Will Suu Kyi's assimilation into electoral process leave Burma's ethnic minorities behind?

The jury is out on the election of Burma’s long-time leading dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) to Burma’s parliament. Roland Watson, who runs Dictator Watch, is one of the most trenchant Burma analysts and activists. In his most recent report, Burma’s Semi-Freedom Scorecard, he writes: “There are clearly winners, but also losers, from the new status quo,” by which he means victims of the organs of the “dictatorship’s oppression apparatus.” In other words, all those “who have been raped, assaulted, murdered, robbed, extorted, forced to labor, imprisoned, and tortured.”

What makes it worse, Watson writes, is that these victims will never

… receive justice. Daw Suu and the NLD made a political calculation that justice must be sacrificed, that there should not be an international investigation into the regime’s crimes against humanity, or a tribunal for them, much less the ability to bring a case to a local court.

Watson has no interest in dishonoring Daw Suu (as Aung San Suu Kyi is often known to Burma’s people).

I do not mean to begrudge Daw Suu her due. She has suffered tremendously [and] maintained her courage and commitment throughout years of hardship and sacrifice.

But-t-t …

Daw Suu had no right to decide unilaterally that the people of Burma should never have justice. While she may have received near unanimous support in 1990, and this year from the country’s Burman [ethnic group] majority, her support among the ethnic nationalities … is less.

In fact …

… she has ignored the ethnic nationality plight for years. (She traditionally focused almost exclusively on the nation’s political prisoners.) Through doing this she turned a blind eye to what is Burma’s core social issue: Racism against the ethnic nationalities by the country’s Burman generals.

Why does Watson think Daw suu threw the ethnic nationalities, from whose numbers, he explains, come the majority of victims of the junta, under the bus?

It is difficult to fathom her actions, but a number of explanations are possible, including: She didn’t know how bad the Tatmadaw was treating the ethnic groups; … she censored herself; she thinks the problems that the ethnic nationalities have are their own fault (as many Burmans believe) … or, she noticed that since the international community ignored the atrocities it was safe for her to do so as well. (Of note, the United States, her close advisor, for two decades only backed her and refused to acknowledge the regime’s war crimes.)

Unfortunately, the ethnic nationalities …

… now have been excluded from Parliament for the next three years, and will therefore be forced to lobby Daw Suu [and] press for their interests through her.

Watson cites a number of recent atrocities by the Tatmadaw under Thein Sein’s watch such as “Burma Army troops attacked the Kachin Independence Army’s 5th Battalion with chemical weapons”  Then he writes about a case close to his heart, that of Nan Bway Poung, who, in 2002,

… was gang raped by some twenty Burma Army soldiers in Karen State. After returning home (many ethnic rape victims are murdered after they have been violated, but some are released), she announced: “I am not willing to live in this world anymore,” and committed suicide. Her final words remain an indictment of  everything that is taking place in Burma, including Thein Sein’s “reform.” …  Daw Suu does not have a right to deny Nan Bway Poung and her family justice.

The ethnic nationalities are also, he writes

… losers in the New Burma, because they allowed themselves to be out-maneuvered and out-negotiated [by] a decades-long series of divide and conquer entreaties, and were never able to create a unified military front, which with coordinated campaigns could have defeated the Tatmadaw.

Still …

… the ethnic nationalities, even without representation in Parliament, are in no way powerless. They still control armies. … they can create an effective political front, through the United Nationalities Federal Council. … an excellent forum for the different ethnic nationalities to … provide a balance to the NLD [Daw Suu’s party], and to ensure that their demands are both heard and satisfied, until they are in a position to enter Parliament as well (if and when the regime ever permits it).

However, even though he’s Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Karen [ethnic nationality] National Union, which has a military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, David Tharckabaw thinks that Watson paints too dark a picture. He responded to Watson’s article in an email to his mailing list:

For once I find myself in profound disagreement with much of what Roland Watson writes. I have felt the path trodden of late by … the NLD to be fraught with perils. But what was the alternative? Changes in Burma were on their way, as result of western economic interests.

In reply to Watson’s comment that “Daw Suu, with one sweep of her hand, decided that the correct course of action was actually to join the regime, to merge with it, and then try to change it from within,” he writes:

She has not joined the regime.  She has been elected to a rubber-stamp parliament, in the hope of gradually bringing about small changes that MAY catalyse much more profound changes [perhaps in a way that is wholly unpredictable, like the butterfly flapping its wings, which sets in motion a train of events that produces a cyclone].

In response to Watsons’s statement that the “Varied ethnic nationalities are also losers in the New Burma, because they allowed themselves to be out-maneuvered and out-negotiated,” he writes:

I don’t agree with the way some of the negotiations have been conducted. … But it is necessary to understand that the respective bargaining positions are very unequal — not just a question of the two sides involved, but also of those waiting in the wings.

Regarding the ethnic nationalities’ military might — or lack thereof — he writes:

The ethnic nationalities do not control “armies” [as Watson had written]. The largest are the Wa, followed by the KIA, with the KNLA next, estimated, I believe, to number about 5,000. Against them is an army of about 36,000 combat troops with ever more sophisticated equipment and inexhaustible supplies. If the ethnic forces are squeezed out of existence [by the Tatmadaw, presumably] they will be in no position to negotiate anything — whether appropriate development, security of land tenure, safety of civilians [not to mention] removal of several million [land] mines.

Tharckabaw, however, still agrees — nor surprisingly, considering his affiliation with the Karen National Liberation Army — that the forces of the ethnic nationalities “should strike hard against units that violate ceasefire agreements.” This way lies hope for Tharckabaw:

In Tunisia and Egypt, and to a lesser extent Libya, the army, or a substantial part of it was unwilling (perhaps for a variety of motives) to carry out mass-murder of the population. It has been my opinion, shared with others since my first trip to the border in 2001, that it is necessary to create a similar reluctance amongst the rank-and-file of the Tatmadaw.

Meanwhile, here’s some of what Watson would like to see from the Thein Sein administration.

• To stop attacking the ethnic groups and establish a nationwide ceasefire. …

• To irreversibly end the Myitsone Dam project [mostly of benefit to China, not an • energy-starved Burma — RW]. …

• To release all the political prisoners.

• To end the nuclear and missile programs including their cooperation with North Korea. …

• To hold a free and fair general election in 2015, if not sooner.

“This is what a real democratic transition would encompass,” writes Watson. But, he cautions, “there is already great evidence that it is not the regime’s intention.”

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

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