Myanmar: Electronic Op-Ed

1999

Professor David I. Steinberg

The latest incident in the struggle between the Burmese military State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, was played out not in Myanmar, but in Thailand. The seizure of the Myanmar Embassy and a variety of hostages in Bangkok by a group of hitherto unidentified dissident students may be thought of either as an act of terrorism, which is how the SPDC regarded it, or the political frustration put into motion by exiled students who were fighting for 'democracy.' The terminology used reveals political persuasions.

The NLD had to disown this act of violence, because they have continuously held to a non-violent struggle, the abandonment of which would immediately place them in even more mortal danger than they are now, as the state would probably declare the NLD illegal as a party. The NLD, however, has not disowned those who fight for democracy. However dramatic the events, and the real hero of this piece was Deputy Foreign Minister of Thailand M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra who offered himself as a 'hostage' to ensure the students' safe return to the Thai-Burma border. His was a selfless and noble act by one who, for many years before he assumed that government post, eloquently wrote as an academic on the plight of Burma.

But this event should be placed in context. Although it was one of the few acts involving breaking of foreign laws (a decade or so earlier there had been a plane hijacking), it fits into the jigsaw puzzle that is Burmese politics. The NLD have been denied the opportunity within Myanmar publicly to make their case to the Burmese people. Although they had massive support almost a decade ago when they won the May 1990 election, which remains officially unacknowledged within Myanmar, we do not know whether that support today is stronger or weaker or whether, or how much, it is or was pro-NLD or anti-military-in-government sentiment.

We do know that the NLD is supported internationally, at least in terms of political persuasion. It is broadly admired for its pluck and bravery. To maintain their visibility, NLD members have for over a year engaged in a series of confrontations with the military to engender broad support and sympathy, as well as to test the limits of state power. It is impossible to gauge accurately how well this has worked as a tactic within Burma, but it obviously has been quite successful in focusing external understanding and empathy for Daw Suu Kyi and her cause.

The NLD must, given the conditions under which they operate, or rather attempt to operate, within Myanmar, ensure that foreign attention is continuously focused on them as the deserving and legitimate government of the Union. Their internal political infrastructure as a party has been virtually destroyed, its members decimated by government pressures to resign, its local offices closed, and the ability of the leadership to make their views known within Myanmar completely curtailed.

So under these circumstances, even if the embassy seizure was a completely uncoordinated act limited to a few former students who were isolated from the mainstream of the opposition, we may expect to see other attempts by the NLD and their supporters to make their case to the external world by creating newsworthy events that will be picked up in the foreign press. The irony is that the SPDC has portrayed the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi as illegitimate because of their foreign support and her foreign connections. Yet to stay alive as an institution in the stifling political atmosphere of Myanmar, the NLD is thrown more on to the foreign stage, thus fuelling more government criticism. This is a dilemma for the NLD. It is also a dilemma for the SPDC, for the more they portray the opposition as essentially illegitimate in Burman cultural and political terms, the more they are regarded as a pariah regime.

WATCHPOINT: The people of Myanmar remain caught in the quagmire of partisan politics.

 

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