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The New Burma Is Starting to Look Too Much Like the Old Burma

By Elliott Prasse-Freeman
Foreign Policy
June 28, 2016

In Aung San Suu Kyi’s “democratic” Burma, the people are a silent partner.

RANGOON – In the November 2015 election, Burma’s long-standing opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept into office, promising change and new freedoms for the masses after a half-century of military rule. That the party is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a widely revered Nobel Prize winner and long-time dissident, only added to expectations of dramatic change.

So far, though, things don’t appear to be turning out that way. Upon taking power, the NLD promptly proposed legislation that would reinstall some of the junta’s draconian restrictions on peaceful protest. And while many political prisoners have been released, the new government continues to pursue charges against some of the country’s most dedicated activists — such as Harn Win Aung, who has led resistance to a notorious copper mine built on land grabbed from displaced farmers. The NLD even censored a film at a human rights festival for portraying the military in a critical light.

The party has given no explanation for its actions. Indeed, on several crucial issues it has explicitly chosen to avoid taking a stand. One of the promises party activists made during the fall election campaign was to establish a legal definition of what constitutes a “political prisoner.” Yet recently, when a lawmaker from one of the ethnic minority parties raised the issue in parliament, the NLD declined to address it. Over the last two months, while the party has ruled, peace activists, workers, and right-wing nationalists alike have been charged with breaking protest laws. The democratically elected government appears singularly reluctant to dismantle the junta’s machinery of repression. Is it really possible that a political party comprised of and endorsed by hundreds, even thousands, of former political prisoners will become Burma’s new oppressor?

Aung San Suu Kyi’s defenders will likely object to such a characterization. They will point out that the NLD’s supermajority is not robust enough to mitigate the military’s constitutionally reserved bloc of 25 percent of the parliamentary seats. This pro-military contingent prevents the elected government from changing a constitution under which the armed forces retain control of key ministries responsible for defense and internal affairs (including the police). Some have argued that — at least for now — Burma is still the same militarized state it has been for a half-century. It’s not that the NLD wants to keep the military’s restrictions, say the new government’s supporters, it’s just that it hasn’t quite been able to force the changes through yet.

Perhaps. And yet Suu Kyi’s party has made no convincing case that it desires a more progressive approach. Suu Kyi’s party has made no convincing case that it desires a more progressive approach. It has blithely dismissed the concerns of human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who say that the protest law lags behind international standards. Moreover, the NLD has already shown that it can find ways to bypass seemingly intractable limitations when it wants to. When the military barred Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, her party simply created a new position for her above the presidency. Her party must deal with the reality of the military’s continued political power, but it appears to have the ability to advance a legislative agenda that could begin to alter Burma’s entrenched authoritarianism. Yet it is choosing not to.

The NLD’s inaction appears in a less benign light when one considers how the party is systematically ignoring the non-governmental sector. When I recently interviewed more than two dozen activists — from large national civil society organizations to grassroots campaigners — all lamented Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to include them in developing plans to address the country’s problems. Many of those I spoke with reported that she conveyed disdain for their work, raised doubts about their ethics, and questioned their relevance in the new “democratic” Burma. This seems a particularly disturbing irony in light of the important role the country’s civil society played in challenging the military regime.

Having noted the NLD’s hostility, some activists have begun to limit their activity. Many described a mid-May meeting of national organizations in which participants decided to delay a planned forum, concerned that it would raise the NLD’s ire. Members of ethnic organizations have described their tokenistic inclusion in the country’s peace process as “elitist, top-down… unlike the previously ‘joint’ inclusive design” of the military-linked government (as an ethnic activist commented by email). Grassroots activists, too, have found the new environment repressive: “To speak honestly, [the NLD] hates activists… If we distribute pamphlets about land grabs, labor abuses, and so on, we will become the target of the NLD,” Ko Saleiq, a Rangoon-based activist, told me. When I inquired whether this could mean prison time, he scoffed. “We are former political prisoners, we’re not afraid of prison.” He stressed that activists like him want to support the country’s first democratic regime in decades, not become its adversaries. Yet the NLD has rebuffed them at every turn. 

In truth, Burma’s version of democracy seems to mean a reduction in the country’s degree of authoritarianism, not a qualitative change to its political system. In many aspects, the NLD seems to be more interested in making cosmetic changes than in addressing the country’s fundamental problems. For instance, Aung San Suu Kyi’s first action as head of the new government was not to address land grabs or labor abuses but to lead a massive anti-litter campaign — a symbolic gesture that is meant to evoke order through cleanliness. Another noteworthy campaign is the recently-proposed ban of the betel nut, a mildly addictive carcinogenic substance the chewing of which produces the distinctive red spit stains that decorate the country’s corners and corridors. While the unilateral ban threatens the livelihoods of thousands of poor people, the NLD appears care more about the aesthetics of betel than such social dislocations. 

The party has also announced an ambitious and potentially disastrous plan to relocate urban squatters. A union organizer working in an industrial zone lamented this approach, pointing out that aesthetic concerns have trumped pro-poor policy. “Rather than address high costs of living, they simply think it is shameful for a good city to have squatters,” he said. “There is no land anyway because it was all sold off to the cronies. We don’t know if [the NLD] dares to have a face-off with the cronies or the military.” Rather than tackling these structural political and economic issues, the NLD prefers to try to sweep them under the rug. 

The party does have its democratic trappings — after all, it was elected overwhelmingly in a fair election. But its version of democracy has more than an edge of the old, authoritarian Burma. Its disdain for non-governmental activists, its obsession with the appearance rather than the substance of good governance, and its continued harassment of dissidents all suggest that the party views the people’s role in democracy as being limited to voting for those who will then make the decisions.

Once they have voted, Burma’s citizens are denied any further active role. 

A critical question is how this version of democracy will be received by the country’s long-marginalized masses. Under a formal authoritarian system, crushing dissent helps quiet the population through fear. In a new, more ‘democratic’ context, the same repressive tactics may spur furious opposition. The more the NLD represses citizens, while ignoring real problems, the more it may inspire real resistance – especially if the resentment for the party felt by some activists today solidifies into open antagonism. “It is we, the activists, who changed the country, not the NLD. We feel betrayed,” a Mandalay land and labor activist told me. 

For now, the NLD’s mandate and popular support remain strong. Farmers and workers across the country around told me that they trust this “people’s government” to resolve their problems. But those problems are not being resolved. Instead they are being displaced by the NLD’s politics of tidiness and citizen silence. As a result, the calm is unlikely to last forever. “We trust that the new government will not ignore our losses and our suffering. But if they do, we will fight back to the end,” farmers in Mattaya told me. 

For generations, Burmese expected to be regarded with contempt by their military rulers. Facing much the same treatment at the hands of the long-adored NLD is jarring. The party needs to start listening — or it runs the risk of alienating the very people who helped bring it to power. 

In the photo, a labor demonstrator is arrested by police in Tetkone township on May 18, during a protest march to central Naypyidaw. 

Photo credit: AUNG HTET/AFP/Getty Images 

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