Wed 30 May 2007
Filed under: News,Opinion,Other
Burma’s political future is at the crossroads. Burma’s top generals are pre-occupied trying to decide whether to continue with their roadmap to democracy or whether to ditch it altogether. The country’s top two military rulers – Than Shwe and Maung Aye – are increasingly worried about the future of the country, according to senior military sources in the new capital, Naypyitaw. “They know what is happening in the country better than anyone,” said an officer close to the two leaders, and they are keen to reduce the country’s international isolation.
Than Shwe now fears that the roadmap which then Prime Minister, Khin Nyunt announced at the end of August 2003, may not be in the interests of preserving the military’s power for decades to come, and ensuring that the senior generals do not have to face Nuremberg-style trials in the event of civilian government coming to power. Both he and Maung Aye are no longer keen on the roadmap as they believe this was really Khin Nyunt’s plan.
At the same time Burma’s rulers are being quietly pressed by its closest allies – China and India – to do something quickly to prove they are serious about political reforms. In February Than Shwe told a visiting senior Chinese official that the National Convention, which is currently drawing up a new constitution, would finish its deliberations by the end of the year in response to Beijing’s concern to see some concrete results. New Delhi too, on a number of occasions has urged Rangoon to produce some results as soon as possible, according to Indian diplomatic sources.
But since then the two generals have begun to fear the national reconciliation process as they have dubbed their plans for political change, may not produce the stability and long-term security for the army that they had hoped for. “There is a growing realisation that any army-supported political party would not have the support of the people,” according to a senior military source.
Over the last year the country’s top generals have been seeking to test the waters and see if their chances of electoral victory had improved since 1990. Cabinet ministers have been instructed to carry out research into this. When asked outright at a Cabinet meeting if Than Shwe’s quasi-political movement – the USDA (United Solidarity Development Association) – could win a future election, the Planning Minister, Soe Tha replied it stood no chance at all.
Since then the military junta has stepped up plans to make the USDA a mass-based political party and improve its standing in the community. It has also been the regime’s chief weapon in its campaign to crush all democratic opposition, especially Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. They have gone on the offensive and attacked opposition rallies and protests, including the recent NLD anniversary celebrations of their 1990 election victory.
The regime continues to fear the popularity of the charismatic pro-democracy leader who they continue to keep locked up so that she cannot galvanize support against the army.
“Aung San Suu Kyi is irrelevant,” Burma’s information minister, General Kyaw Hsan has frequently told visiting government leaders, foreign politicians and journalists over the last two years. But if that was the case, the regime would have little to fear from freeing her.
Aung San Suu Kyi remains a potent force in the country, despite the junta’s efforts to sideline her. “I believe she is still very much relevant – the junta obviously does too or they would let her out,” a Rangoon-based diplomat told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.
“She is the only person who could pull together a broad array of forces, and the only person, who in the long term, could broker a deal with the military, which would see the generals able to bow out with the level of security they would need,” he said.
Now that the National Convention is nearing its end, Than Shwe and Maung Aye are having second thoughts as they fear that the next steps in General Khin Nyunt’s roadmap — a referendum on the draft constitution followed by free and fair elections to choose a new civilian government, may back-fire on them.
The National Convention though, which has been intermittently meeting to draw up the new constitution for more than 14 years, is in a prolonged recess, and unlikely to reconvene before November, according to Burmese government sources.
“So far step one on the roadmap – drawing up the constitution has been dragged out, giving the distinct impression that the Generals are simply playing for time with no intentions of introducing a genuine multi-party democracy,” said the independent Burmese analyst, Win Min, based in Chiang Mai.
The National Convention was originally expected to reconvene this month but the next session was postponed when the country’s top military rulers began to have second thoughts about the roadmap, according to senior military sources in the new capital, Naypyitaw. The invitations to the thousand or so delegates for May 8 were never distributed. They are still sitting in the foreign ministry, according to a reliable Burmese government source in Rangoon.
In recent months there have been increased rumours in Rangoon that the regime maybe about to try to restart talks with Aung San Suu Kyi and her party as they explore ways of reducing the country’s international isolation and secure their power.
Than Shwe told a senior visiting Chinese official in February that because he and Aung San Suu Kyi could not talk together they had been communicating in writing, according to a Chinese government official. But this assertion by the senior general cannot be confirmed – especially as the Lady in question is being held in solitary confinement in her house on University Avenue.
Western diplomats in Rangoon though remain extremely skeptical. “There does not seem to be any percentage in it for the junta, since I believe the regime is quite content with where things stand as they are. They have China, Russia and India in its corner, massive amounts of money are about to flow in from gas, and they have the opposition on their knees,” one diplomat said.
There is growing evidence that Burma’s military leaders may be about to abandon the roadmap altogether. Certainly the regime has begun to realise that the process of drawing up the new constitution is not without its fair share of problems. Already there is growing friction with the ethnic groups, who have ceasefire agreements with Rangoon and are attending the National Convention. “We’ve been told that if we do not agree to the constitution they want – that is with very limited autonomy for the ethnic minorities -they will simply push it through anyway,” according to a representative of the Kachins, who wanted to remain anonymous.
As part of the preparation for the planned referendum and elections, those ceasefire groups would also be expected to surrender their weapons. Initial attempts recently to get the Kachin and the largest ethnic rebel army, the Wa, to lay down their arms were rejected out of hand, according to ethnic sources.
“It’s not clear where things are going on the roadmap now — having pushed it forward with renewed vigour, the regime now appears to have cold feet about moving onto potentially trickier phases,” a western diplomat based in Rangoon told Mizzima.
“They seem paralysed. They are facing a number of important challenges, but lack the will or capacity to do anything about them,” he added.
While most observers agree that the roadmap is currently stalled, some feel that this may be the prelude to a new era of political activity. “It’s all at an impasse as they look for new strategies – nothing has been decided and I believe all options are still open,” he added. “The regime is now pre-occupied with other issues and nothing is likely to happen soon.”
The health of many of the senior generals is becoming a worrying factor preying on the minds of the top men in the junta. A major cabinet reshuffle appears imminent as Than Shwe begins to prepare for the future. The ruling State Peace and Development Council is due to hold is quarterly meeting soon, currently scheduled to start on June 10. This may be the time that Than Shwe reveals what he has in mind for Burma’s political future.
Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist and Burma specialist based in Bangkok. He was formerly the News and Current Affairs editor for Asia and the Pacific at the BBC World Service.