Wed 30 Nov 2011
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Aung San Suu Kyi has been compared to Nelson Mendela, one of the greatest iconic statesmen of the 20th century, for her steely will and strong convictions while standing tall for democracy and fighting courageously for the freedom of the people. Like Mandela, she is committed to nonviolence. She is unwavering in her beliefs. Some so-called Western liberals have labeled her ‘stubborn,” “hard-headed” and some even dared to accuse her of politically naïvete.“The Lady,” as she is known, took all the abuse but never showed any signs of compromising her political convictions. Fittingly, as a democratic icon, some people hailed her released in November 2010 as a Mandela moment. However, some, disagreed, like The Observer, in an article headlined: “A release to celebrate – but this is not a ‘Mandela moment’.”
On February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released, the event was broadcast live all over the world and thus many remembered that as the Mandela moment. But there was another moment. Mandela boldly encouraged black South Africans to support the mainly white national rugby team as South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. His argument was that his support for the previously hated team was for the greater good of the country, and he bravely appeared at the World Cup final wearing a South African green and gold rugby shirt. For many, this was the moment that was widely seen as the major step in the reconciliation of white and black Africans.
Only a brave and wise leader like Mandela would dare to take such a challenging and unpopular move and to willing confront die-hard supporters for the sake of the country. It was also the right thing to do.
Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi has the wisdom and courage to meet such challenges, and she took a decisive turn when the NLD announced it would re-register the party and enter the by-election. This was Suu Kyi’s Mandela moment, at least to this author. Just as there was no Black South Africa or White South Africa, but only one South Africa for Mandela, there is only one country for Suu Kyi.
Not surprisingly, some supporters, especially from the fringe of the left wing, protested and voiced their opposition. Many of them do not know any better than to oppose the military for the sake of opposing. What is remarkable is that like her father, General Aung San, who won over the people with his honesty and transparency, the “Lady” asked her party’s leaders to vote on the issue, in full transparency. They overwhelmingly supported her policy.
Many leaders when they are entrusted with the responsibility of a country take up the challenges and become reform-minded. Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping are good examples. It appears that President Thein Sein and his reform-minded ministers are a new breed of military officers. Thein Sein, who was prime minister during the days of the military junta, was relatively clean of corruption charges and his first speech to the nation after his election was like listening to an election campaign speech in a Western democracy. Many doubted his words, but he invited Suu Kyi for a meeting and a photo of General Aung San, her father, the architect of the country’s Independence, looked down on them. That was an image no one can easily forget.
No one really knows what transpired between the two during that meeting, but it was clear that Thein Sein was able to win the trust of the iconic leader to a certain degree.
Aung San who led the revolution against the Fascist Japanese army saw the destruction of the country due to two wars, and he was determined to win Independence from the British through negotiations. Similarly, Suu Kyi’s choice has always been negotiations. But a leader needs their counterpart to negotiate. Mandela spent 27 years in prison and only when President F.W. de Klerk came to power did he find his partner. Similarly, Suu Kyi showed defiance for 20 years and only now with the birth of Democratic institutions and the election of President Thein Sein, has she found her partner.
After their meeting, Suu Kyi was invited to seminars and Zarganar, a famous comedian, who is also a vocal critic, was released with a few other political prisoners. The release did not meet expectations because many of the 8888 student leaders were not released. Many do not realize that this is just the start of a complicated political dance that can lead to democracy. Many in the military old guard are power-mongers and very hardline regarding reforms. Many opposition members cannot differentiate between a “wish list,” a “possibility” and “reality.” The Darth Vader military men are no fools. All are smart in their own way, and some have both the wealth and power to derail the positive efforts made by the president and his fellow reformers, if their faction’s interests are threatened.
Another important factor is the invisible hand or the unseen influence still asserted by retired Snr-Gen Than Shwe, although he may also be in genuine retirement. No one really knows. Just as Deng Xiaoping instructed his followers to move forward carefully, Thein Sein and his reformers have to step carefully because they know they are in unchartered and dangerous waters.
While many foreign and domestic analysts had been underestimating the former SPDC chief, this author had come to the conclusion very early on that Than Shwe is a very shrewd strategist. His moves are methodical, thorough, strategic and very long-term oriented. He never showed his hand and one of his strongest characteristics is that he is a very patience man.
By design, he retired most of the old generals from the previous junta and placed a very junior general with a new face in place as the commander in chief. The army is his insurance policy, and its power was embedded in the 2008 Constitution. He placed relatively moderate generals, Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, as heads of the executive and legislative branches respectively, and he put a hard-liner, Tin Aung Myint Oo, as vice president to balance the two moderates. Than Shwe seemed to understand the danger of creating a strong man and this line up was his way of setting up a check-and-balance mechanism to make sure that no one could consolidate power and become another strong man.
Leaders want to leave a legacy, and Than Shwe is no exception. But he has shown great patience. When he became commander in chief, he did not possess actual power. General Tin Oo (Secretary (2) had the fighting forces and General Khin Nyunt controlled the Intelligence. They were proxies for the real strong man, General Ne Win. It took more than 10 years for Than Shwe to consolidate his power, and he used the wily Khin Nyunt to do his dirty work. While he was in power, Khin Nyunt repeatedly broke the cardinal rule to survive under any dictatorship: Never over step your “power.” Because he controlled the ministries, Khin Nyunt was up front and center in the news. It did not bother Than Shwe, because he was sure of his power base, and he played the army against military intelligence well. He watched Khin Nyunt’s ambitions, utilizing the intelligence services to his maximum advantage. He even allowed a budget request from Khin Nyunt to expand his units for a power grab and only when intelligence made its first move did he crush them for good using their arch rival, the Army. He made sure that military intelligence will never be able to challenge its mother unit: the army.
When “Arab Spring” occurred, he completed his election schedule and only then did people realized that he was one step ahead of them. Than Shwe unerstood that there was a need for political reform in order for economic development to occur and bring an end to Burma’s isolation. He made certain that the transition did not jeopardize the security of the military with his hand-crafted 2010 Constitution, which gives ultimate power to the military not the civilian branch of government.
Then, with his cards in place, Than Shwe left the political scene peacefully. But many believe that he still wields major influence on the ruling clique even though he may be truly practicing a hands-off policy.
Now imagine this scenario: If Suu Kyi and Thein Sein can do the perfect political dance and over time gradually elevate Burma into a truly democratic state, Burma’s iconic leader will be able to deliver her promise and bring a second independence to the country. Wouldn’t she then deserve a second Nobel Peace prize? No one has achieved it yet. Then following a tradition, Thein Sein might also be standing next to Suu Kyi like President F.W. de Klerk, who received the Nobel Prize as the partner to Nelson Mandela.
In a similar fashion, the Nobel Prize was awarded jointly to Yasar Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East. If Democracy can be revitalized in the country and economic development can be reintroduced, then who is the playwright who wrote the whole script? Who knows but one day Than Shwe’s followers may build a statue in honor of his “legacy,” and future soldiers may salute a fourth statue at the military marching grounds in Naypitaw.
Than Shwe surely cares about his “legacy,” and so long as Thein Sein and Suu Kyi dance within acceptable boundaries, the ex-junta leader will not stop them from moving toward a full-fledged democracy. It is a win-win situation for all. Nearly 60 million people have suffered, and it is time for peace and economic development in Burma.
When the final curtain comes to a close, legacy and partnerships do matter to real leaders.
November 30, CNN
What can Clinton achieve in Myanmar?
Hong Kong — Hillary Clinton’s arrival in Myanmar is something many never expected to see.
It’s been 50 years since a U.S. Secretary of State stepped foot in the country, now shattered and isolated after decades of military rule.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced Clinton’s impending visit in late November, an unexpected move following a series of surprising concessions by Myanmar’s new government.
At the time, Obama said the U.S. was seizing an opportunity to forge a new relationship with the country, which is also known as Burma.
“That possibility will depend upon the Burmese government taking more concrete action,” Obama said.
Clinton added that she wanted to test Myanmar’s commitment to both economic and political reform. “How real it is, how far it goes — we will have to make sure we have a better understanding than we do right now,” she said.
What concessions has Myanmar’s government made?
One of the first came with the election last year of Thein Sein — a formal general — as the country’s president, albeit in a vote called by the country’s military rulers and at the time slammed by Obama as a “sham” election.
Days after the vote, the new government released long-time political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi whose party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), recently announced its intention to contest upcoming parliamentary elections.
Since her release, Suu Kyi has hit the road to spread her message of political reform, something that would have been unheard of a little over a year ago.
The Nobel Peace Laureate has said she “deeply believes” President Sein wants change in the country.
One of the president’s political advisers, Nay Zin Latt, recently told the Wall Street Journal that the country’s reform process was “not (in) the initial stage. It would be in the middle of the democratization process.”
Last month, dozens of other political prisoners were released and there are promises that more will follow, this is viewed as a huge step forward for a country that previously denied it imprisoned people for their political views.
There have been calls for greater press freedom from the head of state censorship, and Human Rights Watch reports that the government has passed reforms protecting basic human rights. However, the group has also noted that the government retains tight control over the country.
What is the reaction to Clinton’s visit inside Myanmar?
“A lot of people inside Burma are very excited,” says Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy Magazine, adding “I think it’s a huge, major development.”
Irrawaddy Magazine was founded in 1993 by a group of Burmese journalists living in exile in Thailand, who say they aspire to report news from Myanmar without political interference.
Aung Zaw says Clinton’s arrival is a victory for Myanmar’s new government which yearns for international approval, despite international criticism that it was elected by a vote that was neither free, nor fair.
“They are craving for international legitimacy and recognition and this visit will boost the government’s ongoing reform process and legitimacy, no doubt about it,” he says.
How has China, Myanmar’s long-time ally, reacted?
In the days leading up to Clinton’s visit, China sent its own envoy to Myanmar in the form of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is also vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Xi emphasized the close relationship between China and Myanmar, and the country’s commitment to deepening their ties. “China will work with Myanmar to further bolster the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation,” he was quoted as saying by Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.
Myanmar shares a border with China, which became an important source of trade and investment for the country during its years of isolation from the West.
Aung Zaw says Myanmar will need to engage in “delicate and sophisticated” diplomacy to retain its close ties with China while improving its relationship with the U.S.
After years of isolation, why change now?
“There’s a realization from the government as well as the opposition that it has to change: ‘We can’t keep going on like this’” Aung Zaw says. “So I think also there’s their own self interest, geo-political strategy concerns and a combination of pressure from inside and outside.”
He says it’s in Myanmar’s interests to nurture a relationship with the U.S. to balance its close ties with China.
“Burma will have to maintain a good relationship with China but also it has to find a major power to counter-balance China and its growing clout. I think this is how Burma wants to play a balancing game,” he says.
What does the U.S. stand to gain?
In a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, Hillary Clinton wrote of the importance of the Asia-Pacific as a future focus for U.S. diplomatic relations.
“At a time when the region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, U.S. commitment there is essential,” she wrote.
Obama has said the the U.S. remains “concerned about Burma’s closed political system, its treatment of minorities and holding of political prisoners and its relationship with North Korea. But we want to seize what could be a historic opportunity for progress.”
The secretary-general of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Surin Pitsuwan, has said the benefits of bringing Myanmar in from its political isolation extend far beyond the U.S.
“It’s the beginning of a new chapter of the region because the integration of Myanmar into ASEAN more effectively and Myanmar into the international community will be a benefit for everyone,” he said earlier this month, as Asian nations endorsed Myanmar for the chairmanship of its regional grouping in 2014.
Is Myanmar really headed towards democracy?
Outside observers have expressed skepticism as to whether Myanmar’s leaders are truly committed to providing greater freedom for its long-suffering people.
Human Rights Watch says the country continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners, and it has not repealed repressive laws on free speech and assembly.
“With this backdrop, it is too early to know whether the government’s change of tone and talk of reform is cynical window-dressing or evidence that significant change will come to the country,” the group wrote in a briefing paper.
“It’s been hit and miss,” Aung Zaw says. “I’m not fully convinced that Burma is heading toward concrete reform.”
“The reform is encouraging – we should encourage it — but I also think that some people have a doubt (and think) that the government is making small token gestures to gain international legitimacy. If that is the case it would be very disappointing for a lot of people.”