There is little hope for a release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits the country tomorrow. So far, the ruling military junta has ignored all calls by the international community for a negotiated solution to the country’s political problems. Mr. Ban’s visit will follow eight previous visits by U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari — all of which failed to achieve anything but a few cosmetic changes and publicity stunts. Once the dust has settled, it has always been business as usual.
The fundamental flaw in the U.N.’s approach to Burma is that it fails to take into account how transitions from authoritarianism to more pluralistic societies have occurred in Asia. At a U.N. press briefing June 29, a spokesman said Mr. Ban plans to focus on three issues during his visit to Burma: the resumption of dialogue between the junta and the opposition, a process of “national reconciliation,” and the creation of “a condition conducive to credible elections in 2010.”
However, it would be difficult to “resume” a dialogue that has never begun. The junta has never mentioned “national reconciliation” in its announcements to the people of Burma — only “national reconsolidation,” code for perpetuating military rule without the participation of the opposition. The belief that the leader of the junta, Gen. Than Shwe, and Ms. Suu Kyi would sit down and discuss the country’s future is outright naïve. History has shown authoritarian regimes never negotiate away their hold on power. They crumble when someone inside the establishment refuses to carry out certain orders. Some observers liken Burma to South Africa, where negotiations did lead to democratization, but this comparison is misleading. South Africa had white minority rule over a black and colored majority. It was not a military dictatorship even remotely comparable with Burma’s political structure.
A better comparison for future political scenarios in Burma might be found in the Philippines or in Indonesia. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos fell in early 1986 when then-defense minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, and Fidel Ramos, then head of the Philippine Constabulary, refused to obey orders to suppress massive demonstrations in Manila and elsewhere. They sided with the opposition — and Marcos had to flee the country. Similarly in Indonesia in May 1998, troops refused to storm the parliamentary buildings in Jakarta that had been occupied by pro-democracy students and other activists. At first, heavily armed troops surrounded the complex — and then they left. The chain of events in Indonesia are more obscure than in the Philippines, but the withdrawal of troops from the parliament marked the beginning of the end of the rule of the old dictator, Suharto. A transitional period followed which eventually led to the establishment of functioning democracy in Indonesia.
South Korea’s democratic transition was also catalyzed by defectors from inside the government. In 1979 the country’s powerful intelligence chief Kim Jae-gyu assassinated then President Park Chung-hee, for which Kim was in turn executed in 1980. The South Korea government spent several years trying to suppress the country’s pro-democracy movement, culminating with a massacre in the city of Gwangju in May of 1980. But in the end South Korea became a thriving democracy — and the assassination of the authoritarian Park marked the beginning of the end of the old regime.
In Taiwan, democracy came after years of antigovernment street demonstrations throughout the 1980s. The final transition to democracy was comparatively smooth. But Taiwan is unique: It has to survive in the shadow of China, and being a democracy is a strong card it needs to play in international diplomacy.
The only Asian country where authoritarianism has been replaced by democracy through dialogue and elections is the Maldives — but this is a special case. In October 2008, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom lost the election and handed power to Mohammed Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner. But even that transition came after violent protests in 2004 and 2005. The December 2004 tsunami had devastated the Maldives and turned many against the country’s inept leadership. But it should also be remembered that the Maldives is a small country of just 300,000 inhabitants, and the economy is heavily dependent on tourism and, by extension, the country’s international reputation.
The U.N. has not learned from this history. In nearly two decades, the U.N. has sent envoy after envoy to Burma, with no consequential results. The first “independent expert” the U.N. sent to the country to study violations of human rights was Sadako Ogata, a Japanese professor who later went on to become the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The report she submitted to the U.N.’s Commission of Human Rights in December 1990, was unusually bland for a rights advocate. General elections had been held that year in May, resulting in a landslide victory for Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and Ms. Ogata concluded in her report that “it is not in dispute that it will be the task of the elected representatives of the National Assembly to draft a new constitution, on the basis of which a new government will be formed.”
But the assembly was never convened. Instead the government began arresting elected MPs and three years later formed a “constituent assembly” consisting of mostly handpicked people to draw up a new constitution. In subsequent years, a slew of U.N. envoys could do nothing to change this. Eighteen years later, in May last year, a seriously flawed referendum was held that “affirmed” that constitution. Parliamentary elections under this new constitution are scheduled for 2010.
Change in Burma is not going to happen through some kind of U.N.-initiated dialogue. The country’s military regime has on several occasions sent out “feelers” to various opposition personalities within the country and in exile, but these moves should be seen in the context of divide-and-rule rather than some sincere desire to discuss important matters with anyone outside the generals’ own ranks.
While the opposition remains weak and factionalized, the military leaders have over the years showed a remarkable ability to sort out conflicts among themselves to maintain unity. The 2010 election is only designed to institutionalize the present order. Like in other countries in Asia, change will come when someone within the ruling elite turns against the top leadership. But, at least for now, there are no signs of such discontent within Burma’s military establishment. This is the bitter reality and there is little meaning in the U.N.’s false hopes for Burma.
Mr. Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and author of several books on Burma.