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Democratic Transitions -- Burma's W (r)

Subject: Democratic Transitions -- Burma's Will Not Be Easy, Part I

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August / September 1995

NOT BE EASY      (Part I)
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
violations, 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).

end of part I