Publius Pundit
Asia Archives

Burma's Destroyed Opposition

Filed under: Asia ~ Myanmar

Pro-democracy writer Bo Nyein pens a extremely quality article over at Pajamas Media telling of the completely disorganized Burmese opposition -- and how that amounted in large part to its failure to overthrow the military junta a couple weeks ago. If you found my article "When People Power Fails" insightful, then you will enjoy this. Whereas I focused on the strengths of the military-business regime, Bo Nyein focuses on the abhorrent weaknesses of the democratic opposition, which includes both those in the country as well as the organized expat NGOs and Western government. There is no cohesive strategy or connection between that outside and the actual, on the ground reality.

What astounds me is how the optimists believe the opposition had every chance of actually succeeding in overthrowing the military junta while in such a disorganized state. Of course, much of this can be blamed on the strength of the regime itself, but nonetheless certain comparisons should be made to other people power revolutions since the end of the USSR.

For one, the regimes in Central and Eastern Europe were much less cohesive, much less savvy, and much less oppressive than the Burmese military junta. As far as we can tell right now, the U.S. barely has its foot in the door with an American embassy in Burma, but is under such surveillance that little can be done to help. However, from the mid-'90s through the present, some independent media (radio and television) as well as native NGOs were able to set up in Central and Eastern Europe. The U.S. government, through pro-democracy institutions such as NDI, NED, and IRI -- not to mention George Soros' Open Society Institute above all -- were able to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cash, equipment, technical/logistical support, training, and advice that was able to organize the opposition in countries from Slovakia to Serbia to Georgia to Ukraine.

And while in these countries, sure, the democratic opposition would rally around a single charismatic leader, Bo Nyein points out that perhaps this is the wrong strategy in Burma. In Central/Eastern Europe, these leaders had an extremely strong organized support behind them. In Burma, however, Aung San Suu Kyi has been made into a golden idol who cannot possibly achieve democracy for her country alone when there is no organized, cohesive strategy behind supporting the people who support her.

One other point of Bo Nyein's that I would like to point out which I found very interesting is the extreme disconnect between the expat NGOs operating around the world for a free Burma and the situation with the domestic opposition. While these NGOs work tirelessly to promote awareness and influence foreign governments, very little has been done in terms of actually organizing the domestic opposition to deal with its struggle. Believe it or not, there are classes you can take at universities about democratization, and one of the things you will learn is that foreign influence is almost always second or third tier when it comes to a regime transition. Many of the NGOs and independent media that these foreign NGOs helped out and trained were native organizations that were simply given the boost they needed. Burma has very little of this.

Now, I'm not going to quote any of the article itself. I highly recommend that you click the link though if you're interested in Burma. Just keep these thoughts in mind as you read!

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When People Power Fails

Filed under: Asia ~ Myanmar

I have posted a new article to the site, entitled "When People Power Fails." It has to do with regards to the current situation in Burma, but draws more broadly on some of the particular reasons why a people power revolution may fail. For those following the story, it should be pretty interesting.

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Burmese vs. Chinese

Filed under: Asia ~ Myanmar

The unexpectedly enormous demonstrations in Burma that have been ongoing for over a week now have surprised the world. It has been nearly two decades since such an uprising has occurred, and as Richard Fernandez at Pajamas Media points out, the entire episode is reminiscient of the "people power" uprisings in both the Philippines and Indonesia. He also makes the astute observation, repeated in this Opinion Journal article, that the state of China has to some degree supported the military dictatorship in Burma.

Surely, the scene is familiar. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demonstrating against a ruthless dictatorship is one that has been repeated the world over. Yet when these revolutions occur, the people have another target: those on the periphery supporting the regime. In this case, though, I am not simply talking about the state of China itself, but the ethnic Chinese population in Burma itself.

A huge reason this scene is familiar to me, aside from the people protesting in the streets, is the fact that Burma has, like at the time of the Philippines' and Indonesia's revolutions, an incredibly strong "market-dominant" ethnic Chinese population.

It is well-known in the Philippines, back then as well as now, that the ethnic Chinese minority, despite its incredibly small numbers, controlled the vast majority of the economy, from big business to retail. Their economic strength was granted through the cronyism of the Marcos dictatorship, which produced a comfortable symbiotic relationship in which they were able to thrive while Marcos could stay in power while pocketing a truckload of cash as well. The pro-democracy People Power Revolution had an interesting anti-Chinese tint to it.

Same story in Indonesia. General Suharto pocketed more than a billion dollars through corrupt deals with ethnic Chinese. It is no wonder that when Suharto was forced to resign in the chaos of mass protests in 1998, that thousands of ethnic Chinese were slaughtered, with their homes and storefronts ransacked. Afterward, mass nationalizations occurred in the name of the "native people," predominantly Chinese-owned, causing over $40 billion in capital flight from which Indonesia has yet to recover.

The situation is not all that different in Burma. General Ne Win encouraged anti-Chinese policies; but following the crushing of pro-democracy protests and the subsequent military coup, the junta found a very cozy relationship with the Chinese minority. Since then, they have become the supreme economic minority. They have the most education, hold the most professional jobs, and control all of the middle and big businesses in the country in conjunction with the government. They deal in mining, illicit drug trades, and even human trafficking. In return for this, they support the military junta, from which this native autocracy profits highly.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Burmese wonder why they're so damn poor and can't do anything about it. Gas and food prices are skyrocketing, putting them on the edge of survival, while they see that their own government and a bunch of "outsiders" are doing very well for themselves despite the widespread poverty all around. When these people are taking to the streets, not only are they protesting for democracy, but they are protesting in large part due to their current economic conditions, which many are largely blaming on the collusion between the government and ethnic Chinese businessmen.

Every government feels the need to protect the interests of its citizens abroad, especially the incredibly wealthy and well-connected ones. The government of China does use its influence to protect the Burmese military junta to some degree, but it is doing so because of the huge investments and interests of its powerful citizens there. The Chinese, both the businessmen and the government, know that their minority population is in a very precarious situation. The junta knows this as well. Because of this symbiotic relationship, in which one cannot possibly survive without the other, the Chinese continue to support the junta with money and development from the contracts given them, while the junta must apply force at all possible times so that these people and their assets are protected so that, in the end, they remain in power!

China's position is extremely precarious right now. Unless these protestors and their leaders are particularly high-minded, it would not be at all surprising to see a slew of renationalizations of Chinese-owned industries should the junta be completely swept out of power. More than likely, with the arms that the military possesses, along with the entrenched interests of the Chinese businessmen and military autocracy with each other, the only way the pro-democracy opposition will be allowed to have power to formulate policy is if they take a tone of reconciliation and extreme moderation. If anything comes out of their camp talking about confiscation of all that wealth, no matter how corruptly it was obtained, then they are going to have a hard time ever beating the junta.

While we see a lot of similarities between this demonstration in Burma and the people power revolutions elsewhere in Asia, one of the big ones is the cronyism present between the dictatorship and the Chinese businessmen. Given the strength of the military junta, though, we may not see this dictatorship simply swept away, and if we do, it could be with even more disastrous economic consequences than they already suffer. The country cannot afford to see what capital it has leave completely.

Yet this does not mean that change is impossible. Most democratic transitions occur slowly; in fact, most people power movements fail relatively soon afterward. If the pro-democracy opposition can prove to the military that it won't try to persecute them and confiscate Chinese wealth, the possibility of a slow transition with greater economic liberalization, the growth of civil society, and the removal of international sanctions should become possible.

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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) the Asian NATO?

Filed under: Asia

"The Iranian weekly Sobh-e Sadeq, the mouthpiece of Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei circulated among the Revolutionary Guards, called on Shanghai Alliance member countries to accept Iran as a member. Iran's membership, the paper said, would create a new regional strategic axis, to include Iran, Russia, and China - and this could reduce the West's political, security, and economic maneuvering ability in the region as well as in Asia." Trapped in the Middle East (basically America had a poor understanding of the tribal/feudal/religious type of conducting business of the Arab Muslims) the United States lost its stamina and to a certain extent lost direction. The result is that the Russian bear roars, Iran and Syria adopts the well known expression: "We must, indeed, all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately" (Benjamin Franklin ); Venezuela and China will most likely take any opportunity to prove the United States that they too have the capacity of leading and changing the world. Which side will India and Pakistan eventually choose?

If you have the time I recommend an exceptional piece by Tony Corn, The Revolution in Transatlantic Affairs

More on SCO

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Freedom of expression? Not available (yet) for Afghani women

Filed under: Asia

Zakiyyah Zaki owner of the private Afghani Radio Peace was shot seven times in front of her eight year old son. She is the second woman to be murdered after Shakibah Sanga Amaj, another Afghani media figure. It now appears that Zakiyyah Zaki, a former teacher has received threats in the past from local militia men who were "disturbed" by the talk shows hosted by Radio Peace about women rights and other social issues.

Despite the NATO presence the armed radical tribal militias are still alive and kicking. It is deeply concerning (to say the least) that women continue to be treated as second class citizens in Afghanistan and killed for expressing their views.

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Absolutely abominable!

Filed under: Asia

The Talibans are distributing a propaganda video with a 12 year old boy being encouraged by men as he takes a knife to behead a Pakistani man accused of being an "American spy."

The men and women around him shout Allahu Akbar – "Allah is Great" as the boy carries on the slaughter.

This is the video clip but I warn you that it is one of the most dreadful things I have ever laid my eyes on.

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A Moment of Opportunity: China, Darfur, and the 2008 Olympics

Filed under: Africa ~ Asia

China, on a domestic and international cleaning binge, is seeking to cleanse its status and reputation by the time it begins hosting the Olympics in 2008 to appear as a developed nation in a first-world prom dress. While this may appear as a farcical whitewash operation by a totalitarian regime, it presents an opportunity for the international community to take concrete steps in resolving the Darfur crisis.

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Is the Election of the President of East Timor Important?

Filed under: Asia ~ East Timor

In the last few days there was much talk about what happened. There was a big election turnout, or was there? The elections were open and not violent, or was their serious coercion from Fretilin? In a run-off the voters for other candidates will switch to Ramos-Horta, or will they go to Fretilin? All interesting, but what is important?

The President of the Country has a figurehead, ceremonial role of relatively limited power. But the current President, Xanana Gusmao, has had more relative power because his opinion is highly valued by the Timorese people. Now an independent (Ramos Horta) is running against a Fretilin party leader (Francisco, Lu-Olo, Guterres) for this figurehead position. Probably both want it because it is more important than it appears, and because Gusmao, who used to want to be a carrot farmer, has declared that he wants to run for Prime Minister, a post he most probably will win.

Is this important for the country? Probably it is. The Fretilin/Alkitiri government has been criticized for failing to invest more money in its people. As Prime Minister Alkatiri avoided any indebtedness for the country, even did not spend oil revenues so the country could have a good bank account in the future. But many, myself included, felt that was a major error. Since the country is so poor, and since future oil revenues probably will be pretty good, the wise thing would have been to request loans, particularly soft loans from the World Bank with very favorable interest rates and long payback times, to invest the money in education, health, roads and agriculture so the country could significantly improve the welfare of its people. Alkatiri did not do that but relied on support from international organizations. Much help was given, but certainly not enough to jump-start the country. Some of the help, like the UNICEF/WorldBank efforts in education, was very inadequate.

So Fretilin wants the Presidency so that their party can keep some form of control (they will also want seats in the parliament), while Ramos-Horta wants the Presidency so he can help the country to take actions to do more for the people. If Ramos-Horta wins, and the Xanana Gusmao becomes Prime Minister, they most probably will take major action to help the people. If Lu-Olo wins he and his party may be able to continue their short-sighted policies of saving money instead of investing it.

So who wins the Presidency is important.

Who becomes Prime Minister is more important.

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And Then They Came For My Minivan...

Filed under: Asia ~ Maldives

The editor of Minivan News, the largest Maldivian opposition website on the net with over 70,000 viewers a day, has sent out an email saying that the site has been hacked and replaced with a giant picture of the dictator-in-chief.
Dear all,
Our site has been temporarily hacked.

The front page is currently displaying a picture of President Gayoom with the banner "Our Nation, Our Culture", and the quote "our strength is our unity, don't let anyone break it. Protect this country from those people who are trying to corrupt it."

There is no way to navigate away from this page, so our home page and news articles are unavailable for the moment.

We apologise and hope to have the problem resolved as soon as possible.

We will be continuing to work as normal and maintain full email access.

The site will be updated as soon as the hack is resolved.
So now, as governments crack down on physical media, now they and their supporters are going strong against news sites as well. If anything, though, I'd say this just brings more attention to them.
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A new twist in Thailand

Filed under: Asia ~ Thailand

In the 21st century, when all governments to one degree or another are facing challenges to their legitimacy, former Prime Minister Thaksin's politics had been so divisive -- especially in Bangkok -- that the military felt that it could legitimately take power to end the standoff. Tanks and soldiers began roaming the streets, Thaksin fled the country, and the military installed its own prime minister to run the country until and eventual return to democracy.

However, the military has a legitimacy of its own that it must keep. The promises it made, and even those it didn't, are constantly evaluated for performance. Military regimes in general tend to have relatively short lifespans, but those without a coherent message or policy direction go down faster than others. With the Muslim insurgency in the south growing much worse, economic policy off course, civil and political freedoms restricted, and the constant talk of reinstituting emergency laws, its legitimacy is on the wane. Opposition is beginning to mount once again.

Gen. Sondhi has been thinking a lot about the latter lately. Yet he faced rebellion when he brought it up from the very prime minister that he installed to run the government. In fact, not only did the prime minister disagree with the idea, but he took it upon himself to announce on national radio that the emergency laws would not go into effect and elections would be held later this year.
BANGKOK: Thailand's prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, rejected the advice of the general who put him in power, declining on Thursday to declare a state of emergency in Bangkok to clamp down on anti-government protesters and instead promising to hold elections before the end of the year.

"As of now, we will not declare a state of emergency," Surayud told reporters after meeting with General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who led the September coup.

"I gave my opinion that if the situation does not constitute an emergency that jeopardizes the stability of the country, we cannot use that law," Surayud said.

On Wednesday, Sonthi declared that emergency measures were necessary in Bangkok to deal with protesters who have announced numerous rallies for the coming days.

After comments late Wednesday suggesting that he might side with the general, Surayud took the opposite tack: He said he still had the power to declare a state of emergency, which would suspend civil laws, but that the current situation did not merit the move.

Then he set a timetable for the return to democracy.

A referendum on a Constitution currently being drafted would take place no later than September, he said, and elections would be held on Dec. 16 or Dec. 22.
The military has one shot to rule, but as opposition has mounted, a decision to quell protest would be tantamount to crushing its own legitimacy. Interestingly, this announcement should have the same effect without restricting civil liberties. Now that people know when the elections are to be held, there really is no need to organize demonstrations. It was the kind of solution a military government probably didn't even think of.
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Death to Christian schoolgirls! Death for drug possession! 20 years for Islamic militants!

Filed under: Asia

If my calculations are correct, this could prove to become ever the popular chant among those in the Islamic militant community.

This story is in our news feed, but I found it so absolutely insane that I had to post it directly to the main page. The Jakarta Post reports that Islamic militants who were caught following the beheading of three Christian schoolgirls in 2005 have been sentenced to death... just kidding! They're getting 14 to 20 years in prison.
AKARTA (JP): Panel of judges in Central Jakarta District Court Wednesday sentenced Muslim militants between 14 and 20 years in prison for beheading Christian schoolgirls in Central Sulawesi's town of Poso in 2005.

Hasanuddin was found guilty for masterminding the beheading, buying the machetes and leaving a handwritten note at the scene vowing more killings to avenge the deaths of Muslims in an earlier conflict on Sulawesi island.

Judge Udar Siregar was quoted by Elshinta news radio as saying that Hasanuddin's action can be categorized as terror crime, which could spark fresh religious violence in the Central Sulawesi towns.

Meanwhile, two other conspirators Lilik Purnomo and Irwanto Irano were handed 14-year jail terms in a separated hearing.

Religious conflict in Poso had left at least 1,000 people dead from both Muslims and Christians from 1998 to 2002.
You've got to love Indonesia. Islamic militants who behead schoolgirls, paving the way for even more inter-religious carnage, get maybe 20 years in prison. Meanwhile, you may remember that an Australian women got the same sentence for trafficking drugs, though we can hardly know if they were planted on her person. Six other Aussia men are getting the death penalty on similar charges, in which the debate over their sentences is not even whether or not they will receive capital punishment (for they have been assured of that), but whether or not foreigners even are allowed to receive constitutional protection at all!

It makes you wonder. Is there a bias here?

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