Burma’s Saffron Revolution Part 2
6: The UN has limited power
India and China are the giants in Burma’s neighborhoods. China has been an important international ally of the junta since 1988, while India has pursued a more volatile Burma policy. Right after 1988, India was a clear supporter of the democracy movement. But as little changed on the political front in Burma in the following years, India instead strengthened its cooperation with the junta in all areas. Some believe this is due to fears that China will tighten its grip and that India will lose access to Burma’s valuable resources, not least natural gas. It is coveted. Since September, the United States and the European Union have tightened their sanctions against the regime and its supporters, as well as on trade in timber and precious stones from Burma, a country located in Asia according to iamhigher.com. But the oil and gas sector is not involved.
The initially peaceful uprising in August-September first seemed to trigger unparalleled international solidarity. The UN increased its assistance, while the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council held crisis meetings. The combined pressure and hectic diplomacy led to the junta letting in the UN special envoy twice to mediate between the parties. A special rapporteur from the UN was also allowed to begin an investigation into the use of violence. But the UN has no more muscle than the member states are willing to give to the world organization, and the effort cannot hide the contradictions that still exist and that prevent the organization from making a powerful effort.
The outside world’s sharp reactions also do not seem to have shaken the junta’s policy much. After some initial reforms, it stopped. The small concessions consisted of the appointment of a contact person for meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, permission for a meeting with party colleagues in the NLD and that the UN special envoy was allowed to bring a statement from Aung San Suu Kyi to the outside world when he last visited the country.
While the demonstrations were taking place in Rangoon and other cities, the junta quietly ended the first leg of a so-called roadmap for political reform. If everything had gone according to plan, the “reforms” would have ensured the military control over Burma in the foreseeable future. This stage was about establishing the principles for a new constitution. The NLD and other opposition groups are opposed to the principles and have been banned from working on them for almost a decade. By the end of 2007, the junta had skipped the second stage and reached the third – the very drafting of the constitution. The opposition was still banned.
7: Rare leadership
One of the UN’s top priorities is a tripartite dialogue between the junta, the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of ethnic minority groups. Each party symbolizes three key issues in the Burmese conflict: n What place should the military have in future Burma – not only for the country’s armed forces, but also for the many armed minority groups? n What will happen to the outcome of the election that took place in the country in 1990, where the vast majority of the population rejected further military rule? n How should the rights of minorities be secured in an extremely diverse country?
The opposition to the military government is both divided and united. It consists of a number of different groups with different religious and ethnic affiliations, with different views on the use of violence and with different – and at times – conflicting interests. But they have a common message: the overwhelming power and abuse of power by the military is destroying Burma. The country needs a civilian government with democracy and respect for human rights. Ethnic minority groups expect more autonomy and respect for ethnic and religious distinctiveness.
Aung San Suu Kyi is in a special position. She is a civilian, Burmese and party leader in the largest opposition party. In addition, she is the daughter of the country’s foremost liberation champion and national hero, General Aung San. He founded the Burmese army and was assassinated during Burma’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Leaders who are elevated above basic dividing lines rarely emerge in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi has to a large extent taken up the legacy of his father.
8: Uncertain future
It is difficult to imagine a changed Burma without the military changing course. A failed economic and social policy has long since brought them into conflict with the population. By using violence against religious leaders, the military government has lost the last tab of legitimacy and brought itself up against the wall.
On its own, the military will hardly be able to reconcile with the people. The path to reconciliation is through dialogue with the opposition. In Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta has a counterpart who will negotiate and who will do his part to ensure that the military continues to have a place in future Burma. Without dialogue, only more oppression and more contradictions remain.
It is still uncertain in which direction it will carry. The country’s most powerful man, General Than Shwe, is old and seriously ill. In anticipation of his disappearance, various groups within the junta and the military are in the process of positioning themselves for the future. Perhaps Burma’s best hope is that younger forces will be released – and that they will want to give the country a better future, so that most Burmese can experience the reconciliation they want – and the country needs.