“The regime always plays a zero sum game.”
Two Members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party on Recent Events in Burma
In this conversation, two followers of the National League for Democracy (NLD) discuss the implications of the 2010 elections, the release of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and how the international community has responded to the junta’s refusal to make meaningful democratic reforms. Moe Chan is the executive director of Burma Point in Woodside, NY, and Nyunt Than is the president of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance in Albany, CA. They spoke with Sampsonia Way through Skype in December, and the dialogue was completed via e-mail in subsequent weeks.
What did you think of the November elections?
Moe Chan: Since 2009, many of us who support the opposition party have been voicing our concern that recognizing the 2010 elections would jeopardize the democratic reforms we have been pursuing for the past 20 years. From the beginning, we began condemning these elections and urging the international community not to recognize or legitimize them.
Nyunt Than: From our perspective, the true election occurred in 1990 when Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy won by a landslide. The regime has refused to hand over power and has tried to override the legitimacy of the people’s mandate by conducting this sham election. The 2008 constitution, on which the 2010 election was based, is unacceptable. It states that the chief of army can appoint 25% of the seats in parliment. It also grants many contingencies under which the chief of army can take power by will. He is pre-pardoned from being prosecuted based on those actions. These elections were designed to legitimize military rule and protect the handful of military leaders, their families, and their interests.
The National Democratic Force (NDF) was created by former members of the National League of Democracy who wanted to participate in the elections. What do you think of the NDF’s ’s choice to break from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party?
Nyunt Than: I don’t think a difference of opinion is necessarily a bad thing, but we have been under this regime for more than 20 years, and it is very easy to see that there is no way we could have participated in this election. Just a few weeks ago, Nay Win Maung, leader of the NGO Myanmar Egress and a proponent of the elections prior to November 7, wrote in the Burmese-language magazine The Voice, “We climbed a slippery pole, knowing it was slippery. I thought just by climbing it the first time, we would go rather far.” He apologized to his readers for giving them false hope about these elections.
Moe Chan: To have participated in the 2010 elections was something for us to be very concerned about. It made us aware that we still have a lot to do among ourselves to find unity.
Why did the junta government orchestrate this election?
Nyunt Than: The regime not only wants power, but they also want to be seen as the founders of a modern democracy. As a matter of human nature, Than Shwe [the central figure in Burma’s ruling military junta] seeks acceptance from the international community.
Moe Chan: The military regime is trying to show the world they have created democratic spaces for us. In reality, they are tightening those spaces so we cannot move around.
The junta’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has moved to engage with three ethnic parties that won seats in the election: the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, and the All Mon Region Democracy Party. How does the USDP’s engagement with ethnic groups compare to Aung San Suu Kyi’s?
Nyunt Than: It looks good on paper, but in reality I am not sure what it means. The USDP was looking to elect a Vice President from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, but the Vice President and the President are instructed by the constitution to hand over power to the military in times of emergency. Also the parliament remains in the hands of the USDP. We are not hopeful that the opposition will have any say in this government.
Moe Chan: Aung San Suu Kyi has been very clear on the ethnic issue. She considers herself an ethnic among many in Burma. She has been trying to work with all ethnic groups, but the junta is afraid to allow her to meet with many of the ethnic leaders in Burma. Without resolving the ethnic issue, Burma will never be peaceful.
What does Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest mean for Burma’s future?
Nyunt Than: We are very joyous and thankful for her release. At the same time, we are not hopeful that much progress will be made in the near future, especially given the fact that she has been released before and was arrested again soon afterward.
Moe Chan: Today, we are very much concerned about her safety and her well-being. If something were to happen to her, how would the international community react? Instead of reacting, why not be proactive? That’s why I would like to call on the international community to help us, to provide support so we can protect our leader and our people. Without having necessary protection or support, she won’t be able to continue leading for long.
What has been the response of countries like China and the United States to the recent elections?
Nyunt Than: China has been supporting the military regime diplomatically, militaristically, and economically. Militaristically, China has been selling billions and billions of dollars worth of military equipment to the Burmese government. Diplomatically, China won’t vote for any resolution in the U.N. Security Council to hold the Burmese military officials accountable for their actions. Economically, China, as a major trading partner of Burma, has watered down the United States’ sanctions. It’s not that the sanctions don’t work. It’s just that they are not targeted sanctions like travel bans or commodity embargoes.
All of this is in China’s strategic best interest. China is using Burma to expand its oil interests into the Indian Ocean and protect its oil transport route. It is mining energy and natural resources from the country. In many ways, China is influencing, eclipsing, and courting the military regime, and it’s making other Asian countries who would like to use the natural resources in Burma nervous. Many Asian countries have taken a stance of not criticizing the regime.
Moe Chan: The United States is the top supporter of Burmese democracy, followed by European nations and Western countries, including Australia. With their support we are able to continuously confront the military regime and demand democracy, human rights, and justice in Burma. That being said, the support we’ve been receiving is not enough. It’s very limited.
Before the 2010 elections, European nations supported people who wanted to participate in the 2010 elections. At the same time, they were very reluctant to support those opposing the 2010 elections. That’s something many of us could not understand and could not agree with.
What kind of political and economic support would you like to see from the international community?
Moe Chan: The international community could look for ways to enforce targeted sanctions and to encourage an arms embargo at the United Nations. Countries could continue to lobby their friends and allies not to recognize the elections. They can lobby at the United Nations to not recognize the legitimacy of the military regime.
Nyunt Than: If you take away the support of China away, the Burmese regime will weaken drastically. We need to change the minds of the Chinese leaders. We need to make them see that a democratic government is more in their interest than a military regime that the world does not support.
Moe Chan: New Zealand just changed the way they recognize the country from Myanmar to Burma. That’s a good thing. That kind of moral and political support goes a long way. If a country like New Zealand can lead the effort to get the United Nations to change the name Myanmar to Burma that would be a great victory for us.
How has the junta government responded to international pressure?
Nyunt Than: If you look at the progress in the field of political conflict in the last 20 years, you wouldn’t find much. The response from the regime is far from what we wanted and what we were hoping for. It comes back to the same point: Because of the unwavering support of neighboring countries including China, the regime is never short of cash, and they do not have to answer to anyone. They can survive. They are sustainable. They will respond with minimal concessions and only if they have to, as they did in this sham election.
What do you think of Aung San Suu Kyi’s policy of reconciliation and gradual change?
Nyunt Than: Burma has a very complex situation with many players and stakeholders. The regime always plays a zero sum game; they will grab everything and leave the opposition with nothing. Aung San Suu Kyi has to accept reality and deal with all the stakeholders, including the regime holding the handle of the weapon. I think it is realistic and inevitable to deal with all stakeholders and institutions in the country.
Moe Chan: Aung San Suu Kyi’s position is that she has to come between the democratic forces and the military regime and encourage them to compromise. She has to lead the effort to ensure that the regime comes to the table. We have a different role as members of the international community. We need to weigh-in on her efforts and level-off the power of the military regime. Until we have enough strength to overwhelm the military regime, I don’t believe they will come to the table of dialogue. In order to have national unity and reconciliation, we have to work together to find long-lasting unity for all of us.