Burma: Will Justice be the Beginning to an End of 70 years of Civil War?


“Democracy is only as good as the education that surrounds it..”

As were the words of Socrates in The Republic by Plato. The perversion of democracy led by inadequate education is a perfect concoction for a large scale national fiasco and we see this rising lately, this rise of rather ‘illiberal democracy’ – the Trump elections, Brexit and recently Modi’s rise to power in India. Democracy when in the hands of the uneducated brings about an unimaginable chaos that brings down the future of the educated. Nationalism, widely debated to have borne out of the Napoleonic Era to maintain power legitimacy and state legibility for the sake of “war making the state and state making the war” as said by Charles Tilly, to unite an incredibly diverse range of population under the name of one state, has in our era, transformed into something divisive and a fight for power justified by a self-created concept of ‘nativism’. The consequence is immense dissatisfaction and disillusionment because you have vouched for something that never was in the first place.

Suu Kyi’s rise to power in Burma shows an unprecedented, tragic story. Under the plight of recent events, the country now towards the 2020 elections stay more divided than ever. Media freedom and human rights have deteriorated, unlike what many have hoped for. One should note of course the transition wouldn’t be easy. In fact the human rights and media freedom situation before the NLD government came to power was in quite a precarious state already – in the opening up of the country the world gets to see all of a sudden how dire things are inside. And many factors come into play – the lack of awareness by the foreign media on the brewing internal conflicts hidden under the socialist military regime, the fragmented response strategies by the United Nations underplaying the internal violence before it hit the limelight, poverty, the personified leadership dynamics within the NLD party and its civilian supporters, as well as Suu Kyi’s overconfidence in handling criticism and her diet of advisory coming from even her closest confidants putting her in an echo-chamber. Burma under the 50-year long rule of the military that has effectively destroyed the education system has bred out a whole generation of population that have been used to authoritarian thinking and governance style deemed it a nation that wants democracy with very little theory or practice.

The rise of Islamist terror attacks from across the world that occurred within that close time-frame (e.g. Charlie Hebdo attacks, November 13 attacks in Nice, various attacks in London and the rise of ISIS) also played well into the hands of the rise of populist leaders like Trump. This is the under-discussed factor that contributed as a facilitator of Buddhist extremist movements, largely fueled by Islamophobia than anything else. When Trump got elected in 2015, Wirathu (leader of the 369 Movement), welcomed Trump’s entry into the Oval Office. Thein Sein never took legal actions despite the alarming amount of hate speech produced by Wirathu and the mass following that ensued. Thein Sein was even quoted as saying Wirathu was “non-violent” and “peace-loving” nevertheless this is not so much paid enough attention by the international community. The following produced by Wirathu and his supporters (reported to be funded by Thein Sein’s party and the former regime), the lack of radical condemnation by the state Buddhist clergy to his indoctrinations and the silent, dormant Islamophobia amongst the followers of the majority NLD-supporting population divides the country into pieces following the ICC/ICJ lawsuits. Yes we could go on and on about the multitude of factors that come into play but in the light of the international status quo I have it say the unravelling of the Rakhine crisis into full eruption was inevitable in time to the 2015 elections. What wasn’t inevitable however, was how Suu Kyi and her cabinet decided to handle it.

In the early stages of the Rakhine crisis the alternative route would have been to choose honesty. Suu Kyi visited both Islamic and Buddhist religious leaders to show her public support for interfaith peacebuilding – she wasn’t silent here and this was considered a right approach. She even got a lot of defamation from the far-right Buddhists. However things took a different turn in the break of the military-operated InnDinn massacre, eventual exodus of the Rohingya refugees across the Bangladeshi border and it got to a point where the violence on both sides was not equal anymore. Many talk about the fear of a second coup by the former regime and Suu Kyi was trapped between trying not to lose votes of a largely poorly educated, Buddhist nationalist followers and maintaining her international status of being a human rights icon. True, the rise of Islamist, jihadist terror attacks have increased drastically in the early 21st Century and is a legitimate concern across the world, but should any Islamic terrorism ensue they should be regarded as one would for any terror attack and shall make it subject to strict prosecution and a justice system. The response to that should not be at the expense of many peaceful, innocent Muslims who aren’t doing anything to contribute to it.

In its early stages, this debacle could have been damage-controlled through public education. Yes, the nation has been damaged by decades of totalitarian education that ripped people of any critical thinking, Suu Kyi is aware of that and has tirelessly advocated for state education reform – but that takes time. Going back to the Socrates quote, her public diplomacy should have been coupled with public education and advocacy to remedy this rather than to just only go for state education reform which will take years to take effect. Stating to both international and national public, admitting her concerns about military’s abuse of power under the NLD government, the history of national citizenship rights regarding minority ethnics in the conflict region and investing in positively radical interfaith peacebuilding public campaigns, coupled with her public appearances would have been a better safeguard against the state of where we are today.

In this age of media and technology, transparency is your ally when fighting against corrupt organisations and extremism. And evasion is your worst enemy.

This leads to the next biggest strategic failure – the bigger end goal of Suu Kyi and her party in preventing a second coup and the military’s grip of power in meddling with national politics, was “reconciliation”. For Suu Kyi and the NLD, it makes one ponder why 50 years of military rule was somehow not sufficient to make them realise that corrupt powers, that have long existed, integrated and institutionalised in the country can only be dissolved through law and order, through prosecution and justice, not through an attempt of pacification. An honest leader would admit the limits of her abilities, when stretched and left with options that could only exacerbate the status quo, would admit to the world the limits of her government in the struggle for full democracy and nations founded on democratic principles wouldn’t be unwilling to help. The problem of Myanmar is that the internal capacity and capability of the civilian government is too limited to fight a powerful, corrupt organisation like the military, whose power has never been internal but has been widely known for its support and funding from authoritarian regimes of other powerful nations such as China, Russia and even North Korea. Suu Kyi’s biggest mistake was to not realise such limits of her power and that of her party’s, which is also heavily dependent on her personified position of leadership. An attempt to somehow “tame” the military and steer the ship on her own might without the help of other nations in establishing democratic governance may well be the biggest tragedy brought about by unrealistic idealism. A camp leader, from Kachin State, told The Guardian newspaper in an article last year, “I think the war will stop when one side totally disappears.” Indeed the ceasefire negotiations in Burma are “dictated by the military at the barrel of a gun,” agreed by human rights groups in the country. The military demands disarmament but the 70-year long civil war will continue, because none of these ethnic groups trust that their civil rights and human rights will be respected after disarmament. The only solution is that the perpetrators really need to go. You cannot try to subjugate an institutionally corrupt and violent organisation that has perpetuated and normalized its operations in the country for decades. A new military needs to be formed – one that protects the civilians and the old needs to be prosecuted.

Another mistake is the whole rhetoric of “development is the solution” to the on-going civil war. As Thant-Myint U stated in his article “Not A Single Year’s Peace” regarding Myanmar’s problems, politics and economics in the country are still treated as two separate realms. He states, and I couldn’t have put it better, that,

the Burmese are drifting towards a false choice between the crony capitalism of the past and a neoliberal future of low taxes, austerity budgets, tight money and global capital. A fairer society is nowhere in sight.”

Yes poverty is part of the problem, amongst a plethora of other things – e.g. drugs (Myanmar’s $50 billion dollar illicit drug industry according to the UN) and China’s exploitative “investments”. But for a nation with continuous civil war, roads with buried mines and explosive devices, and armed rebel groups who are only armed to defend themselves against the military’s predation, the Burmese grounds are in no way favourable for any investor to have confidence for the sustainability of their businesses to operate. This is basic theoretical knowledge whenever regarding conflict resolution, security and development in every nation. There is a reason these three things are in that particular order. In no nation can economic development be initiated if an investor fears for their own personal safety, quite literally to even set his foot on the ground.

Another thing is a cyclical ideological battle. The Burmese now as the country’s leader prepares to head to the UN court ICJ, views this as the predation of the West against them. Everyone is running in all sorts of directions – some have quit the NLD and formed new parties, some fervently have faith in NLD more so than ever, some call for national unity (a bit too late for that I’d say) and others welcome the ICJ subpoena, because the crime is indeed genocide. The worst crime imaginable. The biggest frustration is that amongst the remaining supporters protesting against the ICJ, is their lack of understanding that this is international rule of law and the “West” is not against the country – it is against genocide. The same lawsuit would have happened regardless of the religious affiliation of the victims. Should they think the West or the UN is against the country, it would have never supported for the liberation of Suu Kyi from house arrest and repeatedly called for the democratization of the country prior 2011. It is against human rights violations, as it was before the same way it is now.

But critiquing Suu Kyi’s political strategy is largely seen in the country as a personal attack. Anyone who does is usually ostracized, shunned by her supporters and are regarded as somewhere along the lines of being a traitor. Democracy is not closing your eyes and ears and agreeing to whatever your leader does, despite the fact that they may have been your only hope at some point. Just because they have been right in the past doesn’t mean they stay right forever. It’s true Myanmar is in a state of a quasi-democracy hindered by the 2008 constitution nevertheless there are many aspects of the government that still has the power to function through basic democratic principles. Those who voted for democracy and been elected democratically are obliged to act democratically. Of course the civil societies and ethnic groups are well aware that Myanmar will not miraculously turn into a typical ASEAN developing country with skyscrapers, foreign franchise and subway stations – they want peace and that could only be achieved through ceasefire and holding the military accountable for their crimes.

The wounds suffered by the country are too deep and will take years to heal but one thing for certain – they won’t be healed through their elected leader defending those who offended them.

Democracy is about being able to question your leaders and understanding that even the best of us, even the brightest of us are not to immune faults and mistakes. Politicians are also human beings. Democracy is when a leader is humble enough to get on the ground and to listen to the civil society and to the rest of the world. Democracy is remembering the roots of your fight – the fight for liberty and the fight against (not the defense of) the powers that are taking that away from us. Democracy is definitely not turning your back on those who fought for your freedom and risked their lives to support you. Democracy is honesty, transparency and humility because that’s where it thrives. The only place that it doesn’t, is denial, isolation and sensitivity to even the slightest form of objective criticism. Democracy dies in darkness.

May peace come and justice prevail.

Published by Anna Tan (陈丽安)

Anna is a neuroscientist (by training) who is passionate about International Affairs. She describes herself as an East-West hybrid, well-versed with life as a third culture kid that was raised in South East Asia. Anna also enjoys museums, theatres and her morning coffees. She also likes her Kaya Toast and Mohinga (on separate occasions). She is currently based at King’s College London, at the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy. You can follow her on Twitter: @AnnaTanGTW.

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