Drifting down the Irrawaddy: do Myanmar's leaders have the necessary vision?

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Thursday, 24 July, 2014

"Visions of a pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive society, one capable of responding to the wishes and fears of the ethnic minorities, are absent from any of the contenders to lead Myanmar into its next phase of nation-building." Andrew Whitley, Policy and Advocacy Director at The Elders, blogs about his recent visit to Myanmar.

The Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. Photo: Kaung Htet

I have just returned home from my fifth trip in the past 12 months to Myanmar (Burma, if you prefer) on behalf of The Elders, trying to understand this complicated country better. Each time, I come away even more puzzled as to whether the country is going forwards or backwards, or else may just be drifting down the Irrawaddy river, apparently rudderless.

After talking to many well-informed people, what is equally unclear – to me, at least – is whether there is in fact a master plan unfolding: the seven-stage roadmap to the promised land of ‘disciplined democracy’, which past military rulers laid down many years ago.

Current generals know what they want: foreign investment, foreign tourists, foreign technology to update an antiquated economy and, above all, foreign respect. That they are getting. These days, delegations are pouring into Nay Pyi Taw, the country’s surreal new capital set in the midst of rice paddy fields in the Burman heartland.

And they are equally well aware of what they don’t want. Overweening influence from China, their big neighbour and historic enemy to the north for example. While most public attention has lately been on anti-Muslim communal violence, Chinese traders have been quietly spreading into faraway corners, even deep in the Irrawaddy delta. Despite being a long-time presence in the country, they too are being viewed with resentment.

‘The vision thing’: Myanmar needs inclusive leadership

But do Myanmar’s rulers know how to get to their intended destination? And do they have the tools to hand – trusted, well-functioning institutions, know-how about how governance in a democratic society works, never mind the human resources in the bureaucracy – to implement their will? These are the big questions.

Sniffing the unspoken answer, foreign experts are rushing in to offer advice as well as offers of ‘capacity building’, to use development-speak. No matter how much training is offered, however, it will not make up for the conspicuous absence of what George HW Bush once so inimitably described as ‘the vision thing’.

Visions of a pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive society, one capable of responding to the wishes and fears of the ethnic minorities – most of whom have been at war with the Burmese generals on-and-off for the past 60 years – are absent from any of the contenders to lead Myanmar into its next phase of nation-building.

Not even the Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, has spelled out what her Presidency might look like for the Kachin, the Karen, the Shan, the Chin, the Mon and the scores of other ethnic and religious minorities reluctantly sharing the land with the Buddhist-majority Burmans.

Instead, she is busily leading a grassroots campaign for the constitutional change required to make her eligible to run for President. National elections expected to take place in November or December 2015 will pave the way for the election of a successor to President Thein Sein.

Having failed so far to get her way through the parliamentary process of constitutional review, Aung San Suu Kyi is gambling that popular mobilisation will exert pressure on the military establishment to give way on her demand. If they fail to budge, it is not clear what is her fall-back plan; nor is it sure the generals won’t react badly again to spreading disorder.

The Lady would do well to read, or perhaps re-read, Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. The powerful words of her fellow Nobel Laureate could help her get inside the skin of people who have lived in their own land for centuries but do not feel accepted or treated as equal citizens, due to the colour of their skin, their religion or their ethnicity.

Emerging leaders among Myanmar’s generals

All this is not to suggest that among the current crop of Burmese generals, whether in uniform or out, who populate most offices in Nay Pyi Taw and Myanmar’s state capitals, as well as its major companies, there are not many capable individuals aware of the problems. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief, is one of them. Speculation is rife over if and when he will take off his uniform and run for President. If he does, he will join another old comrade-in-arms, Parliamentary Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, on the hustings.

The Elders met with Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces (Tatmadaw) during their visit in March 2014. Photo: Kaung Htet / The Elders

The Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Mya Tun Oo, whom I met on this trip together with colleagues from a sister organisation, Crisis Management Initiative, is another capable figure said to be a rising star in the Tatmadaw – as the armed services are known. We spoke to General Mya, a tall, intelligent man in his early 50s, about the lessons of the Aceh peace process in nearby Indonesia. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, a member of The Elders, brought those negotiations to a successful conclusion in 2005.

Another reportedly competent figure plucked from military ranks to play a civilian role is the Major-General recently parachuted into Rakhine State by Thein Sein as the new Chief Minister – chief firefighter may be more apt – of this troubled region. The Rakhine initially made clear they would much rather have had one of their own in charge. That would leave them a free hand to deal with the hated Rohingya Muslims in their midst – many of whom have migrated from Bengal across the bay over the course of past centuries – as they will.

It is one of the ironies of the current transitional period in Myanmar that if decentralisation of power to the regions and states had already taken place, as the ethnic minorities demand, the fate of the Rohingya would probably be even worse than it is today. To be fair to the Rakhine, they have their own justified complaints about poverty, a lack of jobs and neglect from the centre. They also have a history of conflict with the Burmans.

Intercommunal strife is not a new problem for Myanmar

Unfortunately, the anti-Muslim violence is more than just a PR problem for the Thein Sein government. The source of the illness is inside the body politic itself, and Myanmar’s leaders will have to go beyond addressing the symptoms alone.

Those who think the riots and killings of the past three years, often led or inspired by chauvinistic Buddhist monks, along with suspected ‘hidden hands’, are a new phenomenon would do well to read Trials in Burma by Maurice Collis. A long-forgotten British colonial officer in Burma, as well as a District Magistrate who was a keen critic of British racial prejudices and misplaced sense of noblesse oblige towards the native population, in his book Collis paints a vivid tableau of a country at odds with itself.

How the myriad different minorities could find their place in a Burman-dominated country struggling for its independence was just as much a challenge then, 85 years ago. What Myanmar needs today is a new independence struggle – this time against its old, outdated mental shackles.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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