Unsung Heroes in Our Midst

Over the past month, Burma's military regime has arrested and put on trial dozens of regime officials, civilian and military, for allegedly leaking top secrets to the opposition and media. The alleged secrets included information about weapons projects and photographs of underground tunnels.

Those arrested and tried included Col Kyaw Kyaw Win, director general of the office of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and ex-Maj Win Naing Kyaw, former personal staff officer to SPDC Secretary-2, the late Lt-Gen Tin Oo.

Some of them face execution for treason. Others are likely to be sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.

So why are opposition groups and global human rights campaigners failing to speak out on the fate of these courageous military officers and their fellow insider-dissidents?

Most Burma watchers, advocates and mainstream dissidents appear to remain fixated on “pie-in-the-sky” issues such as the chances of a dialogue between iconic dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and junta supremo Than Shwe, economic sanctions or reciting the mantra of a “free, fair and inclusive” general election.

The typical lack of any sustained attention to the below-the-radar dynamic within the military's power structure is perhaps the cardinal sin on the part of the mainstream Burmese opposition and its Western supporters. This is not the first time that the arrest and persecution of potentially mutinous regime insiders has caught the opposition (and its worldwide web of human rights supporters, including western governments) utterly off-guard.

As the unfolding story of these subversive insiders attests, there are, and will always be, those who would want to push for change in their own ways. Evidently, chronic purges and severe punishment of any potential mutineers within the system over the past half-century have not killed off the desire for change on the part of some members of the army's rank and file, just as long years of imprisonment and exile have not dampened the determination and will of many dissidents.

Still, “rational” Burma experts and civil society stakeholders have shown insufficient appreciation of the empirically verifiable maxim: that all politically repressive and economically depressed systems of governance engender resistance and revolt from within.

Only five years ago, Than Shwe's regime purged the entire intelligence apparatus headed by Gen Khin Nyunt, ostensibly on grounds of corruption but really to preempt a potential mutiny by the clique that wished to work with Suu Kyi and other dissidents and re-engage with the outside world.

Now the same regime is putting on trial another group of officials and ex-officials, this time for treason. The defendants are reportedly charged with leaking State secrets, including the regime's multi-billion-dollar “weaponization” projects on 22 different sites across Burma and North Korean-designed underground tunnels.

The regime views the leakage as a highly treasonous attempt to “nuclearize” the Burma issue in order to convince Western powers to take regime change seriously and draw the UN Security Council's attention to Burma again.

Once again, the opposition and its human rights supporters globally are looking on idly, showing no signs of solidarity with or empathy for these accused officials and their families.

To our own peril, we as civilian-dissidents have long under-valued or simply ignored the recurring pattern of resistance, revolt and mutiny, however small the scale, on the part of those who eventually come to share our goal of undermining, frustrating and removing our common oppressors.

The issues of democratization, reconciliation, and ethnic power-sharing, as well as historical memories, may not be black and white. But in terms of power abuse, usurpation and political repression there is no shade of gray. There are parties who are categorically in the wrong. And they need to be removed, electorally or by any means necessary.

No one understands and appreciates this more than successive waves of regime insiders, whom I would call “soldier-dissidents” whose life-risking actions are no less heroic and deserving of recognition and support than any card-carrying dissident, from Suu Kyi and Win Tin down to the other lesser known non-violence proponents.

Whatever their past wrongs against the NLD leader and her party, it was Gen Khin Nyunt and his deputies in the military intelligence who actually saved Suu Kyi's life when she and her supporters came under attack from the Than Shwe-orchestrated mob who meant to kill her and her senior colleague ex-Gen Tin Oo in 2003.

Since the 1988 uprisings, the Burmese opposition, both inside the country and in exile, has categorically failed to develop any political and strategic platform to identify, recognize, support and cultivate ties with potentially enlightened soldiers. In terms of lost opportunity, crying victim in the West and reciting the mantra of non-violence, dialogue and reconciliation are proving to be costlier than building solidarity with our own brothers in green uniform at home.

Empirically speaking, these “few good men” chronically emerge from within the cracks of the power structures, but only to be crushed, in large part because of a lack of sustained, tangible material support, civil-military solidarity and international endorsement to remove irredeemable leaderships.

Two major obstacles exist in the way of embracing and supporting soldier-dissidents as agents of change.

One is the inherent Western liberal bias against cultivating contacts with the military and, conversely, in favor of western educated dissidents who utter well-worn liberal buzz words such as “civil society,” “human rights,” “democracy,” “capacity building,” “non-violence” and so on.

Speaking from my own experience, any civilian dissident trying to reach out to the other camp is widely ostracized by the very same liberals and human rights campaigners who endorse dialogue and reconciliation with the military.

Stereotypically, their average dissident is someone for whom there is a revolving door between home and prison, who defies the junta on the street with great courage and dignity. The greater the personal sacrifice, the greater their moral capital.

Obviously reformist Burmese soldiers, from Capt Ohn Kyaw Myint, the1976 coup leader who was hanged in Insein Prison, ex-General Tin Oo and the late Colonel Kyi Maung of the NLD party, to Captain Khin Maung Nyunt (Defense Services Academy/DSA In-take 1), Captain Thant Zin Myaing (DSA 11), Lt-Colonel Aye Myint (Officers Training School Batch-25), Major Aung Lin Htut (DSA-20), and Captain Sai Win Kyaw, all in exile, would not feign liberalism or calculatingly talk the liberal talk in order to please Western ears or draw support from the media, liberal governments,
international non-governmental organizations or grassroots networks. But they did understand what it would take to do the job of installing a more enlightened system of governance.

Without recognizing, encouraging and supporting the heroic side of our soldiers and their sense of duty to the country, no amount of democracy chants, human rights mantra, development aid and humanitarian assistance will effectively address Burma's fundamental problem—namely, radically reforming and rebuilding the militarized, rentier State.

I for one find it pathetically unprincipled that human rights campaigners have been thunderously silent over the plight of hundreds of jailed military officers from Gen Khin Nyunt's reform-minded camp.

No Burma policy discussion internationally is seen to have touched on the plight of these soldiers who are serving lengthy prison sentences ranging from 45 years to 150 years.

In fact, their trials were even more Kafkaesque than the partially televised trial of Suu Kyi. The regime didn't even bother to give the world the impression of due-process and judicial fairness when it was jailing its own officers left and right.

One of them, Foreign Minister Win Aung, a former major, died in Insein prison only recently. Not one card-carrying human rights defender, Burmese or western, has called attention to these systemic injustices, simply because these men are not their average dissident. So much for the liberal principles of justice, fairness and fundamental human rights!

The other obstacle is a lack of a full understanding and appreciation of the crucial role pro-change members of the security apparatuses play in shifting the balance of power in successful “people's power” movements—from the Philippines to Indonesia, from Pakistan to Thailand.

But no Burma pro-democracy organization or forum—be it the armed resistance organizations, so-called governments-in exile or political prisoners campaign group—has ever genuinely welcomed security and military veterans into their networks, let alone seek the latter's strategic input or share resources, limelight and contacts with these soldier-dissidents.

There is much support for the victims of Burma's militarized state—fleeing refugees and persecuted civilian dissidents, for instance—in the form of moral backing, sympathetic media templates, sustained funding and organizational aid. But there are absolutely no platforms, resources, funding, recognition, moral or ideological support for the soldiers who have risked their lives or positions of influence to undermine the top leadership.

The first step towards mending this structural, strategic and ideological flaw is for both the Burmese public at large and civilian dissidents in particular to start recognizing the value of soldier-dissidents in our midst. In the final analysis, it is their strategic push for change from within the very power structures of Burma's repressive state that is the single most crucial component of any strategy for genuine transition. No amount of humanitarian assistance, developmental advice, capacity building or policy dialogue will substitute or do their job.

In our midst, there have been many unrecognized martyrs and unsung heroes who need to be recognized posthumously or contemporaneously. It is both a strategic necessity and a morally right thing to do. It's overdue—but certainly better late than never.

Dr Zarni is a columnist for The Irrawaddy and Research Fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

8 Dec 2009, Irrawaddy

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