[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Democratic Transitions (Burma's Wil

Subject: Democratic Transitions (Burma's Will Not Be Easy)

Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"

Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"

August / September 1995

by Douglas W.  Payne

With the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi,
some observers have drawn parallels between Burma and
South Africa, as the Economist did in its July 15th leader,
"Asia's Mandela?"  And it makes sense that Suu Kyi herself
would cite the example of South Africa -- as an inspiration
to Burma's battered democracy movement, and in hopes of
generating the level of international support enjoyed by
South Africa's anti - apartheid movement.  But a closer
look at South Africa and other countries indicates that many
of the conditions conducive to democratic change are still
lacking in the case of Burma.

Over the last two decades a number of democratic
transitions were rooted in profound internal crises of those
regimes.  For example, the Argentine military government
collapsed in 1982 - 83 following a humiliating defeat in the
Falklands / Malvinas war with Britain.  Similar regime
implosions led to transitions in Greece and Portugal in
1974.  And imperial overreach played a key role in the
unraveling of Communist rule in the former Soviet Union. 
Neither military defeat at the hands of an external force, dis-
astrous foreign adventures or a profound internal crisis
threatens the State Law and Order Restoration Council
(SLORC) regime in Burma.

In some countries, externally supported armed resistance
movements applied critical pressure that helped lead to
transitions to elected civilian rule for instance, in El
Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s.  However, armed
groups in Burma have received little or no foreign backing
and the SLORC has had significant success in subduing
them through a combination of cooptation and sheer mil-
itary might.

Democratic transitions in Eastern Europe owed much to the
declining economic and military strength of the Soviet
overlord, and to the proximity of dynamic Western
European democracies, whose political and cultural
influences the Iron Curtain ultimately could not withstand.

In Latin America during the 1980s, some military regimes
stepped aside in large part because the generals did not want
to deal with severe economic crises.  In Brazil, for example,
the military was practically clueless in the face of a
staggering $100 billion - plus debt load and chronic
hyperinflation.  Once opposition political elites agreed not
to hold the military accountable for past human rights vio-
lations, the return to civilian rule in 1985 was accomplished
with relative ease.

As the democratic momentum spread from one Latin
American society to the next, promoted by a plethora of
non-governmental organizations and a number of
governments from the developed world, other military
governments began to yield, however reluctantly, to civilian

One of the more recalcitrant was the Pinochet regime in
Chile.  In 1980, seven years after the coup that overthrew
Salvador Allende, Pinochet imposed an anti - democratic
constitution on Chile with the aim of lending his rule a
veneer of legitimacy.  It was also designed to engineer his
own succession through 1997 via a national plebiscite that
he expected to control.  What he did not count on was
steadily increasing international pressure throughout the
1980s, a change of heart by the Reagan Administration that
had originally supported him and the fact that his repressive
rule had not snuffed out 150 years of democratic rule and
strong civic traditions that Chile had enjoyed prior to the

As the 1988 plebiscite approached, Washington pressed
Pinochet to allow the democratic opposition to campaign
freely by lifting Chile's General System of Preferences
(GSP) benefits and suspending Overseas Private Investment
Corporation (OPIC) guarantees.  As Pinochet conceded to a
more level playing field and the presence of hundreds of
international observers, the multi -  party Democratic
Alliance and dozens of allied civic organizations launched a
dynamic campaign.  In the end, a majority of Chileans voted
"No" to eight more years of Pinochet.  However, it was not
until two of the other three generals in the military junta
recognized the opposition victory  that Pinochet reluctantly
stood aside to make way for a competitive presidential
election in 1989.

In two Latin American countries, regimes resorted to brute
force to retain power after annulling elections (Panama) and
overthrowing a duly elected president (Haiti).  General
Noriega and the Haitian junta were subsequently ousted by
U.S. military intervention, a "soft" invasion in the case of
Haiti.  No such thing will happen in Burma.  Half a world
away from U.S. shores, Burma presents no threat to U.S.
security and is far from the daily thoughts of average

Democratic rule remains unsteady in Eastern Europe and is
especially fragile in Latin America, where there have already
been setbacks.  In Peru, for example, since 1992 President
Alberto Fujimori has connived with the military to erect a
Lee Kuan Yew-style government in the Andes. 
Nonetheless, Eastern Europe and Latin America did
undergo a wave of sweeping, regional change.

Burma, on the other hand, is nestled among several
authoritarian or semi - authoritarian states and the trend
among many of Burma's Southeast Asian neighbors is now
actually toward even tighter political control.  That has
made it easier for the SLORC to ward off outside
democratic influences.  At the same time, unlike the former
Communist governments of Eastern Europe, the SLORC
has been gaining rather than losing a powerful patron. 
China's heavy military and economic investment in Burma,
and Beijing's political recognition (Chinese Premier Li Peng
visited Rangoon last December), have been crucial to the
SLORC's effort to consolidate its rule since the events of
1988 and 1990. 

Aung San Suu Kyi also invites comparisons to Corazon
Aquino, who galvanized and rode the crest of the "People
Power" movement in the Philippines in 1986.  But it was
not until several top Philippine military officers declared
their support for Aquino - a critical development that
parallels the transition in Chile - that Ferdinand Marcos was
compelled to flee the country.

Two years later, the Burmese military, when confronted by
similar massive pro - democracy demonstrations, cracked
down decisively.  In 1990 the SLORC also exhibited little
hesitation in annulling the elections, and since then has
systematically suppressed political and civic opposition to
forestall the re - emergence of any People Power - type
movement.  The modern Burmese military has never openly
split, and there are few indications that SLORC officials are
about to break ranks now.

Then there is the role of religious institutions. The Catholic
Church played an important role in supporting a number of
pro - democracy efforts, particularly in Poland and Chile. 
Burma is probably the most religious country in Asia.  Aung
San Sun Kyi has written about the democratic foundations
of Buddhist thought, and Buddhist monks were in fact at
the forefront of the demonstrations in 1988.  That is why
they were targeted in the ensuing crackdown.   Since then,
SLORC intelligence has penetrated monasteries and seems
to have gained effective control over many religious leaders
through intimidation and cooptation.

All of which leads to the key difference between South
Africa and Burma.  In 1990 the de Klerk government
released Nelson Mandela and began negotiations toward a
transition because it believed it was too weak to do
otherwise.  The SLORC released Aung San Suu Kyi
because it believes that it is now strong enough to neutralize
her and fend off external pressure to negotiate seriously
with her.  And it is betting that by merely releasing her it can
break the embargo against international loans and foreign
aid needed to strengthen Burma's ailing economy -- at this
point the only real weak link in the SLORC dictatorship.

Consider the forces arrayed against the de Klerk
government prior to its release of Mandela in 1990.  Few
regimes had ever experienced such international political
and economic isolation; sanctions, despite some loopholes
and leaks, were biting deeply.  A primary reason was that
the issue was more about ending white rule than democracy
per se.

Racial justice and democracy are integrally linked.  But the
apartheid question allowed non democratic governments
from around the world and especially in Africa to contribute
to the fight against the regime, while immunizing them
against charges of hypocrisy.  So, even though there were
few democratic members in the Organization of African
Unity, the OAU was a united voice against the South
African government and the so - called frontline states
eagerly provided critical concrete support to Nelson
Mandela's African National Congress (ANC).

The cause in Burma is more specifically about democracy
and human rights.  The pertinent regional organization, the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is not
about to promote those principles given the authoritarian
nature of some of its member governments.  That was made
abundantly clear recently when ASEAN accepted Vietnam,
one of the most repressive regimes in the world for full
membership.  At that time Malaysian Prime Minister
Mahathir bin Mohamad stated, "We welcome Vietnam's
entry into ASEAN because we are of the opinion that we do
not need to question their system of government so long as
they accept a free - market system." Such are the tenets of
market authoritarianism, currently defended by its
practitioners as "Asian democracy."  

Now compare the domestic situation in South Africa in
1990 with the situation in Burma today. Despite the ANC
being "banned," the apartheid regime had allowed sufficient
space for it and its allied organizations, especially trade
unions, to develop into a powerful national organization
with an armed component.  South African state security
increasingly had to utilize brute force to suppress the
mounting popular demand for change.  Despite some
government restrictions, much of the repression was
reported or seen in the domestic and foreign media,
deepening the regime's international isolation.

At the same time, the tide was turning in South Africa's
relatively well-developed civic society churches, legal
groups, nongovernmental development organizations, the
media and universities, many of which were interacting with
international counterparts.  In these circles there was a
growing belief that continued intransigence by the
government could lead to a maximally destructive civil war. 
That view was gaining ground, too, among the powerful,
urban - based white business class, which also was
concerned about economic decline caused by international
With so much arrayed against it, the de Klerk government
and much of the white elite came to the realization that
trying to maintain the status quo could mean losing
everything. (The South Korean military and its civilian
backers seemed to have come to a similar realization in the
face of widespread, sustained student and middle class
protests in 1987 - 88.) The release of Mandela was not a
token gesture.  It was a conscious first step toward
establishing a democratic system in which whites could hope
to retain a say, and protect some of their interests, in a post
- apartheid South Africa.

In Burma, however, Aung San Sun Kyi's National League
for Democracy has suffered serious set - backs.  Trade
unions are banned.  There are no independent media and the
ability of foreign journalists, especially the broadcast media,
to put a spotlight on Burma is severely restricted.

Many in Burma's budding entrepreneurial class backed the
pro - democracy movement in 1988 because they opposed
the socialist policies of the former Ne Win government. 
Now they are profiting from the SLORC's opening of the
economy and are more likely to acquiesce in maintaining the
status quo.  Meanwhile, ASEAN's "constructive
engagement" policy has been to SLORC's advantage
because it is more about enhancing the prospects of foreign
investors in Burma and diminishing Chinese influence than it
is about promoting political change.

But increased foreign investment, whether from Asia,
Europe or the U.S., and the promotion of tourism (taking a
page from Fidel Castro's book in Cuba) will not be enough
to solve the SLORC's economic problem.  Maybe the
SLORC's claim of six percent annual growth over the last
two years is true.  But no amount of foreign investment will
be enough to push ahead the economic restructuring needed
for Burma to compete with its Southeast Asian neighbors. 
Restructuring, particularly the revaluation of Burma's
overvalued currency, requires a resumption of aid from
international agencies, particularly the IMF and the World

If in 1990 the South African government came to one type
of realization, the SLORC, over time, came to a completely
different one - namely, that only the detention of Aung San
Sun Kyi stood in the way of fortifying its economy and
consolidating its rule.  And the SLORC indeed has reason to
believe that it can now gain the international economic
assistance it needs by simply releasing her and ignoring her
calls for serious negotiations.

Despite the strong language of United Nations resolutions,
international pressure on Burma by governments remains
haphazard at best.  The United States has taken a relatively
hard - sounding line, but the SLORC duly noted, as did
every other autocratic outfit in the world, the Clinton
Administration's decision last year on China to separate
human rights issues from trade relations.  That underscored
the primacy of commercial interests in current U.S. foreign
policy, as did Washington's recent reestablishment of
relations with Vietnam and its tendency to look the other
way when confronted with the suppression of democracy
and the violation of human rights in Indonesia.

The SLORC, therefore, calculated that what made Burma
different from similarly repressive countries like China,
Vietnam and Indonesia, and what kept Burma from enjoying
the type of recognition and economic relations afforded to
them by the United States and other Western nations, was
the continued detention of a world-renowned political

The SLORC also noted the Clinton Administration's
decision at the end of 1994, made simply on the basis of two
meetings between Burmese military officials and Aung San
Sun Kyi, to adopt a more conciliatory approach toward
Burma.  To stop the apparent slide of the White House into
the cynical "constructive engagement" of ASEAN,
Republicans in the U.S. Congress prepared a bill, sponsored
by Sen. Mitch McConnell, that would sanction any nation
that aids or trades with Burma.

The initial indications were that the SLORC's tactical
release of Aung San Sun Kyi was paying off.  The Clinton
Administration promptly asked Congress to put off
considering the McConnell bill.  Japan, eager to profit from
investments in Burma, stated the day after Sun Kyi's release
that it was willing to start talks with Burma on the
resumption of official loans, suspended in 1988.  On August
4th, the Bank of Tokyo announced it was reopening its
office in Rangoon to assist Japanese companies wishing to
do business in Burma.  The SLORC must have been
particularly pleased as the announcement came after Suu
Kyi's appeal for foreign governments to wait to see if there
were genuine moves toward democracy in Burma before
resuming economic aid.  The SLORC therefore had reason
to hope that Tokyo, through its strong influence in the
Asian Development Bank, would eventually break the ice on
direct aid to Burma by multilateral agencies.

The SLORC appears to be in the driver's seat and Aung San
Suu Kyi is facing a number of difficult decisions in the
coming months.  Her popularity, like Mandela's, is not in
question, nor is her courage.  But her followers lack
organization and the resources necessary to rebuild the pro -
democracy movement.

Moreover, the decree banning any type of gathering by a
group of five or more people remains on the books, and the
deployment of 20,000 extra troops in Rangoon at the time
of her release indicates the SLORC is prepared to enforce it. 
That is a far different picture than South Africa in 1990, or
Chile, where the opposition had great latitude to campaign
against Gen.  Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite that led to the
return of civilian rule.

The SLORC may try to finesse the issue of negotiations by
inviting Aung San Sun Kyi to participate in the National
Convention it has rigged for the purpose of formalizing an
Indonesia - style, military - dominated polity, a process she
has already referred to as a farce.  The convention is
scheduled to resume on October 24th.  If she agrees, she
may risk losing credibility among her followers.  If she does
not, she is left with the option of testing and trying to widen
the narrow political space allowed to her.

Aung San Sun Kyi will have a very difficult time of it
without renewed international pressure on the SLORC. 
Given that governmental pressure already appears to be
easing, the non - governmental organizations that make up
the international movement on behalf of democracy in
Burma will have to step up their actions and convince
governments and Western investors not to strengthen the
SLORC's already formidable position any further.  The
movement has grown measurably and its efforts were
integral to Aung San Sun Kyi's release.  But with the
prevailing conditions both inside and outside Burma, she
and her followers need support more than ever.  SLORC
leaders believe they are actually in a stronger position with
Aung San Sun Kyi released from house arrest.  She will not
be able to prove them wrong on her own.

Douglas W. Payne is a Latin American and Caribbean
specialist and a consultant for Freedom House in New