Can We Really Trust The Generals?

April 24, 2004—Since news reports of the "dialogue" between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s military leadership surfaced well over a year ago, our movement has been paralyzed by the disparate strategies that organizations and individuals within the Free Burma movement have been pursuing.

It has forced many grassroots activists living in exile to do serious soul searching. This is good news for a movement that appears to have been relegated from a grassroots-based struggle by the people to a top-heavy behind-the-scenes diplomatic lobbying game, with little participation or input from the ground.

The bad news is this: More and more Burmese dissidents, particularly those in exile, appear to be basing their political activities and strategies on the wishful thinking that Burma’s fundamentalist generals have had a change of heart, and not on any type of serious political or strategic thought. The feeling seems to now be that the generals are finally getting ready to sit down with the country’s democrats, whom the generals sincerely believe are the nation’s arch-enemies, and solve Burma’s deep-seated political problems over a cup of Burmese tea.

A long list of attempts have been made to mediate between the two opposing camps, from the highly publicized visits—often subject to forced cancellations and rescheduling—by UN special envoy Razali Ismail, to the "quiet diplomacy" of Nelson Mandela, Fidel Ramos and others. The US State Department, Burma’s leading Buddhist monks and veteran politicians have also all lent their support to the reconciliation process.

One must acknowledge the unassailable logic and desirability of a peaceful transition in Burma. In a world that is fast becoming increasingly insecure, insane and barbaric, violence is simply not an appetizing option when addressing the variety of opinions and values found in Burma.

But we as a movement must not allow our overwhelming desire and hope for a peaceful political change in Burma to keep us from taking a hard look at the status of our movement and the prospects for peace, reconciliation and freedom in our country.

Unfortunately, Burma’s prospects for any type of genuine political and economic change in the near term are slim at best. The dialogue in Burma resembles more of a wedding scene where the bride, the priest and the bride’s relatives and friends are anxiously awaiting the groom’s arrival. The church bells continue to ring but the groom ominously never appears.

How does one reconcile the military, the Burmans and the ethnic minorities? Three fundamentally irreconcilable camps all with their eye on the ultimate prize of self-determination. The military supremacists continue to show their unwavering paternalistic conviction that they know what is best for Burma and her 50 million inhabitants, who are calling wishfully for a peaceful dialogue to settle these drawn-out differences.

The problem with the "dialoguers" is they are choosing to overlook one of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of reaching any genuine political settlement in Burma, which is the fundamentalism or absolutism with which the country’s generals approach the nation’s problems. The generals are convinced that they not only know what Burma’s problems are, but what the solutions should be and they believe that their institutions are capable of solving these problems.

Indeed all fundamentalist thinking, be it the "Free Market" brand of the secular Right or the beliefs of any religious group that strictly interprets its book of worship, is arrogant, disastrous and intellectually impoverished.

The biggest barrier for Burma’s democracy movement is not the newly acquired MiG-29s or the third-rate weapons from China or the pervasive military intelligence system. It is the generals’ own impoverished intellect, which prevents them from seeing that the only self-evident truth governing human histories is that no single individual or organization alone, however brilliant, has the intellectual capability to identify, define and solve all human and societal problems. The answers to Burma’s problems can perhaps be found by allowing different, contradictory and conflicting views to rub against one another. The question then is how can this process begin when the ruling group refuses to recognize the true situation, believing that they have the solutions to remedy the problems they have diagnosed, while dismissing other views as "party politics" or "self promotion".

Without honoring the essence of democratic ideals, the generals’ claim that they too want democracy for Burma does not resonate outside of their own chamber. Democracy is not something the paternalistic ruling class puts on a platter and simply hands over to the poor, downtrodden masses.

Democracy, in both theory and practice, entails a process of treating different ideas and proposals with respect and seriousness. It is also a value that calls for open-minded thinking and respect for human dignity—two concepts that Burma’s generals have been unable to embrace.

Sadly, the movement’s wait-and-see attitude goes on while its leaders and international cheerleaders mistakenly treat the generals’ pretense to dialogue as if it were the real thing.

Zarni is the founding director of the Free Burma Coalition.

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