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No change at the top

Oct 7, 2008 (DVB), In both the military and opposition groups in Burma, there have been few changes in leadership or policy and newer or younger members have been unable to move to the highest positions.

Dr Aye Chan, a history professor at Kanda University in Japan, Dr Aung Khin, a London-based historian and political analyst Aung Naing Oo spoke to DVB about the stagnation at the highest levels of the government and opposition, and discussed whether a change of leadership could mean a change in policy.

Political analyst Aung Naing Oo said the issue was common to both the regime and opposition groups.

Aung Naing Oo: "In Zimbabwe, Mugabe has been in power for 28 or 30 years, and in Cuba, Castro was in power for 40 or 50 years, and the same in North Korea. If you look at these dictatorial countries, the leaders stay in power for a long time. In Burma too, leaders have tended to stay in power for a long time. If you look at U Nu's parliamentary democracy era, the democratically elected U Nu was often re-elected. After that, general Ne Win was in power for 26 years, then general Saw Maung stayed for a while and now from 1992 to this day, general Than Shwe has ruled our country.

"Therefore, the military government doesn't change leaders, and the opposition doesn't much either. Change only happens when they die. For example, Kachin Independence Organisation chairman Brang Seng, Karen National Union chair general Mya and New Mon State Party chairman Nai Shwe Kyin were leaders for a long time. People have great respect for them. But because they were in their positions for a long time, the people who came up behind them have not been able to show off their talents or use their energy properly. And it ends up in blocking the way of talented people."

History professor Aye Chan believes this outlook is rooted in Burmese culture.

Aye Chan: "It is based on the Burmese people's political traditions and culture. In Burma, the idea of a leader appointed by the people is not understood. Only people who have managed to seize power are recognised as leaders. Based on this political tradition, the army gave this military bureaucracy a political form. Politics is dominated by a bureaucracy, and this became politics dominated by military bureaucrats. Therefore it is very difficult to change. The army bureaucracy holds all the keys to the economy and power."

Historian Aung Khin blames both leaders and party members for not challenging policy.

Aung Khin: "Politics can't be carried out one group of people. You have to look at whether the party members carry out the policy of the party effectively. If party members and the majority just follow the policies handed down by the central committee, like the communist parties do, you would have to say that the participation of the party members is not effective."

While the army's lack of change in leadership is understandable, the problem for the opposition is a lack of unity, according to Aye Chan.

Aye Chan: "As far as the opposition is concerned, they can't unite under a single ideology. Another point is that if we look at Burmese society, there are many ethnic nationalities with different aims and political beliefs, and there is no single united front."

Aung Naing Oo: "The second, third or lower levels of leaders can't challenge those above them. Furthermore, they don't have many options apart from the status quo. In the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, only members of parliament are allowed to take part, and only about 20 MPs came out, they have to be chosen from inside repeatedly, and no leaders with new ideas appear.

"In the KNU and the NMSP, we had general Mya and Nai Shwe Kyin, they were chosen in accordance with revolutionary traditions, and they ended up being chairmen for life. However much you talk about democracy, you can't override their authority and they don't change."

Aung Khin: "In other countries, a leader can lead up to a point and if they are not successful they can make way for another one. In the National League for Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the only leader. When she is free, the party is active. When she is detained, it is not active. Why is it like this? It is something to think about. In politics, when a leader falls, another one rises. It was the same in the past in Burma. When the top level leader is in prison, the second-in-command takes his place. And when the second level goes to prison, the third takes his place. It is not like that here; it is formed like the army. Obey the orders or you will be expelled.

"A civil organisation can have proper discussions. Members must make effective decisions; they should not only obey orders. As far as I know, army officers can't do that kind of thing, that's why politics is dead. Now that U Win Tin and others a lot of experience have been released, the army officers don't know their capabilities and are afraid of what they can do. They are afraid of this and send them to prison. That's it."

The All Burma Students' Democratic Front is one of the few organisations that has made significant changes, but its enthusiastic commitment to democratic processes has been blamed by some for the weakening of the organisation.

Aung Naing Oo, a former ABSDF leader, disputes this accusation.

"As some leaders did not know what to do, and it was in the initial stages, some misused incomes funds, and this could not be covered up. The grassroots comrades used democratic means to remove them. The reason why there has been change within ABSDF is that there have been people with leadership qualities from all over Burma. It is not made up of one ethnic group. Therefore, there are more people who could become leaders. First, politically well-known activists such as Ko Moe Thee Zun became chairs. But when they were wrong, there were many chances to dislodge them by democratic means.

"The ABSDF's mistake was not that they used democracy too much. The reasons why the ABSDF has become weak are firstly that they have no private income. They can't sell teak like the Karen. They can't sell jade like the Kachin. Another point is that ethnic groups are united by nationalism, and nationalism is more solid than weak democracy. It is easier to rally people. Ethnic groups also have their own territories and resources; they can recruit soldiers from their ethnic groups. The ABSDF didn't have these things and became weak."

When asked whether a change in leadership could bring about a change in Burmese politics, Aye Chan was sceptical that any significant change could be achieved within the military.

Aye Chan: "It's not possible. The army bureaucracy has been established and it has become a system with strong basis. If there was no general Than Shwe, general Maung Aye would take his place. If there was no general Maung Aye, the people below him would take his place. That's how it is. Moreover, they will systematically place their own people and family members in the army bureaucracy; they will become a more solid organisation. At the same time, the opposition will become weaker."

Aung Khin: "The reason a change of leadership is needed is due to the lack of any other change. Something has to happen. If there has been no change in 20 years, this is not good. It would be better if something changed. People are waiting and waiting for it and become dejected and apathetic."

Aung Naing Oo: "I don't think that there could be an immediate and easy leadership change in the organisations as they currently are. In some organisations, there is little choice and they have to choose the best of a bad lot. Although people are saying that a leadership change is needed, if you have no good leaders to choose from, whether you are using a democratic approach or something else, it is very difficult to make changes.

"That's why we are always seeing problems among ethnic nationality groups and within the NLD, opposition between the young people and the current leaders. But if a group is united behind its leaders, the group never changes and will stay under that leader. If they go on like that, that organisation will never improve and the political organisation will never change.

"Organisations want democracy but they do not have the proper conditions or time. They should think carefully if change is needed. If it is, they must include young people and new blood. These young people and elders working together need to make the right changes"

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw


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