By Roland Watson
February 20, 2009

There has been a lot of talk lately about unity in the Burma pro-democracy movement. The movement is divided in a number of ways, and this is considered a sign of weakness.

From another perspective, though, one might say: Why worry about it? Viva la difference. In a democratic society, or movement, and certainly a pro-democracy movement should itself be democratic, people are entitled to their own opinions.

While in general this is true, there are some qualifications. When one is expressing one's views, it is important to take care not to be belligerent, such that consensus is jeopardized and movement goals - the removal of Than Shwe and freedom for Burma - are put at risk. Furthermore, we need to distinguish, and this is very difficult to do, between people with whom we disagree, over tactics and strategy, but who are presenting sincere opinions, and individuals who are covertly supportive or even outright agents of the regime - cronies, spies, and agent provocateurs.

The rewards for overcoming such challenges, though, are great. A unified movement has the power to exert significant diplomatic pressure and to raise substantial funds.

It is a fine line. We want an honest democratic conversation, but we also need to discipline ourselves not to polarize into extreme positions, and we need to identify and neutralize agents of the SPDC.

An additional distinction is that the movement is not only divided among individuals. More important is the division that exists between the groups to which these individuals belong. Differences of opinion among individuals are of little consequence. Between the groups, though, this can hinder if not sabotage the effectiveness of the entire movement.

The factors governing unity include the availability of funds, and whether or not a speaker or group has legitimacy. For the first, if there is enough money to go around, it is easy to agree. For Burma, there is nowhere near enough. Also, groups that take a softer stance, that there can be power sharing with Than Shwe, are much more well received by institutional funders, particularly from Europe and Japan, than groups that advocate the goal of a decisive victory.

For legitimacy, this can have either a formal or informal character. Formal legitimacy in a democratic society attaches to individuals or parties who have the mandate of the people, in other words, who have won an election. However, informal legitimacy also exists, and it is obtained through such things as having a long-term involvement with a cause; through presenting arguments that are widely accepted; through making personal sacrifices; and through engaging in activities that achieve some measure of success.

For Burma, the National League for Democracy and its associates (e.g., the Shan National League for Democracy), and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have formal legitimacy because they won the 1990 election. So too other groups among the ethnic nationalities but which are unaffiliated with the NLD, that have similarly been selected or which otherwise enjoy this status. For example, while it is difficult to conduct an election in a war zone, the Karen National Union has a series of votes, beginning in villages and which culminate in a Congress, where the top leaders are selected. Further, at the Third Karen National Unity Seminar, in 2004, the nineteen specific participating Karen organizations, from Burma and abroad, reached consensus that the KNU was the mother or umbrella organization for the Karen people.

The fact that the military junta did not honor the 1990 election result changed the NLD's role. Its formal legitimacy to govern was transformed to a formal legitimacy to organize a pro-democracy struggle. A number of related groups have since been established: the Members of Parliament Union (MPU), the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), and the Committee Representing the People's Parliament (CRPP), and they share this legitimacy. Also, the KNU and other ethnic armed groups have formal legitimacy not only to push for democracy, but more importantly to defend their people from Burma Army attacks.

The situation with the NLD, though, is more complex than immediately apparent. The NLD is a political party. It does not legally have the right to govern. Rather, it is the party to which a majority of the members of parliament elected in 1990 belong. The only real government that has been formed, and which is a government in exile, comprises the NCGUB and the MPU. The MPU, or defacto Parlaiment, elects the NCGUB, which functions as the Executive Branch. Finally, the CRPP was formed as a second, and broader internal organization to express the views of elected MPs, but it was almost immediately subjected to a severe crackdown by the military regime.

This is a confusing structure. The NLD remains paramount, in part because of the status of its leader, Daw Suu. There is in a sense competition between Daw Suu and NCGUB Prime Minister Dr. Sein Win. Of course, there is no real competition - they are allies (and cousins). However, the mere existence of two individuals accepted or designated as leader confuses the issue, certainly in the eyes of the International Community, of who is responsible for what. Also, the MPU contains only a fraction of the MPs elected in 1990; hence its authority and that of the NCGUB which it elects is diminished. The NCGUB-MPU working relationship further suffers by the fact that the two groups are based on different sides of the world. This restricts their ability to meet and to govern.

For the the CRPP, as with the NLD, it has only limited freedom to act.

While one can say that the MPU, NCGUB and CRPP have formal legitimacy, the International Community has clearly decided that Daw Suu and the NLD take precedence. They remain inside Burma, and even if their activities are greatly curtailed, they are in touch with the people and are viewed as the primary voices speaking on their behalf.

Notwithstanding this support, a key question with legitimacy is to what extent it endures. For the NLD, is its authority intact after nineteen years? Does the KNU still represent and defend the Karen people? In an established democracy, there are term limits. No such limits apply to a freedom or self-defense struggle.

The NLD maintains its legitimacy, and this cannot be changed until there is a new free and fair national election. (This is the basic reason why the junta-sponsored 2010 election will be meaningless.) In addition, the KNU continues to defend the Karen people.

Of course, there is also the question of effectiveness. If legitimate groups are unable to attain positive change, one can press them to modify their positions, strategy and tactics, and even leaders. Also, the leaders themselves should grasp when positive developments are not forthcoming. The practical reality for Burma is that if other people have new ideas and seek a greater role, we should not hinder their effort. Indeed, at this point the struggle has gone on for so long, and there has been so much suffering, it is easy to argue that we should give anyone who has a new idea the opportunity to try it.

Again, though, there is a proviso. An idea that represents surrender to Than Shwe, through such things as appeasement and collaboration, is not itself legitimate, since it conflicts with the goal of a free Burma.

If you are so tired of the struggle that your only idea is to give up, in one way or another, you should recognize that you do not in fact have a real idea. It is better to keep quiet. Other groups that are not so tired may have original approaches, which should be given a chance.

There has been a lot of dissension over the years between the NCGUB and another organization, the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), and which is composed of the MPU, the National League for Democracy - Liberated Area (NLD-LA), the National Democratic Front (NDF), and the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB). Indeed, the NCGUB was formerly part of the NCUB as well, but left more than ten years ago. This has put it in the awkward position of having its associated Parliament, the MPU, being a member of a group with which it disagrees. Of course, as one country after another illustrates, there is no need for or even tradition of the Parliament agreeing with the PM. On the other hand, it would be nice thing to see in a pro-democracy movement.

The dissension between the two groups is now at a peak, and it revolves around two NCUB initiatives, the United Nations credentials challenge, and the idea of forming a National Unity Government. We need to determine if the differences of opinion over these initiatives are honest, i.e., democratic (but even if so, we still have to decide what to do), or evidence of a movement power struggle.

The NCGUB presents itself as a government in exile. An important question is if it is acting in this capacity, or if it is effectively a more general political advocacy group.

A government in exile should logically fulfill a number of roles:

1. To lead disparate international advocacy groups and through this to achieve a united front.

2. To liaise with internal groups, to coordinate the pro-democracy struggle and to set associated policies.

3. To negotiate with all international actors, to secure attention to and financial and diplomatic support for the cause.

It is up to the people of Burma to judge, but as anyone can see, the country is not yet free. The NCGUB has been unable to claim the stature in the international arena that its status as government in exile would suggest is appropriate. Rather, it seems to be acting as one more Burma pro-democracy advocacy group.

I do not mean to underestimate the challenges facing such an organization. Still, after this lengthy period there should be some accountability.

Probably the most significant concern that one can raise with the NCGUB is its timidity. There are many bold initiatives that it might try. For instance, Daw Suu supports the imposition of economic sanctions. The NCGUB could extend this and call for all of the SPDC's corporate partners to leave Burma, on penalty of losing their contracts, forever, once the country is free.

Similarly, the NCGUB could extend an offer of amnesty to Tatmadaw soldiers and officers who turn against the ruling generals and back the democratic aspirations of the people.

As another example, many governments around the world ask the United States for assistance in combating domestic terrorist groups. This assistance is usually limited to advice, training and materiel, and current recipients include the Philippines, Thailand and Uganda.

The SPDC is a domestic terrorist group. If the NCGUB had attained a high profile position, and focused more on representing its people than adhering to the advocacy stance of non-violence, it could ask the U.S. for such help. Indeed, no U.S. military personnel would need to be put at risk. Predator drones could be used to decapitate the regime, to pave the way for officers in the Burma Army who have secret pro-democracy affinities to regain control.

What is apparent is that the NCGUB, like the International Community, is deferring to Daw Suu. It won't act without her approval. While from one perspective this makes perfect sense - Daw Suu is effectively the people's Prime Minister - from another it makes no sense at all. The SPDC clearly understands the situation, and has realized that by silencing Daw Suu it can silence the entire formal organization. The NCGUB, again, has to be bold, and act decisively on its own when communication with Daw Suu is impossible.

Related to all of this, various groups in Burma believe that their interests are not being represented properly, foremost the ethnic nationalities. This is one of the principal reasons why the NCUB has proposed the National Unity Government, which would include ethnic representatives.

The NLD, and through it the NCGUB, has a platform of four demands:

- Freedom for political prisoners.
- The initiation of a genuine dialog with the SPDC.
- The convening of the Parliament elected in 1990.
- The formation of a committee to examine (and by default, to amend) the SPDC's Constitution.

Notably lacking from this list is the cessation of Burma Army attacks in the ethnic areas.

If the NLD is the legitimate representative of the people of Burma (and the NCGUB its international proxy), its foremost priority must be the defense of said people, in whatever location and of whatever ethnicity. Its first demand should be an end to all Tatmadaw attacks.

For the third role of a government in exile, a natural component is to push to represent the country in all international forums. For Burma, this would logically include opposition to the SPDC having membership in any such forum. The junta should not have a seat at the United Nations, in Asean, etc. Moreover, the campaign to deny it such international representation, and legitimacy, should have begun years ago, ideally following Ne Win's 1962 coup.

The current disagreement in this area derives from the NCUB launching the credentials challenge, which is a formal procedure under the rules of the U.N. General Assembly, and which may benefit from another member nation making an objection to the current representatives. The NCGUB opposed the NCUB, arguing that the challenge should not be pursued as it was unlikely to succeed.

In fact, the credentials challenge was not even a challenge, in the sense of direct opposition to the SPDC having membership in the U.N. (at least the way the brief document conveying the challenge was worded). It also lacked an international sponsor. Instead, the MPU simply submitted to Ban Ki-moon the name of an individual to be Burma's U.N. Ambassador. The Secretary-General then had his Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs respond in a bureaucratic fashion that such appointments could only be made by the Head of State or the Minister of Foreign Affairs. One wonders what the response would have been had the request come from Prime Minister Sein Win or even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

More deeply, though, what both groups failed to realize is that there should be a more general and widespread advocacy effort to pressure the U.N. to expel the SPDC. This is the approach that was used with South Africa, and which worked, and which we at Dictator Watch have been calling for for years, starting with in our 2001 statement, "Burma and the United Nations: UNseat the Regime!" After creating widespread opposition to SPDC membership in the U.N., a credentials challenge is much more likely to prevail, including through securing another country to object. The NCGUB - and the NLD - should oppose SPDC membership in the U.N., and Asean, as a basic foreign affairs position, and also as an intermediate-term goal to which significant effort is devoted.

Returning to the National Unity Government, this is an idea that the NCUB has proposed - it is only a concept at this point - due to its concern that if the SPDC does hold an election in 2010, no matter how undemocratic it might be, its outcome will water down the legitimacy of the 1990 result. Pro-SPDC parties, including many international - and U.N. - diplomats, are likely to argue that the result is a step in the right direction and that 1990 should be forgotten. The NCUB wants to form a broad based "unity" government, which can then be presented, in particular to the International Community, as the true representatives of the people of Burma.

This is a noble idea, and it is certainly worth considering. Such an institution could be quite positive. However, one can question the nature and timing of the NCUB's announcement. Forming a new government is a major initiative, and this generally requires the consent of relevant parties and substantial funding. For the first, for the NUG to succeed, it must have the support of the NLD, NCGUB and MPU. Due to the SPDC's repression of the NLD, though, and the disputes with the NCGUB, such consensus will be difficult to achieve. For the second, the necessary funds apparently are not in place. Had funding been in place, the problems that exist would have been surmountable. Clearly, the NCUB hoped that all of the different organizations would recognize the merit of the proposal, and that their agreement to develop the idea would facilitate fund raising. But, objections were raised, and these have been sufficient, if not to defeat the proposal, certainly to deal it a serious setback.

It is still early 2009, and much can be done now to bring freedom to Burma. The election in 2010 is a long ways away. One hopes that both the NCGUB and the NCUB will realize that they have an obligation to represent the best interests of the people of Burma, and find a way to set their differences aside and compromise.

Than Shwe is already a difficult opponent, without having to fight amongst ourselves. We need to focus, now, on initiatives that clearly have the potential to increase the pressure on his regime. There are many such opportunities, including:

1. Lobby the Obama Administration to ensure close U.S. attention to Burma, including by having the Administration publicly acknowledge the SPDC's nuclear program. This can then be used to press for an international arms embargo against the regime, and other steps, and to force Russia and China to relent in their Security Council vetoes.

2. Implement a Responsibility To Protect program for vulnerable populations in both eastern and western Burma, that creates and defends sanctuaries for villagers and internally displaced persons.

3. Renew the push to get Total, Chevron, Daewoo and the other major corporate partners of the SPDC to suspend their activities in Burma.

4. Raise funds for internal underground and monastic groups, and the ethnic resistance organizations, including for the establishment of revolutionary media.

The global economic crisis is weakening the junta. Among other things, the revenue on its natural gas sales has fallen sharply. Also, its principal international supporter, China, is focused on problems at home. We need to grasp these opportunities and concentrate on the above initiatives. Now is not the time to be timid! We further should not fight over divisive issues, and which the pro-junta parties are doing everything in their power to promote. Their goal is to create distraction. The more time, energy and resources people spend arguing, the less there is available to achieve freedom and democracy for Burma.