Roadmaps and Political Transition in Burma:

the Need for Two-Way Traffic


by Ashley South




There is an urgent need for political change in Burma - but what kind, and how?


Transition in Burma may come abruptly - perhaps as a result of a 1988-style peoples’ uprising - or more gradually, and with less bloodshed. The latter scenario may involve a power-sharing arrangement between the SPDC and the opposition, or a gradual process of ‘regime reform’, with little direct in-put from the wider society or opposition forces.


Although opposition tactics will vary according to the circumstances, a number of strategic considerations remain the same. However and whenever change occurs, members of Burma’s diverse social groups must be ready to act.


In general, opposition strategies have focused on elite-level politics, rather than grass-roots democratisation. However, both approaches are necessary - while neither is sufficient in itself. Change at the national level is urgently needed, but sustained democratic transition can only be achieved if accompanied by local participation and ‘development from below’.


Among the three parties to any tripartite negotiations in Burma, the ethnic nationalities in particular could benefit from a combination of elite-level, blueprint-type solutions and a grass-roots, participatory approach, aimed at strengthening civil society. Although overseas-based activists and Burma-watchers have sometimes assumed that there is no civil society in the country, this far from true. The re-emergence of local networks within and between ethnic nationality communities over the past decade has been one of the most significant - but under-reported - aspects of the social and political situation in Burma. Efforts to build local democracy are already underway - in government-controlled areas, in some ethnic nationality-populated ceasefire and war zones, and in neighbouring countries. However, these 'bottom-up' initiatives will not bring about substantial change, without accompanying 'top-down', national-level reforms.


Competing Vehicles, and a Major Road Block

Since 1990, the military government has resisted all options but a managed (by the military) transition to some type of ‘disciplined’ or ‘guided’ (by the military) democracy. The recently-appointed prime minister (ex-SPDC Secretary One), General Khin Nyunt, announced in late August that the government will restart the National Convention, to draw up a new constitution. This will not convince the opposition - or most western nations - that the regime is committed to political transition in Burma. Nevertheless, Khin Nyunt’s statement may be an important move in a complex political ‘game’, perhaps indicating that the military is positioning itself to participate in some kind of transitional process, the success and legitimacy of which will depend on who participates in constitution-drafting, and under what conditions. If the NLD and ethnic nationality parties are included in the process, this may yet prove to be a watershed in Burmese history. The stakes are high, and some analysts suggest that Khin Nyunt (the ‘good cop’) is merely being set up to fail - while protecting Senior General Than Shwe (the ‘bad cop’) from the need to reform.


While the NLD and most Burmese democracy groups have consistently demanded recognition of the 1990 election results, they have come to accept the necessity for compromise and dialogue with the SPDC. However, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to mobilise her supporters came to a bloody end on 30th May this year, international efforts to foster bi-partite dialogue between the SPDC and NLD also came to an abrupt halt.


There is however a third set of political actors in Burma, which have been largely side-lined within the UN-brokered ‘peace process’. The 1994 and all subsequent UN General Assembly resolutions on Burma have called for a tri-partite solution to the country’s problems, involving the government, NLD (and other parties elected in 1990), and the ethnic nationalities.


Many  ethnic nationality cadres are wary of the NLD leadership, which is largely composed of ex-Tatmadaw officers, who share a common political culture and conceptions of state-society relations based on a strong, centralised state. However, most ethnic nationality leaders have trusted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to demand their inclusion in any negotiations which may come out of talks in Rangoon.


This was a risky strategy: if an agreement had been reached between the SPDC and NLD, the international community would have responded enthusiastically, and the process gained considerable momentum, before any ethnic nationality representatives were brought into the picture. In this case, the ethnic nationalities risked further marginalisation, their leaders faced with two options: either be co-opted into endorsing an agreement which they had little part in negotiating, or insist on a nation-wide ceasefire, followed by a possibly lengthy intra-nationalities consultation process, and then a pan-Burmese Panglong-type tri-partite constitutional convention. Such demands, in the context of pre-exiting deal between the NLD and SPDC, might have exposed the ethnic nationalities to accusations of obstructing national reconciliation. Either scenario would suit the 'divide and rule' strategy of elements in Burman political society.


However, the brutal events of 30th May have provided an opportunity to re-present the importance of ‘the ethnic question’, and the role that ethnic nationality politicians might play in breaking the current political deadlock. This historic opportunity is also fraught with danger.


The key challenge facing Burma’s ethnic nationality leaders is how to co-ordinate their positions. In doing so they risk being exposed as divided over key issues, and once again consigned to a marginal role as crucial decisions over the future of the country are made by the urban political elite.


The ethnic nationalist community is composed of three elements. Most of the sixty-five ‘ethnic’ candidates elected in 1990 are represented by the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA, previously the United Nationalities League for Democracy), which has always worked closely with the NLD. Then there are the fourteen armed ethnic groups which have agreed ceasefires with Rangoon since 1989 (plus ten-or-so other ex-insurgent groups with local agreements with the Tatmadaw). The third sector of the ethnic nationalist community is composed of those insurgent groups still at war with the military government, which are members of or allied with the National Democratic Front (NDF).


There is a fairly high degree of cohesion between the positions of the main UNA parties and the NDF. More problematic are the positions of various ceasefire groups. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), New Mon State Party (NMSP) and other NDF allies have participated in the Ethnic Nationalities Solidarity and Coordination Committee (ENSCC; established in 2001), to agree common positions among the ethnic nationality groups, in preparation for tri-partite negotiations. The NMSP in particular plays an important role here, with a foot in all three camps of the ethnic nationality community: it is the closest of the ceasefire groups to the rump NDF, and also enjoys good relations with the UNA leadership. However, the positions of a number of ex-Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and other ceasefire groups in northern Burma are far from clear. The Wa, Kokang, PaO and others may feel that there is more to be gained by following the SPDC line, and staying clear of politics, in order to concentrate on local community and economic development programs (including in some cases the drugs trade).


Since 1989, the military government has repeatedly stated that it will negotiate only with individual armed groups, refusing to recognise joint fronts, such as the NDF or DAB. These ‘divide and rule’ tactics have served successive regimes in Rangoon well, and some observers expect the SPDC to offer further concessions to some ceasefire groups, in exchange for their continued support (or at least, quiescence) in efforts to complete the National Constitutional Convention. Alternatively, the military may attempt to divert attention from the current political crisis, by turning against groups involved in the drugs business, in order to mobilise domestic support, and perhaps gain some credit with the Thai and American governments.


Ethnic nationality parties must also assess the risk of alienating the urban- and exile-based Burmese democracy movement. By launching an ‘ethnic initiative’ at a time when the NLD is weak, ethnic nationality politicians may be accused of undermining Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and abandoning Burmese democracy groups in exile.


A New Roadmap

In response to recent events, and especially Khin Nyunt’s revival of the National Convention, on September 5th the ENSCC announced its own  'Roadmap for Rebuilding the Union of Burma’. The ENSCC first called for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi.


According to the ENSCC plan, a tri-partite body (the ‘Congress for National Unity’) should be established, and charged within two years with drafting a new constitution (or ‘National Accord’). The ENSCC ‘road map’ requires the Congress to ask the international community for humanitarian assistance and - once the Accord is finalised - for the formation of an interim ‘Government of National Unity’.


In the second stage, the Government of National Unity would call for sanctions to be lifted and for further international development assistance. A referendum would then be held on the new constitution, followed by general elections. This process would obviously need to preceded - or at least accompanied - by a relaxation of restrictions on civil and political rights, and a probably nationwide ceasefire.


Could elements of this platform be incorporated into the regime’s National Convention? Could the SPDC be persuaded to establish an interim administration (or Government of National Unity) - or at least a Panglong-like Congress for National Unity, to be tasked with drafting a new constitution? One obvious sticking point is the representation of different parties in any such bodies: what proportion should come from the SPDC/Tatmadaw, the NLD/ 1990 parties (including the UNA) and the armed ethnic groups? Furthermore, could the opposition accept the ENSCC’s proposal that the SPDC continues as the government for the first two years of the road map - presumably with Khin Nyunt as interim premier?


Another sticking point is the issue of federalism. Although the ‘f-word’ is anathema to the generals in Rangoon, most ethnic nationality parties in Burma are committed in principle to a federal solution to Burma’s protracted constitutional crisis. However, there are different ‘federalising’ and ‘federating’ processes, various kinds of relation between the states and the federal union, and different types of federal structure - e.g. symmetrical and asymmetrical (different states and sub-states enjoying different levels of autonomy or divisions of power), or ‘corporate federalism’ (in which citizens enjoy certain group rights, wherever they happen to live). In recent years, ethnic nationality leaders and Burmese democracy groups in exile have begun to discuss such arrangements in detail, paying special attention the situation of minorities within ethnically-defined states (e.g. the Wa and others within Shan State). Another key issues is who should represent which ethnic groups at what stage in negotiations, and with what degree of legitimacy (e.g. who should represent the non-Christian, non-S’ghaw Karen?). Such discussions need to move beyond sometimes simplistic statements of principle, to grapple with concrete issues. Other important questions include how to address Burma’s complex social, economic and humanitarian problems, and what to do about past human rights abuses, particularly those committed by the military (amnesty, or a truth - and reconciliation? – commission).


The Limits of a One-way (Top-Down) Route

This leaves unanswered the question of how to bring about serious negotiations between the government and opposition in the first place. Most likely, a combination of domestic and international pressure - and the provision of some kind of ‘exit strategy’ for the generals - is necessary, to persuade the military to engage in genuine dialogue. The fact that the opposition (and the ethnic nationalities in particular) have very limited leverage vis-à-vis the government explains the conciliatory nature of the ‘ethnic initiative’, which accepts that Burma will remain under military rule for the first two years of the transition process.


However, the regime may well refuse to address explicitly political issues, such as (federal) constitutions and power-sharing, or even sensitive areas like human and group rights. In this case, it may be worth considering whether social welfare and humanitarian issues could be used to facilitate processes of dialogue - and eventually social and political transition. In addressing subjects like education, HIV/AIDS or displacement (refugees and Internally Displaced Persons) in the first stage of any 'confidence-building' process, stake-holders might be brought into needs analysis, planning, implementation and monitoring-evaluation activities, which could be used to foster models of collaboration. Cooperation in the humanitarian sector might later be expanded, and developed into broader, more explicitly political discussion of state-society and centre-periphery relations. A focus on IDPs in particular, would help to ensure ethnic nationality participation in the process, as most displaced people are from these communities.


This approach to negotiation on the basis of concrete issues would require consultation with and participation from affected communities, local and international NGOs, and UN agencies. This is one example of how elite-level 'blue-print'-style politics might be complemented by more participatory approaches, empowering a wider range of actors, including civil society groups. Given the government’s lack of incentive to engage in dialogue, such ‘bottom-up’ approaches may be considered valuable in their own right, and constitute an alternative vehicle for gradual democratisation.


Other Road Users: Local Democracy and Civil Society

Overseas-based activists and Burma-watchers have sometimes assumed that there is no civil society in Burma. This is far from true.


The term 'civil society' denotes associations and networks which are intermediate between the state and the family. These include a broad range of community-based social welfare organisations, as well as religious and cultural groups (traditional and modern), and more overtly political organisations. However, political parties seeking to assume state power (such as the NLD, and NDF or UNA members) are not part of civil society - although they may promote or inhibit its development.


Functioning civil society networks are essential for sustained, ‘bottom-up’ social and political transition in Burma, and for conflict resolution at both the national and local levels. It is essential that the country's diverse social and ethnic communities enjoy a sense of ownership in any transitional process, and equip themselves to fill the power vacuum that may emerge, either as a result of abrupt shifts in national politics, or of a more gradual withdrawal of the military from state and local power. The ability of people to re-assume control over aspects of their lives, which since the 1960s have been abrogated by the military (including insurgent armies), will depend on such grass-roots mobilisation.


Popular participation and civil society networks are necessary, whether change in Burma comes suddenly, or is more incremental. Indeed, the failure of the 1988 'Democracy Uprising' in Burma - like that of the 1989 'Democracy Spring' in China - can in part be attributed to the suppression of civil society. A lack of democratic culture prevented powerful gestures from initiating sustained political change. Unlike those in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the Philippines in 1986 and Thailand in 1992, the Burmese and Chinese democracy activists had little social space within which to operate, or to build upon the people's evident desire for fundamental change. In particular, Burma and China had no counterpart to the Catholic Church or trades unions, which played important roles in the Polish and Filipino democracy movements. The Ne Win regime had succeeded in denying social groups a foothold in mainstream politics or the economy, except under strict state control. Potential opposition was thereby marginalised, and could emerge only in times of crisis and upheaval, presenting the military with a pretext to clamp-down on 'anarchy' and 'chaos' (thus the State Law and Order Restoration Council).


Tatmadaw ideologues have long viewed their task as one of ‘national salvation’: the defence of a centralised, unitary state, which emerged from the struggle for independence. The military has sought to impose a model of state-society relations, in which the (ethnic minority) periphery was dominated by a strong (Burman-orientated) centre. As pluralism was suppressed, it was replaced with a state-sponsored nationalism. The process of ‘Burmanisation’ saw diverse (and according to the military, divisive) indigenous cultures, histories and aspirations subsumed under a ‘national’ identity, derived from the Burman historical tradition.


As the state extended its control over previously autonomous aspects of social life, many civil society networks could no longer operate independently. Meanwhile, opposition to the regime was either eliminated, driven underground, or forced into open revolt. After the military coup of 1962, the existence of renewed armed opposition to the military government provided a pretext for the further extension of state control, and suppression of diverse social groups.


Under the 1974 constitution, all political activity beyond the strict control of the state was outlawed. Particularly hard hit were trades unions and most professional associations (e.g. journalists’ groups). Nevertheless, elements of civil society survived and - among ethnic nationality communities in particular - have in recent years begun to re-emerge.


Civil Society Actors

Civil society capacities among ethnic nationality communities in Burma will be examined in relation to the remaining armed opposition groups, and in ceasefire zones and areas under government control. In practice however, local networks often extend across the ‘ceasefire front line’.


Zones of On-going Armed Conflict

The political culture of the 'liberated zones' has often reflected the extractive nature of many insurgent groups' relations to natural resources and the peasantry (their ethnic brethren, in whose name the war was being fought). Although, since 1988, most opposition groups have claimed to be fighting for democracy in Burma, this ideal is not always reflected in their practices. In fact, many aspects of life in the 'liberated zones' have been characterised by a top-down tributary system, similar to that in government-controlled areas, aspects of which recalled pre-colonial forms of socio-political organisation. Insurgent leaders have tended to discourage the expression of diverse opinions, and initiatives beyond the direct control of militarised hierarchies have often been suppressed, causing many talented cadres to leave the armed struggle. Meanwhile, for most armed ethnic groups, insurgency became a way of life - rather than a means to an end.


Since the 1980s (if not earlier), ethnic insurgent groups in Burma have declined in military and political significance. Ironically however, the decline of the old insurgent paradigm has opened the space for the emergence of new and more participatory forms of social and political organisation among ethnic nationality communities in the border areas. In the 1990s a number of local NGOs were organised along the China and India borders, and particularly in Thailand and overseas. Chin, Kachin, Shan, Lahu, Karenni, Karen, Tavoyan, Mon and all-Burma student and youth, women's, environmental and human rights groups began to occupy the political space created by the declining influence of mainstream armed ethnic groups. Similar trends are apparent among the Karen, Karenni and Mon refugee committees, established by dominant factions within the insurgent hierarchies in the 1980s and early '90s. As the insurgents lost ground throughout the 1990s, the number of refugees in Thailand grew annually, and assumed a new importance as civilian support base, source of recruits and safe haven for the armed groups. However, as the refugee situation along Thailand border was gradually internationalised, with the presence of more INGOs - and since 1998, UNHCR - the refugee committees have been obliged to become more responsive to (if not more representative of) their clients - the refugees.


These new models of political organisation constituted one of the most dynamic aspects in an otherwise rather bleak political scene. As a result of their activities, all those engaged in the struggle for ethnic rights and self-determination in Burma have been obliged to acknowledge the importance of women's rights, community-level participation and democratic practices - not just as distant goals, but as on-going processes.


Ceasefire and Government-Controlled Zones

Although the state inhibits the growth of civil society, the past decade has nevertheless seen a tentative re-emergence of local networks among and between communities 'inside' Burma - beyond the zones of on-going armed conflict. This is a complex phenomenon, owing much to the political space created by the ceasefire process.


Despite the existence of ceasefires, the Wa and Kokang areas of Shan State are characterised by an underdeveloped civil society sector, as is much of Rakhine State. Meanwhile, across war-torn southern Shan State, and in large tracts of Karenni and Karen States and in Tenasserim Division, local societies and economies continue to be undermined by armed conflict. Nevertheless, in Chin, Kachin and parts of Shan, Mon and Karen States local groups are able to provide limited humanitarian and community development assistance from the ‘inside’, in ways which strengthen human capital and build local capacities.


Although villagers in many ceasefire and adjacent areas continue to be subject to a range of human rights abuses, the ceasefire process has generally resulted in a slight improvement in conditions on the ground, while increasing opportunities for travel and trade. The ceasefire groups have retained their arms, and some still control sometimes extensive blocks territory. However, the ceasefires are not peace treaties, and generally lack all but the most rudimentary accommodation of the ex-insurgents' political and developmental demands. Nevertheless, various ceasefire groups' stated commitment to develop former zones of armed conflict have created some opportunities for the reconstruction of war-torn communities. However, many ethnic nationalist cadres are more familiar with the 'top-down' approaches used in military and political campaigns, than with 'bottom-up' development and conflict resolution methods. As elsewhere in the country, local initiatives are frequently undermined by parallel exploitative practices, and lack of strategic planning and implementation capacities.


Nevertheless, there are a number of success stories. These cannot be described in detail, due to the need to protect vulnerable groups and individuals working ‘inside’ Burma.


The key players in the tentative re-emergence of civil society networks over the past decade have often been members of religious and social welfare networks. Many of these were established in the 1950s, only to be suppressed by the military government after 1962. However, in recent years, Chin, Karen, Mon, PaO, Shan and other Literature and Culture Committees have been among the few specifically ethnic organisations tolerated by the government. As the state school and higher education systems have continued to deteriorate, such groups have pioneered alternative community education approaches. For example, 55,000 school students (70% of them girls) attended Summer Mon Literature and Buddhist Teachings Trainings in 2003.


Thus far, only a few indigenous Burmese NGOs have been allowed to register legally with the authorities. The two most well-known were established after the KIO ceasefire, and although their importance to the broader scale of development initiatives in Burma should not be overestimated, both are often seen as models which other fledgling local NGOs might emulate.


The Metta Development Foundation was established in 1998, and by 2003 had a budget of over $500,000, and 13 full-time staff, active in parts of Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon States, and the Irrawaddy Delta. Metta projects include Farmer Filed Schools, income generation programs, health worker training, water and sanitation projects, and a number of rural development schemes. The Metta approach is participatory, stressing the empowerment of community-based groups, and their eventual coalescence into local NGOs.


The Shalom Foundation was founded in 2001 by the Reverend Saboi Jum - a key figure in the KIO ceasefire process. It employs 12 full-time staff, and works on mediation and conflict resolution issues, building local capacity in these key sectors.


New organisations like Metta and Shalom are not countrywide institutions or membership groups, but often act as facilitators and innovators for longer-established associations. In many cases these are religious bodies - among the few non-government controlled social institutions allowed to exist in Burma.


Although emergent civil society networks are often associated with Christianity, many Buddhist associations exist too, and the sangha has great potential as a catalyst in civil - and political - affairs. Local Buddhist associations tend to be focussed on merit-making, which can include social and community welfare and educational activities, as well as pagoda-building. In many parts of Burma, mosque and temple associations assist the poorest of the poor. However, such non-formal, traditional networks tend to more localised, and centred on individual monks, who may not conceptualise or present their aims and objectives in a manner readily intelligible to western agencies. Such initiatives are therefore often 'invisible' to western (and western-trained) staff, and the dominance of Christian groups in the welfare sector is potentially divisive, in a mainly Buddhist society.


It is vital that donors and international agencies entering Burma - either via refugee communities, across the border, or through Rangoon - realise that they are not operating in a void. Impressive local initiatives do exist, and are often worthy of support. Although the role of foreign aid is limited, it can contribute towards the creation of an enabling environment, strengthening local efforts to achieve peace and development, in ways which have generally been neglected by outside observers.


Foreign aid to Burma is not a zero-sum scenario: donors do not have to choose between supporting democracy or development in Burma.The challenge is how to support local civil society, without overwhelming its limited absorption capacities.


Having it Both Ways: Two-Way Traffic on the Road to Transition

Efforts to empower civil society and support ‘bottom-up’ democratisation in Burma have often been hostage to other political agendas - in particular, the struggle for national-level political change. The NLD and other stake-holders want to see a national/ elite-level political settlement in place, before they endorse local development activities.


It is argued that relief and development work ‘inside’ the country will ‘let the SPDC off the hook’, by providing goods and services that are the responsibility of the government, and by endorsing and legitimising the regime’s policies. Such concerns should be taken seriously. However, if provided via local NGOs and community organisations, humanitarian and other forms of assistance can be delivered in ways which build local capacities, and contribute towards grass-roots democratisation - both ‘inside’ the country and in border areas.


In the current political climate, with national level-dialogue between the NLD and SPDC stalled, re-emergent civil society networks represents an important vehicle for long-term, ‘bottom-up’ democratisation in Burma. As well as their intrinsic value, these local networks can form the base for democratisation at the national level. The promotion of civil society therefore relates to the constitutional concept of ‘countervailance’, in which sovereignty resides in plural points of power, with functional checks and balances to preclude the centralisation of authority.


However, the re-emergence of civil society networks is not in itself sufficient to produce political transition. This still requires concerted, explicitly political actions.




Ashley South is an independent consultant, specialising in ethnic politics, displacement and humanitarian issues in Burma. He has visited the country more than 50 times, and is the author of a political history of lower Burma - Mon Nationalism and Civil War in Burma: The Golden Sheldrake (RoutledgeCurzon 2003). His current research on IDPs in Burma is funded by the MacArthur Foundation.