Fri 15 Jun 2007
Filed under: News,Opinion,Other
Burma’s military rulers are preparing for the next stage of their so called “roadmap to democracy”. But rather than genuine multi-party democracy, it appears that the junta is now planning to civilianise its existing military administration. One of the elements in the way in which Burma will be governed in the future is the mass community organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Its’ functions will be many in the new regime that Senior General Than Shwe envisages- it has already become a quasi-civilian militia intent on crushing all opposition and dissent in the country.
For some time now it has been obvious that the USDA was going to play a prominent role in Burma’s political future. Formed by Than Shwe more than a decade ago, this organisation has been used to ensure government policy is adhered to throughout the country. That it is now an official government body was clearly underlined during a visit by an important Chinese delegation to Burma, this week.
During the visit earlier this week the China-Asean Association, led by its president, Gu Xiulian, who is also the vice-Chairwoman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress and president of the All-China Women’s Federation, signed a co-operation agreement with the USDA.
This is the first time the community movement has received international recognition – in the past it has been shunned by the international community, including the UN, because it of its involvement with the regime’s violent attempts to crush the country’s pro-democracy groups.
The regime obviously wants to give the USDA some form of legitimacy. It wants it to be recognised as the country’s main mass community-based organisation – the equivalent of non-government organisations (NGOs) in other countries. After carefully studying the Chinese government model, Burma’s military rulers opted for the Beijing approach of forming government sponsored bodies and then claim they represent civil society.
Over the past few years the regime has repeatedly told the UN team based in Burma, that it should view the USDA as its main local partner. The UN has stridently rejected this – but every time a leading UN representative from New York turns up in Burma, including the new special envoy Gambari, there is a compulsory visit to the USDA headquarters and meet its head, — a close confidante of the top general Than Shwe. On one such visit, according to a senior member of the UN who wished to remain anonymous, the USDA flag and the UN flag were crossed in the usual international sign of friendship.
More ominously though, is the use to which the regime has been putting the USDA in recent months. It has been using it as an auxiliary police force. Dressed in their white uniforms or “white shirts” as they are more derisorily called, they have been harassing demonstrators who dared to voice dissent and support for the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. All protests and rallies in the past few months have run into USDA opposition.
It was the USDA which tried to break up the pro-democracy rally earlier this year on the May 27 — the anniversary of the National League for Democracy’s overwhelming victory in the elections in 1990. They arrested leading members of the demonstration and handed them over to the police.”The police were visibly annoyed and afraid at this encroachment on their duties,” a witness to the event told Mizzima. Most of those arrested were later released, but warned not to say who had detained them.
“The local USDA leaders were involved. They hired farmers from nearby and brought them in buses to Rangoon to help with their crowd-control activities,” a member of the USDA told Mizzima on strict condition that he remain anonymous. “It was a very carefully planned action,” he added.
In the past months there have been several incidents where USDA members have intervened and detained activists. The well-known human rights and labour campaigner Su Su Nway and the other NLD members were also detained in early May for participating in the prayer campaign for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. Su Su Nway was subsequently released after a massive international outcry.
But nearly 50 other NLD activists remain in detention, according to UN sources in Rangoon. The daily prayer vigil for Aung San Suu Kyi continues, but the NLD ladies who go daily to the temple to pray for her release are hassled and attacked by USDA members almost every day, according to opposition sources in Rangoon.
The new USDA role emerged earlier this year when at the beginning of the 88 Students White Sunday campaign, they posed as street sweepers, and blocked the way for the students. Since then the have become even more active in trying to counter any ant-government protest – all of which are relatively small and very peaceful.
It was also the USDA which was responsible for the arrest of HIV/AIDS activist Phyu Phyu Thin – although after some time she was released — and the sweep-up into hospital of the HIV victims who have protested demanding her release.
Of course they are not opposed to pro-government demonstrations and initiated them in front of the British and US embassy in Rangoon several months ago opposing the West-led international sanctions against Burma.
Than Shwe established this organisation in 1993 and since then it has led and organised all pro-government activities. They held mass rallies at the time the National Convention started discussing the new constitution, and many believe this will also be the process by which the regime ratifies the new constitution – a referendum mass meetings and rallies organised by the USDA.
Now with nearly 23,000 members, it has the potential to become a potent force. Though most members have either been coerced or bribed into joining. There is little doubt that Than Shwe’s overall plan is to make it a political party when the time is right to fight the next elections, under the new constitution. The USDA leader even confided this was the intention when he met the UN envoy Ali Alatas in Rangoon more than 18 months ago. Similar tactics, and an organisation with a similar name, were used by the former military dictator General Ne Win in the 1960′s to build his Burma Socialist Programme Party.
The recent suspension of more than 20 privately run associations and charities recently is also part of a larger strategy to legitimise the USDA and provide it with a source of funds. In particular the banning of the Free Funeral Service Association, a popular charity led by film star Kyaw Thu, was targeted because its founder is extremely popular throughout Rangoon and it blocked the development of a potentially lucrative business.
Established in January 2001 to provide free burial services for the poor, it has handled more than 45,000 funerals since, which is more than half the funeral services in Rangoon, according to officials of the organisation. “This association has gained the trust and confidence of the public as it helps the poor and the needy by providing free funeral service and medical treatment,” said student activist, Min Ko Naing.
“While the authorities may feel threatened by the growing popularity of this organisation and especially its founder, the government may well be trying to find another avenue to boost popular support for the USDA,” a Rangoon businessman told Mizzima. “They are already “running” free dispensaries and want to take over the free funeral service businesses that have been established,” he added.
Diplomats in Rangoon are certain the die is truly cast, and the USDA is going to lead the military government’s efforts to become a civilian administration. Not only will it be the main political party, but it will also be the militia which will ruthlessly enforce government policy. Opposition politicians have already drawn comparisons between this and the Nazis in Germany before the Second World.
“The fact of the matter is that this regime only understands repression and the exercise of sole and unquestioned authority – so Nazi and Stalinist models of conduct are bound to appeal to the generals,” said senior western diplomat based in Bangkok, who has dealt with the Burmese regime for more than a decade. “The difference is they have no policy, no strategy and no vision – other than to hold onto power ruthlessly using fear and repression.”
(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.)