I’ve just returned from Rangoon last week, after being invited to speak at a training session for young politicians from Asia, which included representatives from Burma. My assignment was to give a lecture on political parties and democratisation in Asia. A number of Burma’s young politicians participated in the programme.
It had been more than a year since my last visit to Burma in late 2011. The country has changed tremendously following the general election in 2010, the first in 20 years. Subsequent positive developments, such as the release of the democratic icon and National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a series of political reforms, have rapidly transformed Burma from an isolated outpost of tyranny into an emerging democratic society.
During the training, it was evident that these young politicians from Burma were eager to learn about what was happening in the outside world. The attendees were from several Burmese political parties, including the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and smaller opposition and ethnic parties.
Burma had withered in stagnation following the introduction of military rule in 1962, which ended only when the junta realised that they needed to open up the country if they wished to maintain power. In this context, “democracy” is a relatively new concept to some of the young politicians who attended the course. They were excited to discuss ideas and debate about democracy’s role in their respective countries.
While young politicians from the ruling USDP reaffirmed their commitment to democratisation, representatives from Burmese opposition parties remained concerned about some of the government’s policies. Overall, the debate seemed to concentrate mainly on the pace of reconciliation between the government and opposition groups, the ongoing reforms, which must permit more room for critics of the regime, as well as the need to raise awareness regarding the protection of human rights.
But this kind of debate could obscure the fact that the crux of the problem facing Burma is the unending conflicts between the government and non-state armed groups. In recent weeks, the fatal clashes between the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have not only threatened Burma’s political reforms but also regional peace.
Yet, most analysts have misinterpreted the situation, often explaining away that peace and stability can be achieved only if the government and Suu Kyi can work in harmony. They tend to downplay the role of the ethnic minorities in the democratisation process.
Exactly on this point, a young politician from Rakhine state, formerly known as Arakan, gave a passionate speech about how the government might not be sincere in involving ethnic minorities in the political reform process.
The much-publicised conflict between the government and the NLD, which has largely overshadowed the real issue of inadequate political participation of minorities, demonstrates that the political change currently taking place may end up being just a new process of power redistribution among the elites. After all, Suu Kyi is herself an elite.
During my private conversation with the politician from Rakhine, he also begged the world to learn more about the plights of many Rohingyas who have been forced to abandon their homes in Burma to find an environment where they won’t be persecuted. The Rohingyas are stateless after their citizenship was stripped in 1982 by the Ne Win government. Because of this, the Rohingyas have not received any welfare, financial assistance or protection from the state. The government has even tolerated the ethno-religious conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas. The Rohingyas were brutally attacked, their houses burned down, yet the state refused to intervene in the atrocious attacks. Disappointingly, even Suu Kyi has remained silent on the issue.
A training programme like this would not have been possible just a few years ago. It can be seen as an upbeat signal that the Burmese government has given the green light to these kinds of activities, particularly in providing venues for young politicians from across different political spectrums to meet, mingle and debate. Hopefully, it would suggest that more reforms should be implemented to guarantee the continuity of political openness.
Indeed, the mood for political openness has begun to reshape new political ideas and cultures among Burma’s young politicians. They are getting more curious about how to strengthen democratic institutions, how to ensure the transparency of the political process, how to hold the g0vernment accountable for its actions and policies, and how to invite the public to engage more in politics.
And the curiosity does not limit itself within the realm of Burma’s domestic politics. They wanted to be informed about the democratisation processes in their neighbouring countries. In particular, they were interested in Thailand’s domestic politics. Some of their questions demonstrated that they have kept a watchful eye on what is going on with their Thai neighbour.
How has the process of reconciliation in Thailand worked? Has the Thai army already withdrawn from politics? Should Thaksin alone be held responsible for the country’s political crisis? Why has lèse-majesté law been politicised? And what is the situation regarding political prisoners in Thailand?
These questions and the answers seemed to be of equal importance. Thailand’s own imperfections served as reminders to the young politicians in Burma that democratic reform is a difficult and endless process.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.