What's changed in Burma in the past 20 years?

Htet Aung Kyaw

Sep 17, 2008 (DVB), Tomorrow, 18 September, is the 20th anniversary of the coup that ousted the socialist regime of U Ne Win and brought the State Peace and Development Council to power following the junta’s crackdown on the "Four Eights" uprising.

But the question now is how much has changed in the 20 years since the 8888 uprising? Does Burma need a new approach?

Although there have been no tangible political improvements in the past 20 years, the way people think does seem to have changed. This shift in mentality could be said to be the most significant sign of progress in the past 20 years.

"All the changes are based on the 8888 uprising. A change in ideas is a very important step towards real change," said Dr Aung Khin, a London-based historian and prominent commentator on foreign-based Burmese language radio stations. He pointed out that the willingness of many Burmese inside the country to speak out to foreign radio stations is a significant change compared with the 26 years of Ne Win’s socialist era.

Ludu Sein Win, a veteran journalist in Rangoon who was jailed several times during the Ne Win era for his critical writings, agrees with Aung Khin. "Yes, we have more opportunity to speak out now. I had no opportunity to talk to the media during U Ne Win’s Masala era. But now, there are many journals inside the country and you in the foreign media speak every day to Thakhins [veterans of the independence war], politicians, lawyers, activists, journalists , even farmers in the countryside," he said.

"Talking to foreign-based radio stations is the only way to take action against local authorities who abuse their power and human rights," one of Sein Win’s fellow journalists in Mandalay told this correspondent. "I have seen a lot of evidence of action being taken after you aired news stories about their abuses. This is a good sign," he said.

But a lawyer in Rangoon who has been a strident critic of the military regime says this is not enough. "Yes, people more criticise the government now than ever before. But how many people is that? I don't think it's more than 500 people, while there are another 50 million who are still afraid of the military," the lawyer pointed out.

Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy magazine in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said this increased level of criticism should not only be directed against the military government but should also focus on pro-democracy groups. "When it comes to the culture of criticism towards each other, we are still weak when it comes to using facts and figures and we lack the skills to make the other side hear us out calmly," he said.

"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 Khun Myint Tun, an MP in exile in Mae Sot, Thailand, worries about the consequences of self-criticism. "In order to be open, we must be able to criticise ourselves and our organisation. But this criticism has to be constructive; we need to be disciplined and take care not to damage our unity," he said.

However, activist-turned-political analyst Aung Naing Oo says the opposition needs strong criticism. "We talk about the faults of the military government while ignoring the faults of the opposition. At the 20-year point, if we say the movement has not been successful for one year, two years, three years, 20 years, we need to think why it has not been successful," the former Student Army leader commented.

Obviously, many Burmese are now asking themselves why they have still not achieved victory after 20 years, and why they were doomed to fail again in last September's Saffron Revolution, despite their efforts in the 8888 uprising?

There is no shortage of questions, but the answers are harder to come by. No one can come up with a precise and commonly-agreed strategy for a final push after 20 years of sitting and waiting for outside help.

But one thing that is now clear is that many activists have lost confidence in the UN’s negotiating role after special envoy Gambari’s last mission. They are also beginning to lose confidence in the 20-year-long push for dialogue led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Metta [negotiation] is not enough, armed struggle is also needed," said a Buddhist monk in Rangoon who was involved in last September's Saffron Revolution. "We do not doubt the Dhamma but the Dhamma is not as useful as a bullet-proof vest when we are facing this brutal military," the monk added with a pained expression.

These views are echoed by former military officials such as captain Sai Win Kyaw, who joined protesters in the 8888 uprising, and major Aung Lin Htut, a key member of former prime minister general Khin Nyunt’s spy network and former deputy ambassador in Washington.

"We know the soldiers’ mindset well , they never consider dialogue, only firepower," a former army official suggested. "Unless you have a strong, well-armed force, the SPDC will not care about you."

But a rebel leader in Thai-Burma border sees things differently. "No one supports armed struggle nowadays, only non-violent methods. If you find any donors for armed struggle, please let me know," he said with a wry smile.

Of the many armed groups, including the All Burma Students' Democratic Front which was founded after the 8888 uprising, not one was ready to come to the aid of the monks during September's Saffron Revolution. "Armed struggle is not easy," the rebel leader said, citing the list of nearly 1000 casualties among his comrades while thousands of others have now resettled in Western countries.

However, a defence analyst based in Thailand said numbers were not the issue. "You don’t need thousands of regular troops as you did over the past two decades, but dozens of elite special forces," he suggested.

"But I not sure who the donor would be for this project," he joked, alluding to the dependence of many organisations, including armed groups, on the donors’ pocketbooks. "However, it would only be about five percent of the budget of the whole exile movement," he estimated.

Whether you agree or disagree with his suggestion it is clear that we need to seriously consider why we have not yet achieved our goal after 20 years. What changes do we need to make to our policy and tactics?

Htet Aung Kyaw was one of the students involved in the 1988 uprising and is a former Student Army rebel. He is now working for the Oslo-Based Democratic Voice of Burma as a senior journalist.

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