BURMA - THE PROSPECTS FOR PEACE
By Roland Watson
May 24, 2016
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There have been a number of significant events in Burma in the last two weeks. However, it is difficult to discern how they might come together - what their overall import will be. They include:
- With a few exceptions, the U.S. maintained its sanctions on the military regime.
- There were new large-scale arrests of protestors.
- Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD reinforced their position that the Rohingya are persona non grata.
- Suu Kyi is now having regular meetings to organize her new "Panglong" peace conference, reportedly by the end of July.
- Senior General Min Aung Hlaing announced that peace will take five years; that the Constitution will not be changed until then; that the three ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) which were excluded from the nationwide ceasefire negotiation must remain excluded (unless they disarm); and that the Burma Army will retain the right to launch offensives against the ethnic pro-democracy forces at any time.
- Two of the three groups that the Burma Army excluded and which are members of the UNFC stated that they would be willing to leave the alliance, to allow it to participate more easily in future peace negotiations. However, the excluded groups reportedly have also broached the idea of forming a new Northern Alliance, together with the United Wa State Army.
- And, the Burma Army launched aerial offensives against the different ethnic forces, using jet fighters and attack helicopters, and which have been accompanied by dozens of ground clashes. Some of the aerial attacks also directly targeted villages, which without question were war crimes.
The United States position
The U.S. cannot end its sanctions while the Burma Army is terrorizing villages. While Washington is following - or leading - Suu Kyi, this is behavior that it cannot ignore (in policy preparation). Nonetheless, out of deference to her, the Obama Administration is continuing to avoid public mention of the Army's aggression and war crimes.
Interestingly, the new offensive began right after the U.S. announcement. It gave the appearance of being a regime temper tantrum. Also, and although it hasn't been commented upon, the entities in Burma's secretive nuclear relationship with North Korea remain firmly under sanction.
The challenge for Suu Kyi, since she has accepted the military regime as legitimate, is how to rein in its abuses. The dictatorship controls the police and the army. It is showing, through the new arrests of protestors; its unwillingness to release other political prisoners, such as U Gambira; and its military offensives, that it can and will do what it wants. There is nothing that Suu Kyi can do about it. Even if the NLD passes laws making protest completely legal (which they have actually resisted doing), as well as legalize the status of the ethnic armed groups, the regime will continue to detain people and to launch attacks.
Here, the partnership between Suu Kyi and the dictatorship is openly symbiotic. The regime demonized the Rohingya, and Muslims more generally, to distract the overall population from its crimes. Now, since so many people have been manipulated into becoming raving Islamophobes, Suu Kyi has decided that it is convenient for her to accept this. The regime has created a ready-made body politic for her to lead. She is, after all, and in her own words, a politician, not a human rights champion.
Amazingly, she even pressed the U.S. not to use the word "Rohingya," and which, even though there was mild protest, Washington appears ready to accept (just as it has now accepted "Myanmar.")
Peace, and Suu Kyi's strategy
In common parlance, the issue of peace relates to the civil war between the Burma Army and the EAOs. However, it is of course much broader than this. The country is not at peace when protestors are brutally arrested, and minority groups are "cleansed." Suu Kyi is secretly trying to convince the general public to make a series of sacrifices: "If you want a better life in Burma Proper, you should ignore the war in the Frontier Areas; ignore the fact that the Rohingya people are being exterminated (and which genocide will tar Burma's reputation for the next century); stop protesting; and otherwise stop challenging the generals about their stranglehold over the nation's economy. If you will just do all of this, everything will be fine."
As I said in my last article, Suu Kyi can believe in unicorns if she wants. That doesn't mean that anyone else should, or will.
For the peace negotiation, and as I also observed in the article, she has picked up where things left off - she has sided with the generals. Her strategy is to accept the NCA, as well as the MPC in its new form and with her own man supposedly in charge (she is in charge). The task therefore is to get the non-signatories to sign, and what better venue for that than a new Panglong Conference.
Once again, the EAOs must be cautious. They should not even agree to meet until the Burma Army ends its aggression, and there is a clear signal that their demands for a new constitution, federalism, and self-determination will be met. But, Min Aung Hlaing has just promised that the Burma Army will keep attacking and that there will not be peace. Therefore, there is no reason to go.
Still, they are being invited by Suu Kyi, so they will have to do something, just to be polite. At a minimum, rather than respond individually, the UNFC should meet to consider the invitation, and prepare a common position.
The end of the UNFC?
It is therefore extremely disconcerting that there is talk of abandoning the UNFC and establishing a Northern Alliance. While it is true that the UNFC was weakened when corrupt leader Mutu Say Poe forced the KNU to defect, thereby destroying the organization's southern flank, it still has great strength as the voice for those groups that have refused to give up. The last thing the EAOs need is the shattering of yet another alliance. Far better would be to oust Mutu at this years's KNU Congress, and re-establish the southern flank.
Even more, and while many people may not realize it, creating a Northern Alliance with the UWSA would restructure the opposition in Burma no less substantially than when Suu Kyi flip-flopped and had the NLD compete in the 2012 by-election. The consequences would be so far-reaching they are difficult to overstate.
The appeal of the Northern Alliance idea, though, is that it reflects what is happening on the ground. The Burma Army is attacking across the north and the resistance groups there are trying to fight together and with not insignificant support from the Wa. Still, I would argue that formalizing this relationship is a step too far. Right now, the Wa have self-excluded from the different alliances, in part to pursue their claim to their own state, not just a self-administered territory. This has served everyone's interests, since having an open relationship with them is problematic given the group's link to narcotics. The EAOs cooperate with the Wa because it is in their, and the Wa's, best interests. There is no need to change this relationship.
Burma as a USA-China proxy war
However, if a Northern Alliance is established, it will create a completely new regional geopolitical situation. Right now, the EAOs have covert links to the Wa, and also to China. But, with a new alliance, these connections will become overt. The Northern Alliance will become a resistance that is openly linked to China, harkening back to the situation during the days of the Communist Party of Burma.
It is important to remember that the U.S. backed dictator Ne Win during those days, to counter China's influence. Creating a Northern Alliance will resurrect that dynamic. Northern Burma will become a new front - a proxy war - in what is rapidly becoming a new U.S.-China cold war, fomented by the latter's belligerence in the South China Sea and cyber espionage. Not only should the EAOs be very careful in their relationships with Beijing, in recognition of the fact that it is also a totalitarian dictatorship, they do not want to give the U.S. an excuse to re-engage with the Burma Army, including with arms and training.
Indeed, if a new Northern Alliance is established, with the participation of the Wa and therefore of China, I believe you can conclude that the prospects for peace in Burma are finished, meaning civil conflict peace, and no matter what meetings or conferences Suu Kyi organizes. The Burma Army can't defeat the resistance already, no matter how many times it threatens its annihilation. With increased support from China, and even with the U.S. backing the generals, the civil war will drag on for decades.
Than Shwe's strategy
If Suu Kyi's strategy is to wear the Burma Army down with hugs and kisses, what about Senior General Than Shwe? He obviously still pulls the strings behind the scenes, including no doubt giving the order for last week's aerial attacks. What is he up to?
Than Shwe's goal is to wait Suu Kyi out. Let her be State Counsellor - she's really President, there's no harm in calling her that - for the next five years. He just needs to have the Burma Army continue to attack the EAOs. Suu Kyi can't do anything about it, and if they form a Northern Alliance, so much the better.
It is critical to realize, the key alliance for Burma, the most fundamental alliance of all, is between the dictators of Naypyidaw and Beijing. An absence of peace suits the regime (both regimes). Even though it is wholly their fault, the generals use it in their propaganda to justify the need for eternal military rule. This includes their portrayal that they are the saviors of the nation, and which propaganda Suu Kyi has reinforced, and which the Burman portion of the population appears increasingly willing to accept. (Suu Kyi, stop stalling - release the ethnic and religion population data now!)
China is happy to help with this. It doesn't care if there is a little war in Burma. The very last thing China wants in the country is not the permanent cancellation of the Myitsone Dam, but democracy - real and well-functioning democracy.
Finally, if Suu Kyi ever becomes too demonstrative, the generals can just seize absolute power again in a coup, using the civil war as the excuse. They will let her play her games, and bring them more foreign investment - more money, but if she ever becomes a real threat, they will shut her down. And then, when she is gone, they will move on to the job of controlling the next generation of freedom fighters.
It's a cynical view and distressing, undoubtedly, but this is what is happening. Social theory and history demonstrate that rulers only yield power when they are confronted by a greater force. This can be more and bigger guns, or millions of people taking to the streets. There is no other option. They can deflect any and all other attempts.
Therefore, and once again, the stalemate in Burma is the responsibility of Aung San Suu Kyi. She has two fatal flaws. First, she is an aristocrat. She has an unshakeable sense of personal privilege and the rightness of her action. She is in such denial about what is really happening that it would take years of therapy and pharmacological treatment for her to see the light - to be cured.
This is illustrated by her reaction to the Depayin massacre. Suu Kyi lost her father so she is also one of the victims of Burma, but this happened when she was two. Until Depayin, she had no personal experience of the horrors that the people experience. (Her years under house arrest in a lakeside villa don't count.) That day, her protective envelope popped. She saw her friends, her followers and protectors, cut down. She barely got away.
In the face of this, she could no longer deny the truth. And, she had a choice: to give up, or to renew the fight. But, it is clear that she blamed herself, that she felt she had blood on her hands. The people died because of her. They were there because of her.
They say the true test of leadership is to ask people to sacrifice themselves, and to live with it. The nobility of the cause justifies both the order and the act. Suu Kyi failed the test. She was happy standing on the balcony, waving to the crowds, and accepting all the awards, but she simply couldn't handle the heat when she was called upon to lead. Then, in 2012, and when she saw her chances at power evaporating, she gave up the pretense and entered the by-election. Now, she has been coronated. But, she is deceiving herself, and the people of Burma, that her way can bring peace and democracy, while the beast, the military dictatorship, is still on a rampage. Her betrayal and self-delusion would be bad enough, were it not be for the countless people who have already made the ultimate sacrifice. But, wishing that this is enough does not mean that it is. The fight is still ongoing. More sacrifices will be required, and heroic individuals to lead the way.
The recent history of Burma has been all about waiting, for those precious opportunities to generate enough pressure for the dictatorship to break. There have been some close calls - for Than Shwe, including the Saffron Uprising, and when following this the ethnic armies had one battlefield success after another, leading to the collapse of Burma Army morale and the possibility of an internal pro-democracy coup. Neither of these opportunities succeeded (for varying and complex reasons). Suu Kyi then changed her mind, and the long wait until the 2015 general election began. Now, we are waiting once again, for her to do something, but with the certain knowledge that the timid steps she is proposing are guaranteed to fail. The next opportunity for freedom is now hazy and far in the future.
Frankly, and although it is a lot to ask, and it will obviously never happen, Suu Kyi should just stand down and get out of the way. The longer she insists on dominating the stage, the darker the country's future will become. The clouds may lighten over Burma Proper for a while, but this will only be a temporary respite. The storm will return. You are only free when you can say and do what you want, and are not at risk of arrest, rape and death. The people of Burma enjoy no such freedom. Under Suu Kyi's "leadership," they never will.