Friday, July 9, 2010

Myanmar: Hope for democracy fades

The Daily Star; July 10th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

FOR the developed nations that presume they have the responsibility to spread democracy around the world, Aung Saan Suu Kyi is a living proof of their failure to uphold the cause of democracy in Myanmar. The 65th birthday of the Noble Laureate on 19th June was another reminder to the guardians of democracy that the generals continue to keep her under house arrest in Yangon for nearly 15 years. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), overwhelmingly won Myanmar's last democratic election held 20 years ago but the generals did not want to hand power to an elected government. In many capitals round the world, individuals and rights activists celebrated her birthday while condemning the military junta. Such groups have been observing her birthday every year with no effect on the junta at all.

The developed nations must bear a lot of responsibility for the fate of Aung Saan Suu Kyi and democracy in Myanmar because they have not matched the passion and the conviction of these groups and more importantly, have not fully backed the courageous movement of the NLD, whose leaders have faced threats of all kinds, including incarceration without recourse to the law. Instead, they imposed economic sanctions that were of no particular effect and made toothless diplomatic efforts to deal with the junta. Since President Obama took office, his administration decided to follow the path of “pragmatic engagement” to deal with the junta. These efforts have encouraged the junta to deal with them on their terms. They announced that Myanmar's next parliamentary elections would be held later this year but also ensured that Suu Kyi would not qualify to participate. The junta used the case of a US national who swam the lake to Suu Kyi's house, apparently on his own to convey to her a message that her life was in danger; that went to trial and earned her an extension on her house arrest.

The NLD decided not to register as a political party and thus gave up its right to participate in the next elections as required by Myanmar's election laws. Early this month, it disbanded the party acknowledging the futility of continuing as long as the junta lasted because it felt that under the military junta, the party had no chance whatever of winning. It is a pity that one of the most committed movements for establishment of democracy of our times had to end the way it has. Its decision not to register and wind up has been a conscious one taken to snub the military junta because without the NLD's participation, the forthcoming elections in Myanmar will not gain the legitimacy that the junta wants. The NLD has also decided to disband itself to stir the conscience of the developed world to the way it has watched a vibrant movement for democracy snuffed out of its life without doing much.

In an age where military dictatorships have become history everywhere, the military junta of Myanmar did not just prevail; it outlasted successive western leaders and their governments who had opposed them by remaining in power for over 20 years now and are getting stronger. A lawyer representing the Noble Laureate told the media that she wants the NLD to continue serving the people of Myanmar by doing social work for them. A leader of NLD told the media that by disbanding, it was losing a battle but not the war as it will continue to remain active by doing social work for the people of Myanmar. Others in the party's leadership expressed views that with the current leadership getting advanced in years (Aung Saan Suu Kyi's Deputy U Tin Oo is 82), there is need to pass on the baton to the large crop of young members of the NLD. These young members have joined the movement in recent years and they would be able to take up the fight for establishing democracy in Myanmar in the future. Such optimisms notwithstanding, the chances of Myanmar achieving a democratic government and society have been pushed back indefinitely.

President Obama has called for the unconditional release of Aung Saan Suu Kyi from her house arrest. The UN Secretary General and other world leaders also joined the US President in the call. However, these calls or sanctions or pragmatic engagement will not change the attitude of the Myanmar generals. The die has been cast on democracy in Myanmar. The generals have decided to follow the footsteps of the military generals of history who have tried to become civilian leaders by electing themselves and their collaborators to form the garb of a democratic government and keep power perpetually. The Myanmar generals, however, have a few things running in their favour and may not as easily meet the fate of other dictators of history. There is no single general who has a personal whim or wishes involving Myanmar; it is a united junta that is thrashing democracy there. The presence of a good number of secessionist movements in the country has given the military junta a strong rationale to remain in power since 1962. Their long tenure in power and unity in their midst have also helped the junta face public opposition, like the one from the NLD, far better than other military dictatorships in history that have eventually fallen to popular uprisings.

The never ending house arrest of Aung Saan Suu Kyi and the disbanding of the NLD are not the only bad news about Myanmar. Facts are coming to light about the reclusive regime's nuclear ambitions that should send a chill down the spines of the guardians of democracy. Myanmar severed diplomatic ties with North Korea in 1983 when North Korean agents tried to assassinate the South Korean President while he was on a state visit to Myanmar. It began secret liaison with North Korea not long after the present military junta came to power in 1988. By 2006 it felt confident enough to resume public diplomatic ties with North Korea, leading analysts to think an evil nexus was developing. The Economist in its June 12th edition has given some details on Myanmar's overt and covert North Korean links based on leaks from a defector from Myanmar's military who worked in the missiles program; the report suggests a clear intent by Myanmar to possess nuclear weapons. Reports on the subject have appeared in other leading world dailies hinting the same. The Myanmar generals are seeking the nuclear option as they do not feel fully secure from external aggression without nuclear weapons.

The signals emanating from Myanmar are thus depressing for a world striving for peace and democracy. It is time for those who are pursuing these ideals globally to focus more positively and with the same intent with which they have pursued or are pursuing dictators and dictatorial regimes in other parts of the world. The Obama administration's “pragmatic engagement" with the military junta has been followed by the NLD disbanding itself. President Obama's call for release of Aung Saan Suu Kyi is also not likely to have any effect. It is time for the USA and its allies to re-think their strategy in dealing with Myanmar generals and at the same time look into the regime's nuclear ambitions. A nuclear-armed Myanmar would be too dangerous to contemplate.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.
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