NLD Must Own Up to its Policy Mistakes

Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has been sending conflicting messages about western sanctions.

Much is admirable about the NLD’s endurance in the uphill struggle to force the Burmese military to enter into dialogue with it as a political equal. However, the NLD leadership needs to come clean on the impact of sanctions on the country, and own up to the policy mess it has helped create over the past two decades.

In a February 24 article, Mizzima quoted NLD spokesman Nyan Win as saying: “We have nothing to withdraw, as the economic sanctions were not imposed by us but are only concerned with the country that imposed the sanctions. And we have not done anything that the junta accused us of doing.”

As a lead organizer who helped build the US sanctions and boycott campaign, I personally know for a fact that the top NLD leadership, most specifically Aung San Suu Kyi herself, was closely involved in the sanctions campaign after her release from her first period of house arrest in July 1995.

Our campaign “pigeons” based outside Burma slipped into Rangoon to deliver her our campaign slogans and policy advice. The NLD leader then personally modified and/or blessed these quotes and messages, which we subsequently disseminated worldwide in support of the sanctions, boycotts and media campaigns. She had moral authority and international appeal. We had campaigners’ zeal and strategic capacities.

In fact, as far back as June 4, 1989, the Bangkok Post reported on her public call for an international trade and economic boycott. Since then, she has not publicly shifted her position, despite the fact that domestic, regional and international realities are no longer conducive to the use of sanctions.

Originally our “targeted sanctions” campaign was aimed at hurting the generals through their pockets. Strategically, we had hoped to compel the regime to enter into dialogue with her, marrying her non-violent campaign inside the country with international clamor for change in Burma through western sanctions, diplomatic isolation, media campaigns and other punitive measures at the United Nations. These efforts were to be supplemented by the armed resistance along the Burmese-Thai borders.

To any dispassionate analyst, this “inside-outside” strategy has clearly failed.

The Free Burma Coalition, which spearheaded the western consumer and tourism boycotts, sanctions lobby and media campaigns, was in part responsible for the blocking of the junta’s initial (limited) economic openings in the 1990s, and in consequence any political dividends which may have come from such openings.

Worse still, our well-meaning activism in the West drove, however indirectly, thousands of female workers from the country’s textile industry into economically vulnerable positions, including prostitution and cross-border migrant work.

In the 20 years since we hatched this campaign in the US—12,000 miles away from our country and her realities—the generals have only grown richer, further entrenched and more confident, thanks largely to the country’s strategic natural resources such as gas and oil, the global extractive industry, and the support and cooperation they receive from the rising Asian powers, such as China and India.

The NLD, the flagship opposition party, no longer inspires the same degree of confidence among the dissidents, neither does it continue to capture the hearts and minds of the bulk of the Burmese citizens. Western governments, the NLD’s greatest supporters, appear to be losing faith in the party’s strategic leadership.

During her Asian tour last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US was reviewing its Burma sanctions policy and hinted at a possible policy shift.

In Washington, a cross-party consensus on sanctions is emerging, to the effect that they are not serving US interests. Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who chaired the Senate Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee, has acknowledged the futility of 47 years of economic isolation against Cuba.

We know the successive military governments must be held responsible for the negative consequences of their policy and leadership failures since 1962, by virtue of the fact that they make policy and political decisions unilaterally and undemocratically.

Principles of accountability and transparency should apply to tyrants and democrats alike. I call on the NLD leadership to reflect honestly on the failures of their policies and their impact on society at large, in order for the whole of the opposition movement, which takes cues from Suu Kyi, to move on spiritually and strategically.

The critics of the “constructive engagement” approach have pointed out that engagement with the regime has not worked either.

They are right—“constructive engagement” only concerns the generals, rather than civil society.

It is the NGOs, professional associations, chambers of commerce, educational institutions, global citizens, the media, and civil society groups that are best positioned to help open up Burma—in all aspects.

Proactive citizen participation in political and economic processes is the foundation for an open and tolerant society, without which no democracy can function. The development of an indigenous business and commercial sector must be seen as part of the change process.

We need to work to develop an open, tolerant society out of the existing conservative and militaristic society. An open society cannot be built at the policy gunpoint of sanctions, any more than instant national reconciliation and dialogue can be imposed by UN resolutions.

I am far less optimistic about high level engagement with the regime than engagement at the level of organizations, institutions and associations in technical fields, media, culture and art, higher and basic education, public health, agriculture, sports, travel, research, commerce, etc.

If the ultimate goal of democratization is the emergence of an open society which can sustain democratic processes, new policies need to be created to help open up Burmese society and institutions—including the military, exposing them all to the ways of the democratic world.

The NLD leadership can inject life into its politics by choosing to publicly acknowledge the need to adjust its own tried and failed policies and strategies.

Parties, governments and leaders all over the world make mistakes. There is no shame in acknowledging them. Even Burma’s national hero Aung San recognized his mistake in collaborating with Japanese Fascists to fight the British imperialists and he reversed his stance.

The NLD would do well to draw inspiration from his legacy, to save themselves from going down in history as principled but failed leaders whose policies have further impoverished and isolated the society that has been reeling from decades of widespread poverty and societal isolation.

The NLD leadership should place people’s well-being above the party’s principles or leaders’ “face” by practicing the policy accountability and transparency that they preach.

Even if one disagrees with the “middle class first, democracy second” view of many Asian leaders, one must not overlook the fact that democracy is not just a political process, but also an economic and cultural one, requiring change in all spheres.

We need to debate and formulate solutions for Burma in the genuine spirit of democracy, instead of stigmatizing anti-sanctions analysts and demonizing the soldiers. It is not enough to call for dialogue between the two supreme leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

After all, democracy is not about the leaders, however brave, noble and admirable. It is about the people, their daily lives, needs and concerns.

Zarni is founder of the Free Burma Coalition and Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University (2006-09).

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