The military junta has proven incapable of efficiently and effectively governing Burma, this is a given. But from where can it be expected that ground-level leadership will arise at critical junctures ahead? The recent waves of small-scale protests across Burma point to a crisis in leadership, not only with respect to the military, but in relation to all the primary voices and parties in opposition.

Capacity status of high-profile opposition

The upper echelon of NLD leadership is under arrest. The organization itself, inside Burma, operates with government imposed shackles. The office in Kengtung, to give one example, looks as if it belongs to a ghost town, with its signboard hanging at a distinct lilt, windows shuttered and a wide beam nailed across the front door.

The reality of the greatly impaired operational capacity and capabilities of the NLD came to the fore a few days ago with the aired comments of NLD Secretary U Lwin on Radio Free Asia, which resulted in widespread frustration of the NLD’s perceived lagging leadership. However the situation is not one of second-tier leaders forced to carry the flag in the absence of top NLD leadership. Rather, the situation is that in the NLD’s current form and in the given political context, there is little room for NLD leadership.

U Lwin was right in raising questions regarding such issues as the size of protests. For domestically based opposition, if they are to be gifted a position of leadership, the dynamics on the ground must be drastically altered. One measure of this can be taken from the size of protests. The Catch-22, however, is that the general public needs strong and comprehensive leadership to be coaxed onto the streets in sufficient numbers; precisely what the NLD is not in a position to provide.

The 88 Generation student group has, for good reason, received much acclaim in recent months. Leadership of this organization, as the name implies, is comprised mainly of persons now in their late thirties and forties. In short, the present leadership of 88 Generation is a matured group of students from their earlier university days. There is, understandably, no more elderly coterie of members to whom to turn.

However, recent arrests have decimated the leadership of 88 Generation, and it is unclear for how long the leadership’s detention will continue, though reports have speculated that prison sentences could extend from as long as 20 years to life. A few of those not detained have fled to Thailand. While there is a role for 88 Generation leaders to play in exile, it is not the same as the one they could play inside Burma, while those remaining incarcerated will be completely muted.

Nay Tin Myint, one leader of the 88 Generation who has recently sought refuge across the border, says that the junta is not concerned with what is said outside Burma, it is only internal voices that can strike fear. This succinctly encapsulates the dilemma currently facing 88 Generation, as the internal leadership is behind bars or on the run and the external leadership has, at least to some degree, been marginalized.

The recently reincarnated All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) is a student group with significantly more historical depth. Maybe for this reason, they were able to release a statement on August 23rd urging pro-junta civilian groups to join them in their opposition to government policies. In a conflict almost singularly characterized by virulent and unrelenting name-calling and finger-pointing, by all sides, it was a rare and welcomed attempt to reach out and bridge gaps.

Alternative sources of leadership

From where then might new leadership arise? As unlikely or disturbing as it may sound, two established domestic institutions provide possibilities: the sangha and the tatmadaw.

Historical involvement of monks on the political landscape is well documented. And in just the past couple days monks in the northwestern town of Sittwe have succeeded in organizing and leading what are some, if not the, largest post-fuel hike demonstrations to date.

The Thamanya Sayadaw, having now left this life almost four years previously, commanded great respect across political divides, being a frequent destination of both military and NLD leaders, and drew support and recognition across a wide swath of Burmese society.

The question of the rightful role of monks in society, and especially politics, is a hotly contested subject – and not just in Burma. Popularly referred to as ‘Engaged Buddhism’, the immersion of representatives of the sangha into political life is a lively component within Sri Lankan society, where monks have even stood for election to public office.

Though true that the statements and objectives of some monks in Sri Lanka are often accused of merely further enflaming the Sri Lankan body politic, there are other persons and organizations, such as the Sarvodaya movement, which are held in high regard for its leadership in reconciliation and nation-building.

With respect to the institution of the army as a breeding ground for leadership, one of the best examples as to how light may shine forth from the darkest recesses may be NLD number two Tin Oo; and Tin Oo’s political history is by no means unique.

Tin Oo spent much of his career as a trusted army man and was complicit in the overthrow of U Nu’s democratic government in 1962, which ushered in the era of military dictatorship that continues to the day. However disillusionment with the policies of the army and country under Ne Win led to his eventual break with his former comrade.

In an army of some 400,000 troops, it is not a question of if there are components within the army amenable to seeing the course of Burmese history radically altered, but rather a question of how many, and who, they are.

Importantly, leadership from within the army could maintain and control the military. The thought of hundreds of thousands of soldiers joining the ranks of the unemployed, a state with no existing or alternative security apparatus and an enormous number of available weapons all of a sudden affording opportunity for immediate power and wealth; well, that is a sobering thought for anyone concerned over Burma’s future.

In the late nineties in Afghanistan, the Taliban paid hired foot soldiers approximately four dollars per day. It is reported that junta-backed civilian thugs can expect a little less than two-and-a-half dollars per diem. The United States raged against the injustices of the Taliban, as they do against Burma’s generals.

Today a massive attempt at institution and nation building is slowly being undertaken in Afghanistan. Vast numbers of those who once paid allegiance to the Taliban are now, or were, on the payroll of the United States and allied forces. Hamid Karzai, heralded as a savior by Washington, was originally a Taliban supporter.

Leaders and leadership, even if capable, need not be ideologically or morally pure. Identities are exchangeable. And while history may not be changed, it can be used in better addressing the present.

Which war? What era?

In some ways Burma is one of the lasting battlegrounds of World War II. Civil wars that sprang up before all the War’s dead had even been buried continue to this day or simmer just below the surface. Most of the problems and issues confronting the newly independent state of Burma from the late forties to the early sixties have yet to be resolved.

The mammoth question of satisfying the rights and demands of ethnically based groups and communities too often returns to a single word: Panglong. Panglong, 60 years ago, was debated, created and agreed to in a vastly different era. A simple revisiting of Panglong will not suffice in addressing these issues today. And of course there is no definitive evidence it would have been enough to hold the country together to begin with.

The true extent of the leadership crisis facing the NLD at this time can be summed up as follows: the party itself has been largely neutralized over recent years and, owing partly to that, it continues to fight a battle as if time has stood still for some 15 to 20 years, while the fight it fought 15 to 20 years ago was inexorably linked to a much more distant era, that of post-independence and post-World War II Burma.

Tellingly, the ABFSU was born out of the ashes of the struggles against colonialism, World War II and pre-independence Burma. In reaching out to members of the junta-backed civilian organizations they returned to a time before the events of 1988, they engaged with their roots as an organization seeking to first unite across society.

Paradoxically, the military junta suffers from an historical infatuation opposite to that of many opposition groups, in that it interprets the present context with an overemphasis on events surrounding the colonial era and independence (and even further in the past), while to its own peril significantly neglecting more recent history.

Unfortunately, Burma looks poised to repeat the crisis in leadership of its early years in the decades ahead. Barring a sudden implosion by the armed forces, which could allow for veteran figures in Burma to take the reigns, when fundamental change does come to the country Burma’s leadership will likely be drawn from a pool of relatively young and inexperienced, albeit committed, politicians; while experienced administrators will be few and far between.

This is precisely the scenario that played itself out in the creation of Burma in the modern era. With the British gone, and with many of the Indians that constituted much of the experienced government and administrative staff to soon follow, the political scene was left to a short list of potential candidates and a prospectus largely void of experience. U Nu, Burma’s post-independence democratically elected leader, was a man of barely 40 years in age when he assumed office, and he was one of the elder statesmen.

It is 2007. Any Burmese leadership must fight not only the battles that arose nearly 20 years previously, but also the battles left unresolved dating back to the end of colonialism and World War II. And these battles must be fought today, in 2007.

The Burmese government is reporting record tourism numbers over the course of the last four months. The interests of China, India and Southeast Asian countries in Burma are expanding exponentially, and they are primarily expanding with regard to their own economic needs and interests. The security situation inside Burma and with respect to its position on the international stage has also drastically changed not just since the end of World War II, but also since 1988.

Myopia in an impoverished land

The NLD does maintain some continuity with the origins of the modern Burmese state, most explicitly through the genetic bridge linking Aung San with Aung San Suu Kyi, but the group has been hijacked, abetted by an extensive international component, by voices and history that hearken back a mere twenty years.

Generation 88 can draw on finite leadership, while the organization as a whole has little historical depth. The current situation vis-à-vis Generation 88 leadership points to the prospect of a diminishing voice as leaders languish in prison or are forced to assume the dais on the opposite side of international boundaries.

These organizations, and others like them, need to come together and design a coordinated and comprehensive policy for today and with respect to the long and tangled course of Burmese history. And to do this, they must succeed in creating space, within Burmese civil society, in which they can constructively take up positions of leadership. It is for this last reason, at least in the short-run, that the sangha and tatmadaw must be considered.

This commentary is neither asking the people of Burma to embrace the tatmadaw or join en masse their nearest monastery, nor is it saying that the head of state need be a former soldier or monk. The sangha and tatmadaw are simply two institutions that do more or less function and maintain at least some space in which people can operate (and lead) – and this, sadly, is more than can be said for most of institutionally starved Burma.