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Democratic Transitions -- Burma's W

Subject: Democratic Transitions -- Burma's Will Not Be Easy (Part II)

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August / September 1995

NOT BE EASY      (Part II)
by Douglas W.  Payne

The cause in Burma is more specifically about democracy
and human rights.  The pertinent regional organization, the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is not
about to promote those principles given the authoritarian
nature of some of its member governments.  That was made
abundantly clear recently when ASEAN accepted Vietnam,
one of the most repressive regimes in the world for full
membership.  At that time Malaysian Prime Minister
Mahathir bin Mohamad stated, "We welcome Vietnam's
entry into ASEAN because we are of the opinion that we do
not need to question their system of government so long as
they accept a free - market system." Such are the tenets of
market authoritarianism, currently defended by its
practitioners as "Asian democracy."  

Now compare the domestic situation in South Africa in
1990 with the situation in Burma today. Despite the ANC
being "banned," the apartheid regime had allowed sufficient
space for it and its allied organizations, especially trade
unions, to develop into a powerful national organization
with an armed component.  South African state security
increasingly had to utilize brute force to suppress the
mounting popular demand for change.  Despite some
government restrictions, much of the repression was
reported or seen in the domestic and foreign media,
deepening the regime's international isolation.

At the same time, the tide was turning in South Africa's
relatively well-developed civic society churches, legal
groups, nongovernmental development organizations, the
media and universities, many of which were interacting
international counterparts.  In these circles there was a
growing belief that continued intransigence by the
government could lead to a maximally destructive civil war. 
That view was gaining ground, too, among the powerful,
urban - based white business class, which also was
concerned about economic decline caused by international
With so much arrayed against it, the de Klerk government
and much of the white elite came to the realization that
trying to maintain the status quo could mean losing
everything. (The South Korean military and its civilian
backers seemed to have come to a similar realization in the
face of widespread, sustained student and middle class
protests in 1987 - 88.) The release of Mandela was not a
token gesture.  It was a conscious first step toward
establishing a democratic system in which whites could
to retain a say, and protect some of their interests, in a post
- apartheid South Africa.

In Burma, however, Aung San Sun Kyi's National League
for Democracy has suffered serious set - backs.  Trade
unions are banned.  There are no independent media and the
ability of foreign journalists, especially the broadcast media,
to put a spotlight on Burma is severely restricted.

Many in Burma's budding entrepreneurial class backed the
pro - democracy movement in 1988 because they opposed
the socialist policies of the former Ne Win government. 
Now they are profiting from the SLORC's opening of the
economy and are more likely to acquiesce in maintaining
status quo.  Meanwhile, ASEAN's "constructive
engagement" policy has been to SLORC's advantage
because it is more about enhancing the prospects of foreign
investors in Burma and diminishing Chinese influence than
is about promoting political change.

But increased foreign investment, whether from Asia,
Europe or the U.S., and the promotion of tourism (taking a
page from Fidel Castro's book in Cuba) will not be enough
to solve the SLORC's economic problem.  Maybe the
SLORC's claim of six percent annual growth over the last
two years is true.  But no amount of foreign investment will
be enough to push ahead the economic restructuring needed
for Burma to compete with its Southeast Asian neighbors. 
Restructuring, particularly the revaluation of Burma's
overvalued currency, requires a resumption of aid from
international agencies, particularly the IMF and the World

If in 1990 the South African government came to one type
of realization, the SLORC, over time, came to a completely
different one - namely, that only the detention of Aung San
Sun Kyi stood in the way of fortifying its economy and
consolidating its rule.  And the SLORC indeed has reason
believe that it can now gain the international economic
assistance it needs by simply releasing her and ignoring her
calls for serious negotiations.

Despite the strong language of United Nations resolutions,
international pressure on Burma by governments remains
haphazard at best.  The United States has taken a relatively
hard - sounding line, but the SLORC duly noted, as did
every other autocratic outfit in the world, the Clinton
Administration's decision last year on China to separate
human rights issues from trade relations.  That underscored
the primacy of commercial interests in current U.S. foreign
policy, as did Washington's recent reestablishment of
relations with Vietnam and its tendency to look the other
way when confronted with the suppression of democracy
and the violation of human rights in Indonesia.

The SLORC, therefore, calculated that what made Burma
different from similarly repressive countries like China,
Vietnam and Indonesia, and what kept Burma from
the type of recognition and economic relations afforded to
them by the United States and other Western nations, was
the continued detention of a world-renowned political

The SLORC also noted the Clinton Administration's
decision at the end of 1994, made simply on the basis of
meetings between Burmese military officials and Aung San
Sun Kyi, to adopt a more conciliatory approach toward
Burma.  To stop the apparent slide of the White House into
the cynical "constructive engagement" of ASEAN,
Republicans in the U.S. Congress prepared a bill, sponsored
by Sen. Mitch McConnell, that would sanction any nation
that aids or trades with Burma.

The initial indications were that the SLORC's tactical
release of Aung San Sun Kyi was paying off.  The Clinton
Administration promptly asked Congress to put off
considering the McConnell bill.  Japan, eager to profit from
investments in Burma, stated the day after Sun Kyi's release
that it was willing to start talks with Burma on the
resumption of official loans, suspended in 1988.  On
4th, the Bank of Tokyo announced it was reopening its
office in Rangoon to assist Japanese companies wishing to
do business in Burma.  The SLORC must have been
particularly pleased as the announcement came after Suu
Kyi's appeal for foreign governments to wait to see if there
were genuine moves toward democracy in Burma before
resuming economic aid.  The SLORC therefore had reason
to hope that Tokyo, through its strong influence in the
Asian Development Bank, would eventually break the ice
direct aid to Burma by multilateral agencies.

The SLORC appears to be in the driver's seat and Aung San
Suu Kyi is facing a number of difficult decisions in the
coming months.  Her popularity, like Mandela's, is not in
question, nor is her courage.  But her followers lack
organization and the resources necessary to rebuild the pro -
democracy movement.

Moreover, the decree banning any type of gathering by a
group of five or more people remains on the books, and the
deployment of 20,000 extra troops in Rangoon at the time
of her release indicates the SLORC is prepared to enforce it. 
That is a far different picture than South Africa in 1990, or
Chile, where the opposition had great latitude to campaign
against Gen.  Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite that led to the
return of civilian rule.

The SLORC may try to finesse the issue of negotiations by
inviting Aung San Sun Kyi to participate in the National
Convention it has rigged for the purpose of formalizing an
Indonesia - style, military - dominated polity, a process she
has already referred to as a farce.  The convention is
scheduled to resume on October 24th.  If she agrees, she
may risk losing credibility among her followers.  If she does
not, she is left with the option of testing and trying to widen
the narrow political space allowed to her.

Aung San Sun Kyi will have a very difficult time of it
without renewed international pressure on the SLORC. 
Given that governmental pressure already appears to be
easing, the non - governmental organizations that make up
the international movement on behalf of democracy in
Burma will have to step up their actions and convince
governments and Western investors not to strengthen the
SLORC's already formidable position any further.  The
movement has grown measurably and its efforts were
integral to Aung San Sun Kyi's release.  But with the
prevailing conditions both inside and outside Burma, she
and her followers need support more than ever.  SLORC
leaders believe they are actually in a stronger position with
Aung San Sun Kyi released from house arrest.  She will not
be able to prove them wrong on her own.

Douglas W. Payne is a Latin American and Caribbean
specialist and a consultant for Freedom House in New

end of part II