Myanmar: The Road Built Around the Map

2004

[NAME AND ADDRESS WITHHELD. ED.]

There is a Myanmar adage ‘a road is created where an elephant treads’. In the Myanmar political jungle the ruling military government led by the State Peace and Development council (SPDC) is indeed an elephant, whereby the other major players (the political parties and the ethnic groups) can be likened to much smaller herbivores. Thus, following the newly appointed prime minister General Khin Nyunt’s announcement of a seven-step ‘road map’ on 30 August 2003, it appeared that other protagonists would have no choice but to follow the trail carved out by the military junta, if they wish to stay in the political game.

Khin Nyunt outlined a seven-step ‘political programme’, dubbed the ‘road map’ by the official English-language media, that comprised:

1. Reconvening the National Convention (NC).

2. Next, ‘a step-by-step implementation of the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and disciplined democratic system’.

3. A new constitution drafted according to the basic principles and details ‘laid down’ by the NC.

4. A referendum to adopt the constitution.

5. Holding ‘free and fair elections’ for national and regional legislative bodies or pyithu huttaws (people’s assemblies).

6. Convening of the Hluttaw.

7. ‘Building a modern, developed and democratic nation by the state leaders elected by the Hluttaw’ together with the ‘government and other central organs [of state power] formed by the Hluttaw’.

In essence, this ‘road map’ (with no time frame) is no different from the junta’s schemes on the future political governance of Myanmar propounded since the early 1990s, after refusing to hand over power to the National League for Democracy (NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi), which convincingly won the May 1990 elections. Given the extremely bad image suffered by the junta since Aung San Suu Kyi’s tour of upper Myanmar which ended in a violent and deadly clash between her entourage and a mob of detractors on the night of 30 May 2003 in Depeyin Township (resulting in the protective detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, party leaders and many of her supporters), it seemed to be a smart countermeasure against domestic dissent and widespread international condemnation of the ‘Black Friday’ incident at Depeyin. Despite the junta putting on a brave face, punitive measures imposed by the United States and the European Union (EU) and the withholding of humanitarian aid by Japan had created additional difficulties for the already moribund economy.

The timing of the announcement was also opportune, coming soon after the Thai government’s somewhat vague ‘road map’ proposal and the unprecedented joint communiqué of the 36th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (16-17 June), that ‘urged Myanmar to resume its efforts of national reconciliation and dialogue among all parties concerned leading to a peaceful transition to democracy’. Despite the skepticism shown by the regime’s opponents, Khin Nyunt’s plan has yielded an early harvest for the junta. This is despite the fact that the date for initiating the very first step has yet to be determined. At the Bali summit of ASEAN leaders in October, the group took Khin Nyunt’s exposition of his road map at face value and all leaders expounded favourable comments.

In early December, an unprecedented international conference sponsored by Thailand was held in Bangkok to discuss Myanmar’s political process at which Myanmar’s foreign minister declared that the NC would convene in 2004. The Thais described the meeting a ‘breakthrough’ and ASEAN as well as some European states appeared to endorse the further development of the so-called ‘Bangkok process’ to nudge Myanmar towards national reconciliation - though apparently on the latter’s terms. Even the harshly critical British cautiously welcomed the Thai initiative. Calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners have become rather muted and the international opprobrium of the junta appears to be slowly dissipating.

Domestically, after an initial hesitation, the cease-fire groups appear to be heeding the junta’s call to attend the NC. The bandwagoning is likely to kick in soon when it becomes apparent that the political train is getting underway. Even the intransigent Karens have begun peace talks brokered by the Thai army. Only the NLD, its political allies and some minor ethnic groups remain steadfast in the face of the junta’s charm offensive. Meanwhile, the junta has started working the ground by allowing mass rallies organized by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), in support of the road map, in all major cities of the country accompanied by a media blitz.

All in all, it looks like the elephant is trumpeting its road map with remarkable success and is prepared to blaze a trail to its liking, while bringing all those who subscribed to its proposal on board. At the same time, it may co-opt and incorporate elements of domestic and overseas opposition groups to show magnanimity and inclusiveness. The NLD leadership could be left isolated by their probable refusal to rejoin the NC on the junta’s terms. Even though the United States and the EU could still insist on ‘meaningful’ participation in the NC and a ‘genuine’ political reconciliation, their sanctions, diluted by enhanced interactions with regional states and ASEAN, are unlikely to force the junta to comply. It may even reinforce the junta’s siege mentality.

WATCHPOINT: The timing and composition of the National Convention and the reactions of the opposition and the international community will be important indicators of the state of play in this political ‘road map’ game.

 

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