Sunday, December 12, 2010

Burma's 2011: A Look Ahead

A benighted nation faces an uncertain future after troubled national elections

The year 2010 is ending and a new year is dawning. Could next year be radically different from 2010 or previous years? The future is unpredictable, but we can predict a few things to come based on the past year and Burma's history.

January: Burma always greets the new year with a celebration of Independence Day on Jan. 4. This year marks the 63rd anniversary, but since1962, when the military staged a coup, the people have suffered decades of oppression under Socialist and military governments.

January is unlikely to be politically dynamic, but the ruling government will be making plans to finish its seven-step road map.

"Now, plans are underway to implement the two remaining steps [to convene a parliament and build 'a modern, developed democratic nation'] to hand over State power to the public," junta head Snr-Gen Than Shwe said in his message to the people on the country's National Day, which fell on Dec. 1, 2010.

February: This could be the last month for the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the governing body of the ruling military regime, if the generals feel secure enough to hand over power to a new government. The 2008 Constitution says that the parliament is to be held within 90 days after the Nov. 7 election. Feb. 5 is the deadline for the country’s first parliament to convene with the newly elected candidates, which will then form a new government with the selection of a president and two vice presidents.

By the time the new government is formed, the SPDC will be terminated. Should the Burmese people feel relieved that they are no longer under military rule? You know who won in the last election: the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the junta’s party. So, the answer is clear.

Will February mark the beginning of confrontations between the ruling junta and the opposition groups? Shortly before the military regime held the last election, several prominent ethnic leaders and politicians proposed to convene a second Panglong conference for national reconciliation. Soon after Suu Kyi was released on Nov. 13, 109 people comprised of veteran politicians and ethnic leaders gave her a mandate to lead an effort to convene the conference. It was reportedly said that the conference could be held on Feb. 12, the 64th anniversary of Union Day, which was the day in 1947 that independence leader Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi, and selected ethnic leaders signed the Panglong agreement to gain independence from Britain.

The conference idea is good, but unrealistic, since it would lead to a head-to-head confrontation between the government and opposition groups. If the idea is actually pursued, the regime would probably launch a brutal crackdown on the opposition and ethnic groups. If that happened, the current number of political prisoners (more than 2,100) would soar, and Suu Kyi would again be detained. Surely, Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders will not risk such a confrontation.

March: Burma is likely to have a new government if everything goes smoothly in convening the parliament (though there is no time frame to form a government after convening the parliament). The new government will inaugurate a new name for the country, "the Republic of the Union of Myanmar," changing the current name "the Union of Myanmar."

Is it really new government? We could get a sign of that on March 13, when Human Rights Day ceremonies will be held, marking the day when Phone Maw, a Rangoon engineering university student, was killed by the then Socialist regime's security forces in 1988. Human Rights Day was created by pro-democracy groups to mark Phone Maw's death and has always been illegal in Burma.

The government will come out in full force on March 27 to celebrate Tatmadaw Day (armed forces day) The new government, though it is "civilian" in name, will celebrate the day in massive ceremonies in Naypyidaw, along with the new crop of military generals who have replaced those promoted to positions in parliament.

April: People will again celebrate the new year in water festival gatherings, while not forgetting the tragic bombings during the Rangoon water festival in 2010, when an estimated 20 people were killed and more than 100 injured. The military government said terrorists were responsible for the blasts. Could bombings happen again in 2011? Of course. The background is grim: tensions have escalated on the border between government troops and ethnic armed groups. All cease-fire groups are under constant pressure to transform into a Border Guard Force controlled by the government. An ethnic Karen armed group attacked outposts of the government's security forces in Myawaddy and Three Pagoda Pass, towns along the Thailand-Burma border. Such attacks, including bombings of civilian targets, will go on as long as the tensions can't be resolved through political means.

May: This month will bring memories of happiness and anger. In 1990, May 27 was the historic election day in which millions of Burmese voters got a chance to choose their elected representatives: the National League for Democracy won in a landslide. But the government was never formed with elected candidates, and now the junta's Union Solidarity and Development Party, is convening a new parliament.

Another bitter event on this month was the deadly attack against Suu Kyi and her supporters who were ambushed by thugs organized by the military government's civil organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the mother organization of USDP. Who can guarantee that a new government led by former senior members of the USDA, won't orchestrate another plot designed to remove her from the political arena.

June: Former student activists who took part in the 1988 uprising will never forget June 16 and 17, when demonstrating students were beaten by riot police and arrested. Many were injured and hundreds were thrown behind bars.

Aung San Suu Kyi will celebrate her 66th birthday on June 19. Here's a beautiful dream: If Suu Kyi had been given a chance to play a key role in a government formed after her party won in the 1990 election, today's Burma might look totally different. Twenty years can make a country politically stable, economically prosperous and developed in areas such as education and technology, all under a democratic government. Imagine no political prisoners in the country's jails. Regionally, Suu Kyi's role as a key leader of a government would create a better relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Her voice on democracy, human rights and other issues would have been heard at Asean summits, which would be very likely to have had a positive impacts on Asean countries. That wasn't the case.

Let's back to 2011. Suu Kyi will at least be able to hold birthday celebrations with her colleagues and friends freely on June 19, provided she's been able to avoid arrest and detention.

July: Burma has never had a historic student union building since it was blown up by late dictator Ne Win's troops on July 7, 1962. Under a new government in 2011, will students have a chance to rebuild a Union building on the campus of Rangoon University and to form and organize a student union? Student unions have always initiated political activities since the country stood up against the British colony. Because of that, all military leaders since Ne Win have banned student unions. The new government will continue the ban and keep a watchful eye on all student activities.

July 19 is Burma's Martyrs' Day, when nine national leaders, including Aung San, were assassinated more than six decades ago. There are actually many more martyrs who have sacrificed their lives or lost beloved family members through their struggles ever since British rule, Ne Win's authoritarian Socialist government and military governments. The struggle has yet to end and so, 2011 is likely to see more new martyrs.

August: The 8.8.88 (the four eights) haunts the generals who ordered troops to shoot down thousands of people on Aug. 8, 1988. Twenty-three years later, there's always the potential for another '88-type uprising. And the spirit of '88 hasn't diminished. Many of the current 2,100 political prisoners are from the 88 uprising generation, including the most prominent former student leader, Min Ko Naing, who is serving 65 years imprisonment. Will those political prisoners be released by August next year? Fifty- fifty. The release of all political prisoners would be a breakthrough moment. But they are "troublemakers" in the new government's eyes. Of course, a number of political prisoners might be released in early months of 2011. However, it's an unimaginable scenario that 2011 could be no-political-prisoner year.

September: Monks will never forget the blood on the roads of Rangoon, Sittwe and Pakokku or how they were beaten and jailed by security forces during their peaceful demonstrations during Sept. 2007. Saffron Revolution. About 250 monks are still serving lengthy jail terms. One leader-monk, Ashin Gambia, is serving a 63-year sentence in Kalay Prison. The war between the sons of Buddha and the people in military uniform has yet to be reconciled.

In the country's history, two days mark important coups: Mar. 2, 1962, and Sept. 18, 1988. The latter was more bloody than the former, when Ne Win staged a coup from a civilian government. In the 1988 coup, troops killed about 3,000 demonstrators across the country and put thousands in jails. It's quite unlikely to see a third coup unless there is another massive uprising like in 1988.

October: Nothing politically significant happened in the country's recent history on this month. But in Oct., 2010, Cyclone Giri struck western Arakan State, killing 45 people (according to UN figures) and affected nearly 200,000 people. Giri and Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in 2008, were the worst natural disasters in the past several decades. There could be more such disasters as the world faces global warming. Burma has a record of ignoring or hindering national and international relief workers and groups from freely traveling and helping disaster victims. A different policy on humanitarian issues is unlikely to come from this new government.

November: The month could mark the one-year anniversary of Suu Kyi's release. The questions would be: has she successfully created a country-wide network, as she declared shortly after her reseal on Nov. 13, 2010. Or, is she serving a new sentence under house arrest? Is she expanding a cultural-political network using social media such as Twitter and Facebook? Burma has an estimated 400,000 Internet users and around one million mobile phones. Internet users and those who have mobile phones could become a force in helping disseminate information inside and outside the country. Even though the government tends to restrict Internet users and media, such a force could create a more aware, involved group of activists, cyber dissidents and citizen journalists.

December: Will Burma have experienced any real progress in creating democratic "value change" or "radical change," words Suu Kyi used after her release? We know that 2011 will start off with a sense of change in the air. But, if little actually changes, we'll look back on what happened in 2011, and we'll hope for positive changes in 2012.

By Kyaw Zwa Moe managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine

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