From Revolution to Mutual Cooptation


On Friday in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi held a meeting with President Thein Sein of the military-controlled quasi-civilian government, under the portrait of her martyred father U Aung San (How his portrait all of a sudden adorns the walls of Presidential office is a story for another day). At that time, the regime was also holding a three-day national workshop on poverty reduction.

Are these signs of a new thaw in the essentially adversarial relations between "the Beauty and the Beast"? Or is this the pursuit of respective Plan Bs for the two fiercely oppositional camps?

What options does Aung San Suu Kyi really have?

Politics is the art of the possible. Revolutions are the politics of the impossible.

The possible in the case of Burma is to continue to live under the world's oldest dictatorship—albeit slightly more benevolent, slightly more presentable, and slightly more poverty-sensitive.

Revolutionary conditions have existed in Burma since independence. But for two reasons popular revolts over the last 50 years—with the Saffron Revolution being the most recent—have failed. 

These two reasons are: 1) the inability, over the past 50 years, of the opponents of the Bamar [Burman] military dictatorship, including Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD, not just the non-Bamar ethnic groups, to build a "Big Tent" and a coordinated strategic leadership; and 2) the shifting international power equations which have enabled the dictatorships in Burma to turn any external development to its own narrow institutional advantages and those of the top generals.

We are unlikely to see any revolutionary changes—that is, fundamental reforms—in Burma any time soon.

Against this backdrop, and despite the inspiring tales of the Arab Spring, the Lady by the Lake has very few revolutionary options.

So, she is compelled to join in the act of mutual cooptation with the generals.

Here we should not underestimate the strategic and tactical ability of the generals who preside over the world’s oldest military dictatorship against all odds, nor should we overestimate the iconic power of Daw Suu’s leadership and what she can deliver from this latest tango with “the Beast”.

The fate of the NLD currently remains uncertain as her “dialogue partners” in Naypyidaw are bent on splitting Suu Kyi from her party.

The regime's Plan A isn't panning out as hoped for by the senior and junior generals (and their political proxies, namely the ex-generals in government and in the parliament). 

Plan A involved optimizing their gain, and minimizing their pain of having to make concessions to The Lady, the ceasefire groups, and the active resistance groups such as the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army.

On the Western front, the US is so far unrelenting in its opposition to the international lending institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank to resume their official loans and aid to "Myanmar" and will likely object to the generals chairing the ASEAN, without making concessions to their Lady.

By President Thein Sein’s admissions last week, the country is experiencing economic hardship.

The weakened dollar is having an adverse impact on Burma's domestic economy, which creates pent-up frustrations among the populace, including farmers and urban communities.

The Arab Spring, protests in Malaysia, Singapore's political cracks, Chinese riots and more recently London urban upheavals are also very worrisome signs for the generals.

Within the Burmese military forces, higher rates of desertion, a decreasing quality of military operations, extremely low morale, depression, widespread poverty, and the inter-clique power rivalry in the upper echelons of the regime have also become a serious factor in Burma's politics.

All this has resulted in the regime shifting gear from the Zero Sum to the Plan B of co-opting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with two target audiences—the local cultist, sufficiently nationalistic Bama majority, and its international critics that back Daw Suu.

If she is unable to outmaneuver the generals she will have ended up letting them use her big time. On the other hand, she has never really been a revolutionary leader like the late U Aung San who was prepared to do anything to advance his stated objective of Burmese independence. 

So, if she is not advancing an effective revolution in Burma, then she only has one other option: work with her opponents. 

For the regime there is absolutely no change of heart when it comes to what matters most to them—prolonging the half-century of neo-totalitarian rule of the generals. In the past, the generals used the ethnic minority resistance groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization to marginalize the Bamar mainstream representative, which is what she is, and how she is seen, in the eyes of the ethnic non-Bama populations. 

Now the generals are using Suu Kyi to placate the Bamar majority and marginalize the ethnic non-Bamars.

Ultimately, politics is about power—power to reform politically repressive institutions and economically dysfunctional structures, as well as, and above all, the military which created them.

My foregone conclusion is that there is absolutely no plan among the generals, the outgoing seniors or incoming generation of juniors, to share power with other popular stakeholders of Burma such as Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minority leaders.

Dr Zarni (m.zarni@lse.ac.uk) is Visiting Fellow, Department of International Development, LSE and columnist for the Irrawaddy.


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