Thursday, 09 July 2020

Brig Gen (retd) Jahangir Kabir, ndc, psc

UN Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who arrived in Myanmar on September 30, has met the rulers and the democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the founding father Bojo Aung San. Gambari is not really in a strong bargaining position now, for the indications are that the democratic forces are losing the battle on the streets under extreme pressure applied by the government. The NLD, a democratic platform of over thirty splinter groups headed by Noble Laureate Suu Kyi was not a very well organized political platform but people hang on to the straws for freedom and democracy.

After a month of demonstration that started against the unprecedented price hike of cooking gas in August, the military government of Myanmar headed by 74-year-old five stars General Than Shwe is clamping down the usual harsh way. Five monasteries including the biggest Shwedagan (golden) pagoda in the city centre and the more important Sule pagoda in densely populated down town Yangon have been sealed. Mandalay, the commercial hub of central Burma is also under barricade. In a predominantly Buddhist society monks have a very special place, when they join the march on the street people have a greater opportunity to express their mind in the closed society. With the bullets fired that killed between government-confessed ten to rumored two hundred, including a Japanese Photo Journalist, it is suppression by force; how politically disorganized and unarmed civilians-monks can take the heat is difficult to ascertain. It appears to be another attempt in a smaller scale of '88 to keep the hope for democracy alive. Establishing democracy in a country that had only one elected prime minister since independence in 1948 and nearly half a century of continuous military rule will be a demanding achievement.
Monks march in Rangoon

If the Buddhist monks are in life long pursuit of self-denial to achieve Nirvana (ultimate freedom from everything worldly), why do they come on the streets to demonstrate on the price hike and other day-to-day difficulties of the people? Monks have no worldly belonging; they are a large population that do not work for a living, come out in procession to collect the offerings of the people in cooked food and other edibles once every morning. People came under extreme hardship due to unprecedented price hike of essentials; donations for the monks have been degrading both in quality and quantity. Such is the basic drive of hunger that even the reverent monks on self-denial can get upset without adequate food. The demonstration by the people and monks combined is the expression of people on the continued economic mismanagement and political deprivation.

But the government of Myanmar had their experience in suppressing people's anger in the harshest way. Back in 1988, a peaceful movement that turned rowdy nearly destroyed the government. Combat hardened forces were brought into the capital from the jungle and thousands died in the shootout. I was told by one of the lamenting leaders of the NLD (national League for Democracy) that, in one spot alone on the road along Inlay Lake, not far from American Ambassador's house, over three hundred students of Rangoon University were killed. After it was shut down in '88, the Rangoon University remained closed until the end of '96. The Burmese army is known to be more trigger-happy than tolerant. Locally known as 'Tamadaw', the army has made great sacrifices to preserve the Union against onslaught of the powerfully armed insurgents of nationalities. Decades of continuous fighting in the hills made them hardy. They gained state power through a coup under General Ne Win in 1962 and retained it ever since.

General Than Swe is of a demure personality, a great survivor in the roulette for more than two decades following the retirement of Ne win. Unlike British India, Myanmar did not have strong democratic institutions or mass participation of people while acquiring independence. Armed struggle by powerful nationalities like Shans, Kachins, Mons and Kayats for independence since '58 ushered the dominance of military. After earning the freedom under Bojo Aung San the military is psychologically attuned such that they have a moral responsibility to preserve it. Peaceful transition to civilian rule will be much easier when the military agrees or exhausts itself in power struggle. Tamadaw is showing no inclination of the sort at the moment. 'People are angry but afraid - they are struggling for life so they don't join the demonstration' said Thet, a taxi driver university graduate.

General Maung Aye, the 69 year number two in the hierarchy is a hardliner than Gen Shwe who earned his name fighting in the hills against national armies and communists. Although the military is not really popular, never the less they have a tight grip on the civil administration. When one sees the democratic forces in disarray, it is difficult to predict the future course in spite of sacrifices. The international environment has not helped the situation very much. Americans and the European Union are the loudest in condemning the military regime but the further tightened economic and diplomatic sanctions are mere rhetoric.

The internal democratic forces are no match for the guns; much is demanded by the neighboring and international stakeholders with varying interests.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in his latest statement hoped that all parties concerned with Myanmar unrest resume stability through peaceful means, promote domestic reconciliation and achieve democracy and development. Neighboring China, with long borders and strategic interest, has bailed out and bolstered the regime since '88 in economic, political and diplomatic fields. Under pressure from the west, China is asking for peaceful resolution of the problems. The rulers of Myanmar are also seeking immediate peace; resolution of conflict can come later in their own way and time. India paid a heavy price for siding with the democratic forces in '88 and ever since made relentless effort to gain some influence. Indian dream of Asian road and railway link to ASEAN through landlocked eastern provinces is in its advanced stage now. Only the other day it has successfully concluded an oil and gas exploration deal to invest 75 million dollars. India is conspicuously maintaining a low profile on the recent troubles. ASEAN had never been strong on democracy and human rights but more on business; it already has lots of businesses and investments in Myanmar. In spite of economic sanctions and displeasures, under the famous advocacy and constructive engagement of elder statesman Lee Kwan Yee of Singapore, Myanmar had been admitted into the ASEAN umbrella. Many western countries have substantially increased investments in Myanmar especially in oil and gas exploration.

All these international and external factors make the future course of democracy unpredictable. When the conflicting international forces are likely to neutralize each other it may be safely assumed that ultimately the people will have to determine the future of democracy in Myanmar.

The author is a freelancer.
Source: The daily Star, September 6, 2007.