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!
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.
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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