Myanmar: New Sources Of Opposition


Ian Wilson

The tenth anniversary of the National League for Democracy’s sweeping electoral victory has just passed and the military leadership of Myanmar continues to deny the democratically chosen government access to power. Each year more of its members are in prison, in exile or dead. They are held together by their defiant leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

This month what had seemed a permanent stalemate on the Korean peninsula began to crack with very little advance warning but it would be a brave and prescient observer to bet on a sudden change in Burma. Many of the developments over the past ten years suggest perpetuation of the regime rather than change. The military have consolidated their rule at both the top and grassroots levels. The NLD must struggle to maintain its relevance in Burmese politics after a decade divorced from the political process and the capacity to influence decisions.

Instead, other oppositionist forces are beginning to make an impact. The first is elements of the Buddhist clergy, some elderly leaders of which have become vocal in their criticism of government policies, including the continued closure of the nation’s universities. They are also concerned about the moral foundations of power under a military unwilling to share political control. They seek solutions based on inclusive incorporation of other elements of society in the government. A second new source of opposition stems from ethnically based armed groups, increasingly recruited from disaffected young people. These groups have a millenarian flavour, some following pre-teenage leaders but lacking a coherent program for change and in the longer term unable to provide a platform for unified challenge to the regime.

A third but still divided source of pressure for change comes from forces operating outside Burma. The NLD supporters and their government-in-exile continue to agitate for systemic political reform. The United States mounted a tougher stance against the State Peace and Development Council junta in May when President Clinton reported to Congress over their continued failure to end its repression of the NLD. The report blamed repeated flouting of IMF and World Bank recommendations for the parlous state of the economy and recommended the suspension of economic aid and the withdrawal of Burma’s eligibility for trade and investment assistance. An embargo on arms and investment, the downgrading of diplomatic representation, and visa restrictions on senior figures and their families were also proposed.

Closer to home, relations with neighbours have also deteriorated. Thailand has long been concerned about the pursuit of Karen oppositionists into Thai territory and attacks on them their by Burma’s regular and irregular forces. The failure to stem the flow of amphetamines and opium/heroin into Thailand has become another source of conflict. The repercussions of the drug trade and the transmission of HIV/AIDS cause alarm in Laos but, more significantly, China. The wider international community, particularly the European Union, the US and Australia, have concerns about the denial of human rights.

Sanctions and moral pressure have not yet forced the military to the conference table and the prospect of total economic collapse is not comparable to the imperatives facing the obdurate North Korean leadership. Nevertheless, and despite its protectors in Beijing and some of the ASEAN states, Rangoon has yet to show that stubborn rejection of internal and external pressure to engage with the opposition has paid off in any way. The military itself seems divided on the wisdom of current strategy and real change may still have to await the widening of these splits.

WATCHPOINT: Will other centres of domestic opposition emerge and have a real effect on the internal cohesion of the military itself?


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