Each time there is talk of “dialogue” in Rangoon, I am reminded of a poem by the renowned English poet William Wordsworth, which I read during my post-adolescent years. The opening lines of this short poem about Wordsworth’s eternal piety towards Nature read:
My heart leaps when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So it is now that I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
Twenty three years since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the then freshly minted popular dissident, began her impassioned calls for a resolution to the country’s long-standing problems through dialogue, we seem to have been conditioned like a Pavlovian four-limbed creature. Many a heart of my compatriots have since been leaping with each sight, smell and talk of ‘the Talk’ as if we had just spotted the biblical Noah’s Arc in the sky.
Two decades ago we were young and politically naïve; now, two decades on, we are aging but still wallow in our naivety. We can’t get enough of ‘the Talk’. The call for dialogue began in the 20th century, and now we are entering the second decade of the 21st century.
Each time the country’s rulers, in military uniform or in civilian clothing, decide that it’s advantageous to “play dialogue”, tactically and spin-wise, they have absolutely no problem in deceiving a public that is too desperate to see any sign of light at the end of the long tunnel. During the last quarter century, the only occasion on which the generals dialogued with the country’s widely revered dissident is when a group of military intelligence officers under General Khin Nyunt decided to push on with their attempt to find a viable end to the political stalemate. Even then, this serious and substantive talk took place only after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her senior colleagues, such as the National League for Democracy’s Vice Chairman U Tin Oo, narrowly escaped what the aging despot Than Shwe planned as a mob-style sundown assassination in a small rural town upcountry of Depayin.
Apparently, these intelligence officers were intelligent enough to adjust the military’s characteristic zero-sum politics with its critics, both the flagship Bama above-ground political party and the armed organizations of the non-Bama ethnic groups, from the Kachin Independence Organization and the United Wa State Army to the Karen National Union. These officers would begin to treat some of the leaders of ethnic armed resistance groups, such as the late General Saw Bo Mya, with genuine respect and view them as partners in nation-building. Compare this with the current nominal head of the government, President Thein Sein, who characterised the Kachin Independence Organization as “terrorist insurgent groups”, and urged the Chin, Shan, and other ethnic co-founders of the Union to “get in touch with provincial governments”, as if the latter’s communal and ethnic grievances were mere provincial – as opposed to national – concerns.
Widespread corruption, abuse of power and privilege and insubordination of General Khin Nyunt were not the only sins for which the entire military intelligence network was dissolved and the head of its chief rolled. The regime’s main trouble-shooter, that is, its intelligence chief, Khin Nyunt, was deviating from the military’s long-honored, if nationally destructive, institutional pursuit of politics as a zero-sum game. According to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself, the general and his men were having real, constructive dialogue with her in 2004. And talks were producing some kind of political agreement between the election-winning National League for Democracy party and the official representatives of the regime.
As an implicit absolution of any blame or responsibility, Brigadier General Than Tun, the then chief liaison between the regime and opposition, told me in Rangoon in May 2004 that “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is utterly innocent” in her interactions with the regime. That was 14 days after the NLD declared it would not join with the regime’s political program, as the direct result of Senior General Than Shwe rejecting any positive outcome of talks with dissidents and resistance leaders.
The same can be said of the gentleman’s agreement that General Khin Nyunt and his men secured with General Saw Bo Mya, which like many others was overruled by Than Shwe and his inner circle.
Whatever her shortcomings as the most influential dissident leader – she is no saint and can do many strategic wrongs – Suu Kyi has shown remarkable, Mandela-like qualities, notably her incredible ability to forgive her failed annihilators, particularly the mastermind of her attempted 2003 assassination, Than Shwe. But one of the major obstacles for her is the plain fact that there is no equally enlightened being within the military. Finding an F.W. de Clerk-like figure among Burma’s military rulers is like searching for a needle in a haystack during a power outage on a pitch black night.
Further, without properly contextualizing the latest spin about dialogue with The Lady, and other talks with other regime critics and opponents (for instance, the KIO), the Burmese public, save for the sceptics among us, will find that their hearts are leaping again. This is misguided.
The regime is finding out that the charade of multi-party elections and all the expertly spun talk of a “post-election landscape” have not brought them closer to international acceptability. To be sure, the generals have found no shortage of “friends,” strategic allies, co-exploiters of resources, investors and business partners among Asian rulers, from Beijing and Delhi, to Bangkok and Singapore. But the regime has been unable to dilute the world’s perception of it as a despicable pariah, and Washington’s dogged refusal to relax its opposition against key international lenders and development banks such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and its Asian offshoot, the Tokyo-dominated Asian Development Bank. This dampens even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) enthusiasm to let Burma’s not-so-presentable generals chair its overly ambitious, business-oriented bloc, lest Naypyidaw drives potential investors away from the ASEAN region, in fierce competition for capital and investment inflows with China, India and other international rivals.
Last but not least, the generals have been on a mission to militarily subjugate politically defiant ethnic communities such as the Shan, Kachin, Karen, Mon and so on. The Burmese military’s zero-sum policy towards any of its critics, non-violent or armed, has already backfired, as it has predictably resulted in the complete breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin. The fact that the regime invited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “as an individual observer” to the “poverty workshop” can only be seen as a cynical public relations ploy, part of the generals’ “pacification campaign”.
Regarding the main agenda of the poverty workshop, the only real macro-issue – or the big picture, to put it in a less pompous daily language of real people – that needs to be discussed nationally is how the military’s half-century of class rule has impoverished the great majority of the Burmese, uprooted any semblance of the rule of law, drained the country of talents and brains, and brought shame to the once-venerable national defence organisation.
What the late Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme remarked truthfully about the apartheid in Mandela’s South Africa – that apartheid cannot be reformed, but it must be dismantled – equally applies to Burma under half-century of military dictatorship. The generals’ class rule in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burma cannot be reformed through talk of poverty and talks of ‘the Talk’. The Burmese electorate gave Daw Suu and her hundreds of NLD colleagues their overwhelming support in the ballots two decades ago in order to specifically help end the military dictatorship and usher in a new era of “government of, for and by the people” – and not simply to play the game of dialogue and engage in the talk of poverty over fancy meals in Naypyidaw.
Our hearts will not leap until we see the rainbow of real change in the sky. Call me a sceptic or pessimist, but I for one know mine will not be leaping, to the generals’ delight.
Dr Maung Zarni is a Visiting Fellow at the Department of International Development, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).