Self-criticism and Burma's democracy movement

Aug 26, 2008 (DVB), While there have been no tangible political improvements 20 years after the 8888 uprising, the thinking and ideas of the people have changed and there has been open and outspoken criticism of the government.

This change in mentality could be said to be the most significant sign of progress in the past 20 years.

But political analysts and journalists have said this level of analysis and criticism should not only be directed against the military government but should also focus on pro-democracy groups.

At the same time, some political activists are concerned that such open self-criticism within the democracy movement is tantamount to "airing one's dirty linen in public" and is ripe for exploitation by the military government.

DVB's Htet Aung Kyaw asked Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw, political analyst Aung Naing Oo and elected National League for Democracy MP Khun Myint Tun how far they thought this culture of criticism should apply to the democracy movement.

Aung Zaw: "There are two parts to this discussion. In my view, the people inside Burma , despite the oppression , are daring more and more to express their opinions and are becoming more willing to say these kinds of things to the outside media such as the DVB or BBC radio stations. It shows how brave they are despite the massive oppression. I think this is positive.

"At the same time, there is more communication between those inside and outside. Before, when you made phone calls from abroad, as we are living outside the country, they didn't know whether we were with the governments or the opposition or rebel groups. People didn't dare to meet us or speak to us. But the line between inside and outside is becoming more blurred and that is a good thing.

"When we talk about criticism among the opposition and pro-democracy people, it is mostly personal attacks. When it comes to the culture of criticism towards each other, we are still weak in using facts and figures and lacking the skills to make the other side hear us out calmly.

"But at the same time, if you look at bloggers, the internet, websites and Irrawaddy publications, we have been looking at the weaknesses of the opposition almost constantly. But it is still weak. At the same time, we also see that this side thinks that they should be considerate to the other side. This is because people who are now working in these organisations were at one time involved in opposition groups themselves , they are ex-activists, ex-student leaders, ex-students of 88 generation. They have reined in their criticism and feel they should be more considerate."

Aung Naing Oo: "My view is that if there is no criticism, there can not be much improvement. When it comes to criticism itself, it is not criticising with closed eyes. One should accept it when it is done appropriately and for the right reasons. In a word, it becomes necessary to have what is termed "critical thinking" in which we have to think properly, deeply, reciprocally. Therefore, at the 20-year point, if we say the movement has not been successful for one year, two years, three years, 20 years, it is necessary to think why it has not been successful. As far as this goes, we are in a position where have to employ other people to "air our dirty linen" instead of doing it ourselves. So we need to think about whether we cannot accept criticisms or can't be bothered to listen because we don't share our views.

"When it comes to the nature of conflict, if you see it in black and white, there can be no solution. But within this conflict, there are also shades of grey. Therefore, instead of just concentrating on the black and white, if one could look at other nuances, people, subjects, interests contained in the conflict more properly and inclusively, we will be able to understand and see the criticism within a wider context."

But many political activists believe this kind of public self-criticism could serve as ammunition for opponents of pro-democracy groups.

Khun Myint Tun: "The main basis of democracy is transparency. The NLD has policies. The first policy of the NLD is openness, honesty and mutual respect. In order to be open, we must be able to criticise ourselves and our organisation. But this criticism has to be constructive. Especially among ourselves, we need to be disciplined and take care not to damage our unity.

"We have to accept it if it is done in a spirit of improvement and development, and we have to listen to it whether we like it or not when it is done in this way. This is because everyone has individual strengths and weaknesses. In order to build on our strengths and address our weaknesses, we need criticism from within our community. We should not just ignore these criticisms from our peers and do whatever we want. Criticism is necessary for individuals and for the country. But, it must not be excessive. For example, some people in the past have used the media to carry out political attacks on one another. This is not good. One thing that is necessary is to criticise logically from the top, within the framework of the revolution."

How could one criticise within the limits of the revolution? By criticising the military government harshly and the opposition gently?

Aung Zaw: "In my view, compared to the past, [the opposition] has become thick-skinned. This habit has been developed inside and outside [Burma]. Those who are under the military government are pushing the issue imperceptibly. On the outside, those who were involved in the opposition groups and their sympathisers in the media are doing the same for the opposition groups.

"When we were writing in around 1996-97, they [pro-democracy groups] were rather touchy about it. We heard, 'We will sue you' and so on. Some armed groups even threatened our lives. But in this day and age, some are becoming quite thick-skinned. We are seeing more self-criticism. Within 20 years, we see that there are more people who are criticising themselves. Why did we lose? Where did we go wrong? What is happening to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? What is wrong with her strategy? What should the strategy of the NLD be? We are seeing these questions more than before.

"I think it is healthy, but as I said before: are we criticising the people, are we talking about the policies, are we talking with facts and figures, are we doing it in an acceptable way, are we talking like adults as much as we can? If we could increase that culture, if we could do that among ourselves, be more precise and behave like adults, there could be more maturity."

Aung Zaw was himself threatened with a lawsuit ten years ago for saying in an editorial that an exile government was impracticable.

Aung Naing Oo: "There is severe criticism of the military government. If mistakes are made by opposition groups and activists and no one is allowed to point this out , this is not the right thing. If we talk about the faults of the military government while ignoring the faults of the opposition, it doesn't bode well for our country's future prospects. In 2004, I wrote an article saying that the actions of the military government and some opposition groups are quite similar and that it is quite worrying. For this, some opposition groups criticised me. 'Why did you write this? This should not be written,' I was told. Then, I asked them, 'Was what I said wrong?' , 'What you said was not wrong,' was the reply. 'If it is not wrong, I will stand by my point,' I said. Then, I faced a situation in which our relationship deteriorated. Therefore, if something is wrong, we need to point out the mistake for what it is."

Khun Myint Tun: "It is useless to attack ourselves with chicken feathers and others with rakes. Even when we criticize the SPDC, we need to criticise it honestly on the basis of the revolution. It is the same when we do it to each other, but we have to avoid actions that could destroy our unity.

"In our view, during our revolution, if everyone in the revolution is an analyst and there are no revolutionaries and political activists, it will be useless. As we have people who really oppose, leaders and people who take responsibilities, we also really need people to watch and criticise these people. Just as in football we need not only coaches for footballers to instruct them, we also need the spectators.

"Whatever it is, we accept and welcome criticism. But, in the Burmese language, some people see the word 'wayban' [criticise] in a bad light. We welcome and accept it if it is done in the spirit of improvement. But in human nature, our subconscious doesn't like criticism. I am the same way. In my subconscious, when someone criticises me, I feel that that person sees me in a negative way and so your conscience needs to accept the fact that you need to accept criticism."

What is the outlook for the future?

Khun Myint Tun: "When it comes to the limits of freedom, many things have been said. Each person has a different idea of what the limits of freedom should be. But as we love freedom, we welcome free criticism. We must also practise accepting it. The more we can tolerate criticism, the more chance for the emergence of democracy, that's our view. But the people [of Burma] regard broadcasters such as DVB as the voice of the revolutionary. As it is, it is necessary to allow the free expression of views within the boundaries of the revolution."

Aung Naing Oo: "We are currently seeing people are criticising not only the military government but also the opposition groups. We also hear people criticising Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We are hearing endless criticism of the military government. Inside the country, there are some people whispering their opinions and others speaking out loudly. Some people are bravely expressing their dislike of the military government to the international newspapers.

"When we look back over the past 20 years, there has been considerable openness and I think that's a very good thing. Instead of keeping it inside our hearts, if we can express it properly and openly, become more daring in our criticism and think carefully about the subject of criticism, and if necessary, make changes, then that will be a good basis for the future."

Aung Zaw: "That is the weakness of 8888, I think. [The] 'I know how to do it and I am right about everything' [attitude]. I haven't seen much in the past twenty years. I observe people examining where it went wrong, what could have been done with the right opportunities, how things could have been handled better and so on. I think this is good. It takes a certain time to reach the destination; 20 years is actually a fairly short time.

"We have to work harder to ingrain that culture in us, because, if you look at neighbouring countries, we can see that their sense of democracy is more mature than ours. Even then, people are still threatened with lawsuits, murder and so on for making criticisms. In these circumstances, how are we going to criticise each other? Are we going throw flowers at each other? Or as I said before, are we going to attack each other personally? Do we have the facts, the grounds? We need to think about that. We need to assess whether we are saying it out of love or out of personal hatred. If we can do that, we can reach our desired destination in the future."

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

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