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Veteran Burma researcher Bertil Lintner was in Burma this week for an event marking the opening of a new Burma Studies Centre.
DVB spoke to Lintner about the state of democratic reform in Burma.
DVB: What does the recent police crackdown on student protestors say about Burma’s reform process?
BL: Well you very often hear, especially from foreigners, that the reform process has stalled, even backsliding. But I think this is wrong, because I believe it was never supposed to be more than this. The government had a plan. They implemented their plan. Now the students are asking for more, so they decided to crack down on their demands and on them physically. Basically I think the government has had a plan all along, they’ve created a certain political system, and they want Burma to be that way. It’s not a process, its not going to go anywhere from here. Unless, of course, the people press for more and they get someone to listen to their demands, but that doesn’t seem to be very likely right now.
DVB: Do you believe the election will go ahead as planned?
BL: Well. It’s had to say. If you had asked me three months ago, I would have said it is 50-50. Today I would say it is 75-25 [percent chance]—75 against 25 for — and it’s not only the student arrests, it’s the full-scale war in Kokang in northeastern Shan State. There is still a war going on in Kachin state. There are almost daily skirmishes between the Shans and the government. And if there is more civil unrest in the heartland I think it is very possible that the government will decide that there can’t be an election this year, that the elections have to be postponed.
DVB: Who do you believe was behind the crackdown on the students?
Honestly I don’t know who ordered the crackdown on the students. Was it the [Pegu Division] Chief Minister? Was it the central government? Well, we know that the police were used and we know that the police are under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, so it is very hard to imagine that there would be anyone except the government who ordered the crackdown. Even if the Chief Minister or someone at the local level would like to send in the police to crack down on the students, I don’t think that would be possible unless someone in the central government said, “Go ahead and do it.”
DVB Where to from here for democracy activists?
Well I think it is very important to realise that the government wasn’t ready to do more than this in terms of reforms, and it is up to the people to demand more and to fight for what they believe in. It is up to the people of this country to decide their future, it has happened in the past and I’m sure it will happen again. [Burma] is a highly politicised society. I live in Thailand, where there was a coup last year and nobody said anything. I think if I similar thing happened [in Burma], not necessarily a takeover but a postponement of elections, which we don’t know if it is going to happen but it is very likely. I can imagine that the reaction of the public would not be the same as it was in Thailand last year. There would be people out protesting, demonstrating. That, to me is a very healthy sign, that people are willing to voice their opinions, it should be like that in any democratic society.