Burma's Political Dinosaurs

UNLIKE politics in India, Burma’s neighbour and the world’s largest democracy, where the Nehrus reign supreme and many of the MPs have ‘inherited’ their seats from their parliamentarian parents, the Burmese polity, howsoever tyrannical and dysfunctional, cannot be viewed through the lens of dynastic politics. Here I define dynastic politics as ‘the pursuit of political office which is markedly and favourably influenced by certain powerful clans or families with both demonstrable sway (e.g., certain well-known namesakes) over public opinion and transferable material and organizational assets such as economic wealth, elite and grassroots networks, and well-oiled inter-generational political machines.’

In present-day Burma, there are three divergent fields of politics that need to be considered when discussing a subject as complex as dynastic politics: (i) the military’s state-centred, repressive and rent-seeking domain of politics; (ii) the non-Burmese political spheres, both armed and nonviolent, where ethno-nationalisms and struggle over control of resources, labour and land/local territories come together in ancestrally ethnic minority regions; and (iii) civilian politics of the ethnically Burmese or Bama society where dissidents espouse and advocate the discourses of political liberalism which are insufficiently sensitive to the issue of ethnicity, but foreground dominant notions of human rights and political, as opposed to economic, democracy.

Although the military dictatorship in Burma has been in power for nearly 50 years, it has not been able to produce the type of civilian equivalent of a dynastic politics where the chain of politico-military command is ‘inherited’. In this regard, the Burmese dictatorships of Ne Win and Than Shwe differ significantly from the Kim family rule in North Korea or the Assad family’s control over Syria.

Three main explanations may be advanced for the absence of dynastic politics within the military-controlled state, including in the armed forces. For one, Ne Win’s exit from power was under circumstances which made it impossible for him to arrange any meaningful strategic or leadership role for any of his children. The disgraced dictator was more preoccupied with controlling the levers of state power after the massive popular revolt against his rule than with making arrangements for a political heir.

A more recent case in point is how 82 year old Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was forced to shelve his plan to install his son as successor and scramble (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for ways to cling onto power. Than Shwe is also trying his best to ensure that he dies by his sword and in office, attempting to create extra-constitutional bodies through which he as the Supreme Leader can effectively control both the branches of the security apparatus, and the country’s undeclared vast foreign reserves and assets.

The second reason is the institutionalization of the Burmese soldiering class or, more accurately, the military officer corps, as the ‘natural’ and ‘eternal’ ruling class. The military dictatorship has sufficiently crystallized into a system of class rule, with a recognizable class interest and self-justificatory world view (e.g., its militaristic nationalism) so as to reject any ruling general’s attempt to anoint one of his family members as the heir apparent in charge of the state. Thus, even if ‘General Number One’ believes that the safest hand to whom state power should be passed on is that of a family member, it is hardly conceivable that the military as a corporate body would accept this. In this sense, Ne Win and Than Shwe, both of whom concentrated heavily on the militarization of the state and all its apparatuses, have become victims of their own clever design, creating a military class that may well work against their own personal interests.

Today’s officer class does not feel a need to answer to the public because they consider themselves a cut above the rest of the society and hence entitled to rule. This is evidenced in their public pronouncements that the military is the society’s ‘purest’ patriotic organization, untainted by partisan politics often attributed to political parties, which must be entrusted with the power to even stage a coup when and if it deems necessary. Unlike North Korea and its Dear Leader, to the officer corps, neither Ne Win nor Than Shwe is viewed as a demi-God. It would not be easily doable in Burma for Than Shwe to copy Kim Jong-il’s dynastic plan according to which his boyish son was declared the next leader of North Korea, in the same manner his own father Kim Il-sung had done.

To be sure, fifty years is sufficient time to produce a second or third generation of military officers which might serve as the pool of the army-bred. And many key positions have indeed been increasingly placed in the hands of the army-bred military officers who have come of age. There are also inter-military family marriages, as well as military elites marrying off their offspring with those of the regime cronies. This, however, does not point to an emerging aristocracy within the military. Military rule in Burma is first and foremost the rule of a soldiering class. It is class rule, as opposed to a narrower, dynastic/family rule.

The third and more straight-forward explanation is that societal hatred – not merely discontent and resentment – towards the military class is such that no children of well-known military officers can hold their heads high unless their fathers happen to be dissident soldiers who have turned against their own predatory institution and autocratic military leadership. Unlike the children of the nationalist leaders who assumed post-independence leadership of Burma, the names of generals do not carry positive social-psychological value in terms of their symbolic attractiveness in society. They cannot serve as a launching pad for political leadership beyond the confines of the armed forces.

With respect to non-Bama ethnic political communities – armed resistance organizations, political diasporas, and above-ground political organizations such as regime-registered parties – there are certainly several dynastic politicians and military leaders. For instance, the children of formerly Shan feudal lords known as Chao Hpa or Sao Hpwa in Burmanized Shan, who are mostly scattered across the world and active in dissident Shan movements, as well as the opposition movement at large, have been self-consciously playing ‘dynastic politics’. Likewise, the Karen National Union too has several ‘dynastic military families’ where the sons and daughters of highly regarded or iconic leaders assume leadership roles in military, political and foreign relations fields.

‘Dynastic revolutionaries’ may sound oxymoronic, but the words aptly capture the nature and pattern of the politics of a few well-known families of the deceased revolutionary fathers. Colonel Nadar Mya, the commander of the late iconic revolutionary Bo Mya, who was the undisputed leader of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), is now leading the most well-equipped elite resistance units within the KNLA. Zhapora Sein, the daughter of General Tamalabaw, now in his eighties, serves as General Secretary of the Karen National Union, the political leadership of the KNLA, while the slain Karen revolutionary leader Padoh Mhan Sher, Zoya Hpan, is the most prominent international advocate for the Karen cause, working as Director of International Campaign for the London-based Burma Campaign UK.

Likewise, descendents of the 33 Shan ruling families/feudal houses have chosen to retain their feudal titles, a half-century after their now dead fathers agreed to relinquish feudal entitlements and dismantle the centuries-old revenue and administrative structures at the apex of which their families sat and extracted labour, revenues and land. Not unlike the descendants of the old royal family of the Court of Mandalay, which disgraced itself by surrendering to the invading British colonizers, many of the remnants of the Shan ruling families continue to maintain what appears to be ‘dynastic consciousness’ – a superiority complex based on birth – and their politics is informed by a sense of noblesse oblige. It is worth noting that the family of the late Sao Shwe Thaike and Mahadewi, independent Burma’s first ceremonial President and his MP-wife, produced four politically active children, with different types of politics, from Marxist inspired egalitarian politics to the politics of bureaucratic accommodation and incrementalism to openly ethno-secessionist politics, all from their exile in Europe and North America.

One of the most intriguing examples of dynastic politics is dissident politics involving children of famous dead fathers who cut their teeth in the anti-British nationalist resistance movement rooted in the social fabric of Burmese mainstream society, which did not include non-Burmese highlanders such as the Shan, the Kachin and their like.

Aung San Suu Kyi is often described as, first and foremost, the daughter of the country’s slain independence hero by both her general-captors and her supporters. And she speaks as her father’s daughter. When she coincidentally entered Burmese politics in 1988, after a series of indiscriminate shootings of peaceful protesters, including doctors and nurses, in front of the old Rangoon Hospital, her public words were: ‘As my father’s daughter I could no longer remain silent and watch from the sidelines of history when things have gone too far in the country (for which my father gave up his life).’ This drew thunderous applause from a massive number of Rangoon residents who came to hear ‘Aung San’s daughter’ speak and catch a glimpse of an Aung San in flesh and blood.

But Suu Kyi does not fit the profile of the typical dynastic politician for several reasons. First, she is no ordinary politician. She has shown no signs of being seduced by the allure of power of political office. Rather, she has made moral persuasion and nonviolent resistance her main mission. She goes about her politics out of a sense of duty, both as a martyr’s daughter and a principled and active citizen in a country where taking a principled stand against the omnipresent, if not omnipotent, repressive state and its authoritarian leadership often means torture, imprisonment, permanent exile and death. Since her accidental entry into Burma’s anti-dictatorship politics in the midst of the nationwide people power revolt in 1988, Suu Kyi has spent a total of 15 years in captivity.

Further, although she does have a dynastic name, for lack of a better terminology, she does not have the usual political machine and economic base with which such names, for instance, the Nehrus, the Kennedys or the Bushes are normally associated. Her father Aung San, who was assassinated months before the country’s independence from Britain in 1947, never held political office in independent Burma. Nor did he accumulate material wealth. The capital attached to her father’s name, then, is symbolic and social psychological rather than material.

According to Wunna Kyawhtin Zan Yin, my late great uncle who was a friend and next door neighbour of Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, at Pegu Residential Hall at Rangoon University where they were both undergraduates in the 1930s, Aung San from his student days until his death at the young age of 32, was consumed by the single-minded pursuit of Burma’s liberation by any means necessary. In place of economic wealth – Aung San left virtually no material possession to his widow and two surviving children – and a powerful political machine, he did leave behind a legacy as the unquestionably most popular and revered nationalist of his time. This gives Aung San Suu Kyi an unparalleled advantage vis-à-vis the children of Aung San’s nationalist colleagues, for instance, the Nus, the Kyaw Nyeins or the Ne Wins. But it is a form of capital that also distinguishes her from the heirs and heiresses of these other political dynasties.

Finally, even a name as revered as her father’s is not sufficient to build and sustain one’s own popular base. If it were, then Aung San Oo, her British-educated older brother, who is resident in San Diego, California, would not have failed to establish himself as a leading dissident among the overseas Burmese dissident network which spans across North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia. Oo’s attempt to enter overseas Burmese politics, which itself was dominated by children of deposed nationalist politicians of the civilian parliamentary era (1948-62), is little known. When the country rose up against the 26 year old one-party military dictatorship of General Ne Win in the months of August and September 1988, Aung San Oo was persuaded that he too must contribute to this great wave of post-independence uprisings against home-grown tyranny. He tried to recruit and mobilize students and expatriate workers who were outraged enough to publicly speak out and organize protests and dissident networks in Japan, Thailand, UK, Australia and so on.

At the time of the great uprising in 1988, as a young student and (illegal) worker in Tokyo, I was living with Hla Kyaw whose older sister is married to Aung San Oo. From California, Aung San Oo would fax Hla Kyaw his messages of solidarity to us – a small group of politically active Burmese migrant workers and students in Japan, part of a small but growing pocket of overseas Burmese, quite pleased to know Aung San Oo’s brother-in-law. On one occasion, I was even designated to read Aung San Oo’s short faxed message in English because I had a better command of the language than other workers. (Prior to leaving Burma, I was an English tour guide and ESL teacher). At the time, I considered it quite an honour to be given the opportunity to read out the message of solidarity from the son of the founder of modern Burma.

Also within California, Aung San Oo would travel to places where politically active exiles lived. In those days, Aung San Oo’s active interest in anti-dictatorship Burmese politics was viewed as encouraging for the prospects of a growing Burmese activism. Aung San Oo was immediately welcomed by every Burmese dissident in exile as a rallying point among the Burmese diaspora.

The thought of the British educated children of our nationalist hero getting involved in the popular revolt, both within and without Burma, against General Ne Win’s dictatorship was hugely attractive. Halfway around the world in Rangoon, his sister was throwing her lot with the dissident movement. Given our sexist cultural upbringing, the exiles pinned their hopes on Aung San’s son – not the daughter – to play a leading role in the anti-dictatorship movement. Our expectation was that while the sister was emerging as a leading critic and rallying point against tyranny at home, the brother would be leading a vibrant network among the Burmese diasporas.

But Aung San Oo was not cut out to lead the exiles. Not even Aung San’s name could compensate for that. Worse still, Aung San Oo, after his initial failure to establish himself as the leader of the Burmese exiles – who by then were quite organized and unified under the impressive leadership of the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma (CRDB) founded in Washington before the unanticipated 1988 uprisings – became an annual ‘state guest’ to Rangoon where he (and his Mon-Chinese wife) were wined and dined by the generals, including the now ‘retired’ – and disgraced – Ne Win. Aung San Oo’s occasional snide remarks about his own sister did him no favour when they got around Burmese communities.

Judging from the failed attempts of Aung San Suu Kyi’s brother in California to translate that capital into a politically viable enterprise, a leading role in the country post-1988 popular uprising, one can argue that there is no linear, automatic transfer of symbolic capital or influence. This non-linearity of transfer is also evidenced in other cases wherein children, even grandchildren and in-laws (for instance, the families of the late Dr Ba Maw, head of Burma’s puppet government under Japanese occupation during the World War II and High Court Justice Chan Tun who was chief constitutional advisor to Aung San) tried to capitalize on their famous namesakes. Just about every case in which a dissident with a well-known name has attempted to bank on the legacy of his or her famous nationalist father, indicates that in a revolutionary context such as that of Burma under dictatorship, any potential for playing dynastic politics remains low.

Apart from the exceptional case of Aung San Suu Kyi, who in any case cannot be described simply as a dynastic politician, political dynasties appear to play a diminishing role in the politics of the Bama majority. During the months leading up to last year’s (2010) ‘generals’ election’ in Burma, for instance, the international press was for a short while fascinated with the emergence in the country’s ‘electoral’ politics of a trio of women dissidents with famous political names – Nu, Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein, prime ministers and deputy prime minister during the first and only civilian parliamentary period of Burma. Than Than Nu, Nay Yi Ba Swe and Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein formed the leadership of a newly registered party, and the press, for instance, Al Jazeera English, was quick to dub them as Burma’s ‘Three Princesses’.

In the end, these three prime ministers’ daughters proved incapable of inspiring the masses or gatecrashing the regime’s new ‘parliament’, notwithstanding the hype around their emergence as a potential rallying point around which the tired masses of Burma might rally and forge a new and more promising ‘Third Force’ politics (with the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy being first and second forces respectively).

This diminishing possibility of the emergence of dynastic politics in a country like Burma – with half-century of crude and brutish version of a classic dictatorship of the rule of one single strongman – is primarily a product of the neo-totalitarian nature of the ruling system in place. This system, with the country’s armed forces as its primary instrument of control, systematically and literally uprooted any material bases – economic wealth/ assets, political machines, and social ties – which might have enabled old ‘dynastic’ names to become an alternative political force. Instead, the Burmese dictatorship has successfully co-opted descendents of famous nationalists and respected public figures (for instance, the family of the late UN Secretary General U Thant) to buttress its political design.

The Burmese military regime has long been bent on systematically neutralizing members of potentially dynastic political families and playing off one ‘dynastic’ family against another. According to former intelligence officer and senior diplomat Aung Lynn Htut, who took asylum in the United States in 2005, the Burmese regime would target these families and make sure they were pitted against Aung San Suu Kyi, her leadership and representational voice (on behalf of the wretched of Burma). And many, including Aung San Oo, who has reportedly been fighting a nasty lawsuit against his own sister for the inheritance of the lakeside family home which has become Suu Kyi’s special prison, on and off, over the past 20 years, have acquiesced.

Thant Myint-U, for instance, is amplifying anti-Suu Kyi propaganda – claiming that it’s her unrealistic push for liberal democracy in Burma and a rigid moral stance which have ‘doomed the country’s prospect for progress.’ This is straight out of the regime’s Directorate of Psychological Warfare, according to Major Aung Lynn Htut.

Even had political dynasties in Burma been allowed to retain the material bases of dynastic power, they might not have had the same draw in a dictatorial context as they have had in more routine politics elsewhere in South Asia. This context calls for inspirational rather than routine leadership. And with the exception of Aung San Suu Kyi, the demonstrable absence of inspirational leadership in the children of the previous ruling elites, military and civilian, Burman majority or non-Burman minority, precludes any possibility of the emergence of dynastic politics since Burma’s independence 60 years ago.

Since the completion of the regime’s sham election in November 2010, there has been little change in terms of Burma’s dynastic politics in the non-military political arena. However, the regime is consciously pursuing a more feudalistic politics by promoting army-bred, second-generation officers and ex-officers to strategic positions, politically and within the omnipotent Ministry of Defence. For instance, Major General Maung Maung Ohn, who heads the Directorate of Psychological Warfare, is the middle son of a former infantry officer (both his older and younger brother are also military officers). Htay Oo, General Secretary of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the regime’s newly minted ruling party in the new ‘parliament’, is himself a former brigadier general and the son-in-law of the well-known military officer, named Tin Win Nyo, from the previous dictatorial era (1962-88).

Notwithstanding the official rhetoric of ‘discipline flourishing democracy’, the regime is bent on consolidating the military’s class rule along feudal lines. In the emerging phase of regime consolidation, blood ties are likely to become a key basis for power and promotion. It would be a great irony if the half-century of military rule in Burma, which so far has made it impossible for the emergence of dynastic politics, would itself morph into a new type of dynastic polity after its 50th year in power.

* The writer Maung Zarni comes from a Burmese military ‘clan’ among whose members are current despot General Than Shwe’s first commanding officer, the late dictator General Ne Win’s VIP pilot and a former senior counterintelligence official under ousted General Khin Nyunt.

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