military regime’s involvement in politics and in the day-to-day running of the country. The Burmese people, including the political opposition groups, all understand the military has to play a key role in a transitional period to democracy.

Even the main opposition National League for Democracy party led by detained pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, though it was the big winner of the 1990 elections, has called for an unconditional dialogue which includes the military, opposition groups and ethnic parties. Other opposition and ethnic groups inside and outside the country have said the same thing.

The monk-led demonstrations last month demanded three things: national reconciliation, the release of all political prisoners and an improvement in the living standards of the people. Monks haven’t called for a regime change, either.

Following the junta’s brutal crackdown against the peaceful demonstrations, some countries in the West have increased their sanctions on the regime, in hope that it may force the junta to start face-to-face talks. Everyone is pushing the stubborn generals to enter a dialogue process.

What about the ethnic groups? There are about two dozen ethnic insurgent groups, with probably 17 ceasefire groups. Are they a unified opposition? Far from it. Are they a hotbed for anarchy? Far from it. They have as much to fear from anarchy as everyone else.

Actually, most ethnic insurgencies are products of the military rule, though a few rebel groups such as Communist Party of Burma and the Karen National Union began their struggles soon after Burma gained independence in 1948. The 45-year military rule since 1962 fuels the ethnic insurgency movement.

In fact, those ethnic armed groups—both ceasefire and non-ceasefire—have called for a form of democracy that would provide autonomy for their respective states. The hope is that, if granted autonomy, the anger supporting the country’s decades-long insurgencies would die out.

The junta either can’t stop the insurgency movements or it has deliberately kept the flame of opposition alive to create the impression that the military is essential to “protect” the country from the threat of various ethnic groups.

Asean countries may believe that only the junta can control the insurgency movements. Actually, that’s not the case. The ethnic groupings and their dissatisfaction with the current regime is essentially a political issue.

Even if the junta did collapse, there are many capable people including Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders who can assume leadership roles in the government. However, at the moment almost all potential leaders are in prison or in exile. And of course, there are also ethnic leaders who are ready and capable to join the leadership as soon as the right conditions exist.

Any “power vacuum” would be filled by new, talented people who are now denied the opportunity to serve their country. And, need it be said, with such open-minded people in government a “power vacuum” would be an opportunity to replenish the soul of the nation with freedom loving people.

In fact, anarchy is the best description of Burma’s present state, a military-ruled system of anarchy.

Here are a few examples: the regime uses hired thugs to create riots amid peaceful demonstrations. The thugs are called “dutiful citizens.” They were organized to murder Suu Kyi in 2003, but she narrowly escaped. During the 1988 uprising, the then government deliberately created a condition of “anarchy” by freeing thousands of angry criminal prisoners from the jails across the country. The stooges were paid to poison several water wells in Rangoon’s townships among other things. The military deliberately created conditions for them to loot factories and warehouses. Then, the coup-staging generals called it “anarchy.” Yes it was—state-sponsored anarchy.

For decades, military rule has proved itself incapable to govern the country. Burma was once one of the most promising and wealthiest countries in the region, before the military took power in 1962. Burma is now a prison, and its people are among the poorest in the world.

It’s time for many Asean officials to do some serious soul searching by asking if they want to be a friend of the Burmese people or a friend of the generals.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said, “We must prevent anarchy in Burma.” If Asean officials really want to help solve Burma’s crisis, they must stop talking nonsense such as “power vacuum” and “anarchy.”

For the Burmese people, it is midnight on a moonless night—it can’t get any darker.