By Roland Watson
November 23, 2010

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is free. The legitimate democratic leader of Burma is free, and everyone is full of expectations.

Hers is an awesome responsibility. There is so much to do - to accomplish, and the goals are so difficult. How should she proceed?

As one would expect, her initial statements have been on target, including that she does not want to destroy the Armed Forces, just redirect the soldiers so that they fulfill their proper social role; and that she is still willing to negotiate with Than Shwe. It is an honorable step to continue this long-standing offer, but she should not appear conciliatory. What she is proposing is effectively negotiating with terrorists. She does not want to reward one of the worst criminal mafias on earth.

The SPDC follows the Indian treatise on statecraft called 'Arthashastra,' which was written about 300 B.C. In this treatise, the ruler is instructed to give no quarter to all those suspected of opposition, and to use all possible wiles, trickery and treachery to eliminate rivals. (The Arthashastra is an ancient precursor of Machiavelli.) Power and wealth are the ultimate goal, and any means to acquire or maintain them are justified.

Daw Suu should have a backup plan as well, if the dictator of Burma persists in his feudal views and refusal to hold a dialogue in good faith. She further should recognize that after twenty years, non-violent strategies alone will not bring freedom and democracy to Burma. Gradual change may be impossible.

I don't mean to be impolite, but as Albert Einstein once said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Most importantly in her post-detention comments, Daw Suu has said that she wants to listen to the people. She recognizes that she is their representative, and that because she has been under house arrest for ages and denied freedom of travel and information, she is poorly informed. She needs to learn about the present circumstances of the people of Burma, and what they want.

Only after she understands what the SPDC has done, to her people and country, will she be in a position to lead: To consider policy and to make decisions on all of the different issues facing Burma.

It is essential that Daw Suu investigate the ordeals of the junta's worst victims, and here, she can start with the manifold documentation of the Tatmadaw's atrocities. One place to begin would be the reports that describe the use of rape as a weapon of war, and which are available from the Women's League of Burma.

However, reading is not enough. To develop empathy, one needs to hear the stories face-to-face. Daw Suu should listen to the stories of refugees, internally displaced persons, migrant workers, and ethnic resistance soldiers. This will expose her to countless individuals whose relatives have been killed by Burma Army soldiers, in attacks on villages or of porters who were executed after they could no longer carry their loads; and who personally have been tortured, raped and maimed.

This is a necessary step to prepare for the basic question of what is required for Burma. The goal is democracy, of course, but how should this be achieved? What steps are required? In a situation where there is so much suffering, where so much evil has been perpetrated, the initial goal should be freedom. The SPDC must be defeated, completely removed from power in one way or another. Then, after this is accomplished, the Burmese people can address the task of building a well-functioning, democratic nation.

When you grasp the incredible breadth of the anguish and agony in Burma, it is easy to understand why, during the junta's crackdown on the Saffron Revolution, many people, including at least one monk, said that what they really needed was guns, so they could fight back.

The circumstances of many Burmese have driven them to the point where they not only want to fight for freedom, in the interests of self-preservation they are compelled to do so. If there were no armed struggle, the SPDC's rule would be absolute and Burma would be as bad as North Korea.

Than Shwe's gambit

Than Shwe's decision to release Daw Suu was a shrewd move. The timing had nothing to do with the supposed expiration of her term. As she herself has commented, the detention was illegal under Burmese law. Had he wanted to, Than Shwe could and would have kept her under house arrest, indefinitely if it suited his purposes.

The release was designed to relieve the popular pressure that was building after he stole the election. People were outraged and there was the potential for serious resistance, even renewed uprising, which is his greatest fear.

And here, Daw Suu's release was one-hundred percent successful. The people were so happy to see and hear her again that their immediate anger over the election dissipated.

Than Shwe also hopes that her release can be used to put pressure on the West to end its sanctions, which contrary to what many people believe have had a huge impact; and to more willingly accept his civilian puppet government when it is formed.

It is also essential that Daw Suu counter Than Shwe's chess move, by opposing the election and new government (this is simply an extension of the NLD boycott), and by resisting the calls to relent on the sanctions.

The release further is designed to reduce the pressure that has been building within the Tatmadaw. Than Shwe has been modernizing the Armed Forces, at great expense, including through launching a clandestine nuclear weapons program. However, the rank and file soldiers are impoverished if not hungry. There is not enough money for both: His Fourth Burman Empire delusions and to keep the soldiers content. The sanctions are working. He desperately wants them to end.

It is well known that the vast majority of the troops support the cause of democracy. The regular stream of desertions is now rising to the ranks of captains and majors. Than Shwe will incur a great risk if he launches a large offensive against the resistance forces, since his own soldiers may turn against him. This is why such an offensive, long feared, has yet to erupt. It also explains why the report that Burma had been placed under a ninety day state of emergency included the provision that no soldiers would be allowed to leave the Army during that period.

Than Shwe's rule is fragile, and this presents an opportunity. Taking a slow approach to achieving democracy will provide him time to address these internal problems. Indeed, one can argue that given the crimes against humanity, and the junta's weakened state, now is the time to push for freedom and with every available resource.

Daw Suu has two great openings. Now that she is free, she can lead Burma on the many serious issues facing the nation. I would suggest that until the SPDC is removed, she adopt a role of Shadow Prime Minister, and consider all the issues facing the country and suggest policy thereon. Daw Suu and the NLD, still the rightful government of Burma, after deliberation should issue policy statements and recommendations on all such issues. The next section of this article is a basic policy guide.

Secondly, she is not limited to leading the people, by listening to them and then reflecting their desires in policy. She can empower them first to be politically active - to help the Burmese people achieve freedom from fear; after which all fifty million citizens, as individuals, can push for change. Such a groundswell would be irresistible. Like a wave toppling a sand castle on a beach, the SPDC would disintegrate under its force.

Policy recommendations for the Shadow Prime Minister

The most important policy issue for Burma by far is the SPDC's internal repression, and which is not limited to the arrest and torture of dissidents. Amazingly, in Burma, World War II has yet to end. The Burma Army is attacking its own people. This is the most important issue the country faces: Ending the civil war in Burma and allowing the people to live in peace.

Daw Suu should consider the following policy decisions and actions:

- Call on the Burma Army to withdraw from the ethnic areas. This has been the principal position of resistance groups such as the Karen National Union in ceasefire discussions: Remove Tatmadaw troops from the areas where Karen people reside so that they are able to live in peace, and we will discuss a ceasefire.

- More generally, call on all the soldiers and officers of the Tatmadaw to join the pro-democracy movement. Consider an amnesty for soldiers who heed this call. Call for all soldiers to be allowed to retire if they so desire.

- Support the right of the ethnic forces to pursue self-defense.

- Call on the Secretary General of the United Nations, and the member states, to organize a Peace-Keeping Force for Burma. Remind Ban Ki-moon of his responsibility to protect.

- Call on the United Nations to impose a comprehensive arms embargo against the SPDC.

- Have discussions with the different ethnic leaders about the situation and goals of their groups, including through promoting and organizing a second Panglong Conference. Ensure that such discussions include, if only through envoys, ethnic leaders who are unable to come to Rangoon.

- Call on the United Nations to launch a Commission of Inquiry into the crimes of the SPDC. (At this point, with so much documentation, it is unnecessary to term them "alleged.")

- Ask Germany how, with Hitler's legacy and the national guilt of having committed the worst atrocity in human history, it can possibly oppose the COI.

- End the forced recruitment of soldiers and porters, with a special emphasis on ending the Tatmadaw's use of child soldiers.

- Push for freedom for all of Burma's political prisoners.

- Openly describe her experience at Depayin.

National development

The second set of policy issues concerns Burma's internal development. The recommendations below derive in part from my article, Development in Burma, which is still germane, and which segregates such issues into three categories: political, social and economic development.

At the present time the foremost political development issues include:

- Document the fraud in the election and fight all attempts to legitimize it. There are many possibilities for the latter, including by opposing meetings between foreign diplomats and Than Shwe's new puppets.

- Rebuild and expand the NLD organization, and reestablish contacts with allied pro-democracy groups including the 88 Generation Students, ABFSU, ABYMU, Generation Wave, etc.

- Oppose the actions of the new government by analyzing the issues at hand and releasing policy decisions on how a truly democratic government would address such issues.

- Promote efforts to teach the people of Burma about the democratic system, and encourage a lively democratic debate.

- Promote free media for Burma, and the rights of freedom of speech and association.

- Building on efforts already underway, plan a future democratic and federal structure for Burma, starting with organizing a constitutional convention and considering the various democratic institutions that need to be established, including a complete review of Burma's legal system.

For social development the principal concern is the poverty and related suffering of the Burmese people. Malnutrition, disease and under-education are rampant.

- The country needs to build systems to guarantee that all residents have sufficient food and water, and also establish nation-wide networks of clinics and hospitals, and schools. Policy should focus on empowering the people of Burma to fulfill these needs themselves, even in the face of SPDC repression.

- Solicit international donor and NGO support for social development.

- Since the SPDC has stolen a percentage of this support in the past, for enrichment and to entrench its rule, work with the donors and NGOs to design programs that limit such SPDC theft and interference. (A sorely needed area is cross-border humanitarian aid.)

- All infrastructure for social development, including roads, and communications and power systems, should be screened so that their implementation is not destructive of the natural environment.

Economic development, unfortunately, will be first in the minds of many such donors. They follow the policy of quid pro quo, meaning that if Burma wants money from, say Japan, it should give Japanese corporations unhindered access.

- If and when international aid can be reasonably organized for Burma, policy should be clear that such aid is purely humanitarian, and that while the Burmese people naturally will be grateful, it does not entail economic development reciprocity.

- Economic development considerations such as the mining of resources, the building of factories, etc., should come a distant second to the social development tasks of feeding, educating and ensuring the health of the Burmese.

- A basic policy therefore would be that talks on economic development, trade, and related issues will be postponed until the Burmese people are no longer impoverished.

- A separate issue is to formally consider the viability of the contracts that are currently in place between the SPDC and multi-national corporations: If they will be terminated when Burma is free; and if so if and how they will be offered to other companies that have not been the SPDC's commercial allies.

External relations

A major class of policy relates to how a free Burma will interact with other members of the International Community, ranging from parties such as Communist China - that have been the SPDC's closest allies; to the Czech Republic - which has consistently promoted freedom and democracy; to countries that tried to have it both ways such as the United States - which imposed sanctions against the SPDC yet at the same time allowed an American corporation to be one of the junta's main funding sources; to the fence-sitters, including the United Nations, that refused to take a stand.

- A standard policy is to reward allies and punish foes, depending on the degree to which they provided support or, alternatively, the party backed the SPDC.

- Be open with the people: Publicly disclose what the diplomats from different nations request.

- Since the U.N. has so comprehensively failed the people of Burma, a related question is if the country should even seek membership in the organization once it is free.

- Continuing a point in the economic development section, Burma needs a policy to govern its affairs with multi-national corporations, if any. This would involve establishing laws to protect the environment and workers from exploitation by such corporations and also domestic businesses.

- The issue of economic sanctions should be analyzed, including not only the impact of the sanctions that are now in place, but also how other nations including Burma's immediate neighbors can be encouraged to impose them as well. One thing that is certain is that if the sanctions were uniform, the SPDC would be emasculated. Absent the natural resource wealth, which only international companies can produce, the Armed Forces would be unsustainable and the generals would be forced to relinquish power.

- Lastly, investigate Than Shwe's nuclear weapons program, including by encouraging officers in the program to disclose its activities, and work with the International Community to ensure that the regime does not procure nuclear arms. Ask U.S. diplomats to reveal what the United States knows about the program, including its links with North Korea, China and Russia.

If the election stands, and the international policy of engagement does not yield a transition to democracy, Than Shwe almost certainly will have a functioning atomic weapon within five years.


This is a great workload for an individual and a party (the NLD) to take on when their activities are severely circumscribed, and who have only limited finding. There is also the risk that Daw Suu will be imprisoned once again, or worse.

Some of the recommendations could be best satisfied by traveling outside of Rangoon (for example, to meet the victims of war crimes). At this point, though, such travel would entail many risks. Daw Suu must ensure her safety, and not give the regime an excuse to detain her once again.

The nature of her situation even raises the question of if she should stay in Burma. Her release was supposedly "unconditional," but if she is unable to talk and act openly, this is an implied condition. Should she stay in Burma, but be forced to engage in self-censorship, or travel internationally and speak and act freely?

I am not pressing Daw Suu to immediately pursue the above suggestions. Rather, I have tried to prepare a comprehensive map of her prospective responsibilities as a hands-on democratic leader of Burma, not only an ideological leader who sets fundamental principles, and who the people idolize. If and when democratic space opens up, more and more of the recommendations will become feasible.

To put the future of Burma on Daw Suu's shoulders is both unfair and a little naive. No one person can save a nation. But with tenacious organizing and clever diplomacy, she can direct the country and her people towards freedom and democracy.