Interview: A challenge to power

Jan 19, 2009 (DVB), Professor Josef Silverstein called on the Burmese democracy movement to unite and take action to challenge the military government's right to rule, in an interview with DVB.

Professor Silverstein is professor emeritus at Rutgers University in the United States and the author of two books on Burma.

DVB: What do you think of the National Council of the Union of Burma's plan to found a new government in exile even though they already have the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma?

JS: "My point of view is I don't see any need to change the government if there is nothing that that government could possibly do. For one thing, amongst the people living outside of the government of Burma, the military government, they are not really well organised, they have no authority, and as a result it seems to me to be a waste of time. If you're going to look to form a new government amongst the Burmese people who are outside of Burma and do not come under the military, the question is: what will they do? How will they act? Are they going to try to pull all the people together? All the minorities, all the Burmans, everyone who is opposed to the military and is able to take some kind of political action?

"I think that might be a good idea, but it's the second step, not the first step. The first step I was waiting to hear you say is that the NCGUB was reorganising itself or that the people who formerly supported the NCGUB now want to form a new government to replace that government and if that is what you're asking me about, I don't see any purpose of wasting time and wasting energy if a new government isn't going to be able to do any more than what the present government is doing in the opposition.

"I think it's a very important thing that for all these years since the military has been in power in , now Naypyidaw but before in Rangoon , that they have done whatever they wish without considering what the people want. There is no way for the people to express themselves. So I favour the idea of the opposition coming together and forming a genuine movement that speaks for the millions of Burmese people who reject the military and have no voice in the government. But unless you are talking about a genuine movement in which there will be an effort to bring all the people who are outside of the control of the military together, to organise and to begin to challenge the military's right to rule and what they say, I don't see that it's worth the effort at this point."

DVB: Some people are worry about the lack of unity in the exile community after this statement. Do you think unity in exile is stronger now?

JS: "I think that any effort to unite the people against the military and to have a spokesman and a spokesgroup that speaks for them that the people will listen to and follow would be a good thing, an important thing. But is has to be a change that will reflect a shift in power. There will be no shift in power if you just form a new government with the same people doing the same things. There has to be a shift in power to the people.

"If there is a movement in that direction and there is a real effort to unite the people, the Burmans, the minorities, the refugees and everyone else, then I think that would be important and a useful effort. But if that happens it's going to cost a lot of bloodshed because the military will not allow them to organise but instead will try to put them down by force. So are you saying that there may be a group in Burma today in the opposition who believe it's time to revolt against the military and challenge the military's right to rule? Unless that is what they're going to do, I think they're going to by wasting their time, as they have been for the last several years."

DVB: What are your views on the 2010 election?

JS: "If we're talking about the elections proposed to be held in 2010 and if it's going to be held under the constitution that the military wrote and put into place, that is not going to bring about any kind of shift in power. It's just going to be another example of the military dictating how they are going to remain in power and what they are going to stand for. They're not in any way looking to bring the people in and give them a voice in power or the right to challenge power. If my understanding is correct, then it is going to make no difference if the election is held in 2010, except it will legitimise the military in the eyes of many of the foreign countries which don't really understand what's going on in Burma, and as long as there is a government that seems to be able to exercise power and there's no visible opposition they will go along with it. Now if that's what the military is looking for, how they can get world attention and support for their movement, then I think they probably will.

"But what about the Burmese people? What about giving the Burmese people the right to govern themselves because that's what the [Universal Declaration on Human Rights] says: people have the right to self-government. There is no self-government in Burma today; there is a military dictatorship which rules by force and violence. So if you're talking about how we get change in Burma, there has to be a change in the opposition, the opposition has to first organise, get leaders who are ready to take action that will ultimately bring about change. Unless that happens, it is not a very useful activity."

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

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