Interview with Tin Maung Than - possibilities for political change in Burma
The Irrawaddy spoke to Tin Maung Than on the possibilities for political change in Burma and the need for the opposition to make a realistic plan with the regime. Tin Maung Than is a researcher at the Burma Fund based in Washington DC. He was formerly editor of the banned Thintbawa (“Your Life”) magazine in Rangoon.
Question: Do you see any hope for change in Burma with the ouster of Gen Khin Nyunt?
Answer: I still have hope for change after dreadful decades of military dictatorship. But, sadly, I don’t see any sign of it. There are two different approaches and I do not hear anyone coming up with [any] creative idea[s] to bridge the gap between the parties.
Q: How do you see the leadership change affecting the National Convention? Will it lead to democracy?
A: I think the wine bottle is the same whether Gen Khin Nyunt or Sr-Gen Than Shwe holds it. [The] international community expected that Gen Khin Nyunt would hold a dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi within the framework of [the] National Convention. He just gave a hint but did not come forward with any political proposals. The road map, which Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] thought [of] as Prime Minister Khin Nyunt’s proposal, was in fact, not different from the old one in 1993 and the adopted chapters would not lead the country to democracy. But if all parties are able to make a few concessions, it can lead to democracy.
Q: What are those concessions?
A: I see room for developing opportunities to move forward, if all sides agree on a few points with minimal requirement of changes to the 104 principles that were supposedly drafted to protect the generals. First, the constitution, drafted by the National Convention, should be regarded as a transitional constitution, which is designed to bring forth a safe, healing process to the country. Second, during the second term of the parliament of transitional constitution, a constitutional committee for democracy will be organized. A new democratic constitution, drafted by this committee, will be adopted through a referendum. Third, a chapter, which lays out the timeframe for a gradual withdrawal of the military from politics, must be added to the currently drafted constitution. Fourth, the qualification of members of parliament, which was designed to prevent democratic forces from entering politics, should be removed. Some powers [vested in the] Commander in Chief of Armed Forces, that stand above presidential power, should also be curtailed. Fifth, both sides should find a way to recognize the 1990 election results.
Q: You mentioned in an earlier interview that the reconciliation process is continuing in Burma. What do you mean by that?
A: Reconciliation happens not because some people on both sides are moderate since the beginning of the conflict. Neither Gorbachev nor de Klerk [the reforming statesmen of the Soviet Union and South Africa, respectively] was moderate when they came into the group that holds power. Moderateness and reconciliation are the inevitable and necessary products of conflict. [The] reconciliation process ebbs and flows. Don’t let’s lose hope.
On the other hand, reconciliation and mass struggle are two sides of the [same] coin. When we look at the development of democracy in most countries, we may realize that mass struggle and reconciliation complement each other. If we realize only a struggle and miss the point of reconciliation, and vice versa, the journey of democracy will be long. It seems that we have missed the point of reconciliation until now. Missing the point doesn’t mean there is no process at all. Conflict and reconciliation are working in the same process of change.
Q: Many observers think that the new leadership consists of hardliners. What is your view?
A: My understanding [is that the] yardstick most people used to [delineate] moderate and hardliner was dialogue. Diplomats and media gave credit to Gen Khin Nyunt for the meetings between his men and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I thought that the meetings were hardly possible without the blessing of Sr-Gen Than Shwe, especially when you portrayed him as the strongman. Instead of focusing on hardliner and moderate, why don’t we ask ourselves: why did the generals decline to get into dialogue? I think dialogue denial is a collective decision.
Q: How can the opposition make the military withdraw from politics?
A: You may see it as a lie, but Sr-Gen Than Shwe has already [accepted] that Burma’s only road to modernization is [through] democracy. He confirmed it [during] his India visit. We must make a double effort: a pragmatic proposal that takes personal and institutional military interests into account and, on the other hand, domestic and international pressure. In other words, we should stage a domestic mass movement and international pressure for a possible, pragmatic political demand. The target is not to the hardliners but moderate forces in the military.
I think the wine bottle is the same whether Gen Khin Nyunt or Sr-Gen Than Shwe holds it
Q: You said once that if the military withdraws from politics, it will obtain legitimacy. Please explain.
A: Although democratic forces, including me, cannot accept it, the new constitution may have legitimacy when six conditions are met. First, the ethnic groups support the constitution. Second, the military sets a reasonable time schedule for withdrawal from politics in the constitution. Third, amendments [to] the constitution [are possible] or this constitution is transitional. Fourth, the referendum is free and fair and people vote for it. Fifth, elections are free and fair. Sixth, the National League for Democracy takes part in the election. Most of these points are similar to my five concessions.
The extent of legitimacy depends upon how the military fulfils those conditions. But legitimacy alone won’t solve the problems of Burma.
Q: Do you see any future reshuffle or splits within the military? Do you think a split could lead to dramatic political reform?
A: As I already said, pragmatic forces are the necessary result of conflict and the answer is yes as long as conflict exists. If the military is wise enough to incorporate the points I suggested in the constitution, exit is possible for all. Dramatic reform in the current situation is only possible when a military leader with the stature of Tin Oo of the NLD or Kyaw Zaw of the CPB [Communist Party of Burma] emerges. In military history, only three leaders gained the stature of saya [teacher] in the soldiers’ hearts—Aung San, Kyaw Zaw and Tin Oo. Only saya stature leaders can mobilize a group of soldiers on its own initiative outside the command structure. There is a cultural basis.
Q: Do you think there are reform-minded young military officers that can criticize the Tatmadaw [Armed Forces] and move toward democracy?
A: I think there are many reform-minded military officers. Even some top generals realize the reality. But challenging the status quo is another case. There is no space or mechanism in the military to express [individual] opinions on the country. Several members of SLORC [State Law and Order Restoration Council] and later the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council]—at least three I knew—confided to family members that the country is in worse shape and will go into turmoil unless reform is carried out. But speaking out in the military, even to their close colleagues is impossible. Trust among soldiers is psychologically and institutionally obstructed.
The opposition should think up a strategy to release these forces. That’s why I have urged the NLD on my radio program to speak about their transitional plan publicly rather than keeping it as a bargaining [chip] at the table.
Q: Observers and even some NLD members complained that the opposition, especially the NLD, failed to capitalize on the October putsch. What are your comments?
A: First we should realize the difficult situation the NLD has been facing. In a certain situation, silence is also a great conversation in politics—but that is true only in a certain situation. Under oppression, a political party should clearly define which situation to be silent in and [which] situation to go along with masses.
I think the NLD is very much like a party operating under democracy not under oppression. The NLD has produced a lot of statements of political demands but not actions or a practical transitional plan. Sadly, I would express Burmese politics as oppression versus statements. It had the Gandhi Hall declaration but [that] wasn’t followed by political action. Some NLD leaders are campaigning, but not organizing or building a network to stage a mass movement. This is my general impression.
That’s why I reached a conclusion about two years ago: if there was a party to lead a mass movement in the future, it would probably be the Communist Party of Burma, which most people thought already extinct. Historically, it was the main actor of Burmese politics and we should not underestimate its network and skills. It can resurrect again once it finds a way to answer its followers’ ideological doubts and silence.
23 December 2004