When the history books on Myanmar are written a generation from now, will President Thein Sein’s political and economic reform era go down as the point when the West sold out or woke up? The president’s reform process is subject to a dual narrative – on the one side we have the gung ho players willing to embrace and take advantage of the changes and on the other we have the seemingly niggly critics trying to scream warning.
Up until now, a positive narrative has largely drowned out the naysayers. But, as seen in the warning of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as we report in this issue, and the views voiced in our commentary, the truth about the change is proving hard to stomach. The problem with Suu Kyi is she is too refined and patient, a student of Gandhian thought, averse to conflict. She fears how the reform process is unfolding but is unable to articulate it to spark the anger of the crowds, who – as in the Forum 2000 conference in Prague she recently spoke at – have limited understanding of what is really going down in Myanmar today.
When the history books are written, will President Thein Sein’s reform process be portrayed as a genuine attempt by the Myanmar military to come in from the cold and bring real democracy to their troubled people? Or will it be described as a silent coup in which the military was able to con the West and maintain their grip on power while holding on to their ill-gotten gains and avoiding retribution?
Part of the problem is that Suu Kyi is unwilling to scream loud enough and the West is unwilling to listen, tied up in their own agendas that see benefit from investing and doing business in Myanmar and trying to combat China’s influence in the country. The engagement narrative may seem compelling, the argument being that encouraging the government with its political and economic reforms, and pumping in aid, will encourage meaningful change that will eventually develop into what passes for democracy in this part of the world.
Suu Kyi has her own reasons why she doesn’t bang the table and shout enough is enough. She knows she is being used by what critics call this “quasicivilian” government, just as many others are, yet hangs on to the hope that true democracy will flourish in Myanmar before she dies. The trouble is that this sheepish approach allows what masquerades as democratic reform to painfully, slowly play itself out while the generals maintain their positions
and grin. There is little or no indication that the Constitution, written by the generals to keep a grip on power and keep “The Lady” - who deigned to marry a foreigner - out of power, will be changed in any meaningful way soon.
The writing is on the wall for those who care to read it. The generals do not appear to be willing to hand over the silver and will stall the democratic reform process while quietly welcoming and using the stubbornness of the armed ethnic groups, and periodic communal violence, as excuses to block meaningful change to the Constitution. At the same time, they will use the greed and self interest of their new Western partners, and pander to the clamor for natural resources and other business opportunities – and take up the offer by Washington to help train their soldiers, who, it should be pointed out, continue to sporadically bomb and shell the populace in the Kachin and Shan states.
Make no mistake, the Myanmar people and their Western sympathizers, business people, and carpetbaggers are all being taken for a ride by the men-in-green who have executed a clever plot to win over the country’s democracy icon and play to the dream that is a free Myanmar. Pragmatism may be called for. It could well turn out that Suu Kyi’s softly-softly approach will win out in the end without too much bloodshed and social strife and prove to be the only practical way to grab what is on offer in this window of opportunity. For the hard-pressed people of Myanmar, we can only hope so.
This Editorial first appeared in the September 26 edition of M-ZINE+.