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SILVERSTEIN/ARNOTT IHT OP-ED
- Subject: SILVERSTEIN/ARNOTT IHT OP-ED
- From: darnott@xxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Thu, 14 Dec 1995 13:47:00
THE WORLD CAN LEND A HAND TO BURMA'S DEMOCRATS
By David Arnott and Josef Silverstein
(Published as an op-ed in the "International Herald Tribune" of
21 November 1995)
New York -- In the struggle between the Burmese military and Daw
Aung San Suu Kyi, the first round went to the lady. Daw Aung San
Suu Kyi has since landed several blows in the form of video-taped
speeches for the UN Women's Conference in Beijing and a labor
conference in Manila, as well as several outspoken press
interviews. Then, on Oct 9, her party, the National League for
Democracy (NLD), made its move and reinstated her as secretary-
general. The military responded by a leaked rejection of the
reinstatement. The NLD says it will stick to its decision.
Burma is a country of vast human and economic potential, but
due to more than a generation of mismanagement by the military,
the economy is in a state of chaos, and Burma is now classified
as one of the poorest countries in the world. A major reason for
this impoverishment is that 50 or so per cent of the national
budget is allocated to the military, and the main areas of the
economy are run by soldiers with no financial or economic
expertise. A major reason for the high military spending is to
prevent the people from rising again. A major reason for popular
unrest is people's increasing poverty. A vicious circle.
For six years the current incarnation of military rule, the
State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC, kept Daw Aung
San Suu Kyi under house arrest. During this time she rejected
SLORC's proposal that she buy her freedom by leaving the country
and abandoning Burmese politics. By virtue of the overwhelming
victory her party won in the 1990 elections, as well as her
personal popularity, she is the only figure who can unify the
Burmese people and push through the necessary economic reforms by
means other than fear. Her popularity is why she was kept under
house arrest. It is also why the generals need her now.
On July 10, the head of state, Senior General Than Shwe sent
a letter to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asking her to "help towards
achieving peace and stability in the country". This is precisely
the task that SLORC set itself seven years ago. Daw Aung San Suu
Kyi accepted the offer. Her interest, as it has been all along,
is a dialogue between the democratic forces and SLORC that will
lead to genuine democracy, financial and economic reform, and a
just political settlement of the civil war.
The generals hope that by releasing Suu Kyi and entering a
"dialogue" with her and her colleagues, they will gain domestic
and international approval. They would like eventually to have
her and her colleagues as puppets behind whose popularity and
legitimacy they continue to exercise the real power. This is
where the battle lines are now drawn: a genuine federal democracy
vs a unitary military state behind a civilian front.
Another reason for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release is that
the economy is in acute crisis and in urgent need of
international assistance. The Japanese have repeatedly told SLORC
that releasing Suu Kyi is the key to the international (or at
least the Japanese and Asian Development Bank) treasure chest.
Japan has already begun to renew assistance to Burma. SLORC hopes
that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release will also satisfy the
European Union and the United States, and open the doors to
further bilateral and multilateral assistance, including World
Bank and IMF loans. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of course is aware of
these motives. Since her release she has repeatedly asked
foreign governments not to rush to restore trade and other links,
and has said that international pressure should continue.
These then are some of the reasons behind the generals'
release of their great adversary. There is also a logic in the
timing: In terms of the civil war and internal military control,
SLORC feels at the peak of its power. This might decline from now
on for various reasons including, in the rural areas, increasing
poverty with attendant malnutrition and health problems; and in
the cities, especially Mandalay, growing unrest over Chinese
Also, the old dictator Ne Win is still alive (we assume) and
this fact gives a measure of cohesion to the army. The head of
military intelligence, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, has said
that the army might split if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were released.
This danger would be increased after the Old Man's death.
Another timing factor is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release
came shortly before the beginning of the ASEAN foreign ministers'
meeting, where SLORC hoped that the release would win it
increased economic and diplomatic support and, ultimately,
membership. And indeed, SLORC was allowed to sign the Treaty of
Amity and Cooperation which is a necessary step toward
membership. (It may be that the welcome SLORC received at that
meeting made some generals feel they could do without the popular
support which only an agreement with Aung San Suu Kyi can
provide, and that this is behind their wavering stance and the
leaked prohibition of her reinstatement as secretary-general.)
How can the international community help Burma move toward
First, the UN General Assembly should ask the UN secretary-
general to facilitate round-table negotiations between SLORC, the
political opposition, and representatives of the different ethnic
groups, and impose a time-frame.
Second, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues should be
given economic leverage: Though they have the mandate of the
people, they lack other forms of power. One way that
international actors, including ASEAN countries and Japan, can
advance the democratic process is to help correct the imbalance.
This can be done by ensuring that all international
involvement in Burma (investment, bilateral and multilateral
assistance and so on) is subject to the guidelines, approval and
monitoring of the representatives of the Burmese people, namely
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her colleagues and the leaders of the
different ethnic groups. Such an approach could increase the
bargaining power of the democratic forces in their dialogue with
SLORC, and assist the building of a genuine rather than a
symbolic democracy in Burma.
Mr Arnott is secretary of the Burma Peace Foundation. Mr
Silverstein is a Rutgers University professor and the author of
several books on Burma. They contributed this comment to the