The Military vs. Democracy 30 Years On

By The Irrawaddy 12 August 2018

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Aug. 8 marked the 30th anniversary of the 8888 pro-democracy popular uprising. On such an occasion, people are asking if the demand for democracy made then has been fully satisfied. We can see that those demands are yet to be met. We will try to find out why people from all walks of life, political parties, students’ unions who participated in the 8888 uprising haven’t seen their demands fulfilled. What were our weaknesses? Ko Sanny, also known as Ko Thiha Thu, and Ko Yan Myo Thein, who participated in the uprising, join me to discuss this. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe.

It has been 30 years since the popular uprising. As I’ve said, it is fair to say that we have achieved a certain degree of democracy that we demanded 30 years ago. We now have an elected government. But the democracy we now enjoy is built on the political landscape paved by the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. So, Ko Sanny, what were our — I mean those who participated in the uprising — weaknesses and faults and what did we do wrong?

Sanny: It is not easy for such an uprising to take place. People from all walks of life came together to defy the government, the one-party political system. We wanted political freedom and demanded democracy. We demanded social and economic freedom from the government, which had been exercising a closed-door policy. People expressed their wishes and the entire nation joined in. But the entire nation’s people can’t control the power. There are people who provided political leadership to take power through the popular movement. Leaders such as Aung- Suu-Tin (referring to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo and U Aung Gyi) emerged, and other unions also emerged. There was also (then-Prime Minister) U Nu. The military didn’t want to give democracy, so it played dirty tricks to weaken the protesters. It promised multi-party democratic elections. It did hold elections, but then said that there was no constitution.

KZM: It refused to recognize the election results.

Sanny: Yes, it refused, giving the excuse that there was no constitution. The constitution had been drafted but it was not finished until 2008. The military maintained a firm grip through the constitution and gave us a so-called democracy. But it is fair to say that it is a sham democracy.

KZM: The uprising hoped to achieve genuine democracy. Ko Sanny said that people asked for democracy through that popular movement, but the military regime refused to give it. But around the world, no dictator or totalitarian regime is willing to give up power easily. Ko Yan Myo Thein, what were the weaknesses of pro-democracy activists?

Yan Myo Thein: The military seized power in 1962. Then all the institutions were toppled. There were no political parties or independent unions. When we got involved in the 8888 uprising all of a sudden, we were very weak at creating a systematic organization. Though people worked side by side, the understanding and connection between them was weak. Similarly, there were serious weaknesses in the connection between leadership and the people on the ground. The political will of our former rulers and the military was very weak during the democratic transition of our country. The opposition party (the National League for Democracy) proposed time and again to hold talks with the military regime after the 1990 elections but they didn’t happen. It refused to hold talks because of (its plan to draft) the 2008 Constitution. It drafted the Constitution to give itself a (favorable) playing field to play with the opposition. That’s why it released Daw Aung San Suu Kyi only after 2010 and held talks with her through various channels, and finally she got into Parliament. What we demanded in 1988 was democracy and the downfall of dictatorship. Today, the domination of dictatorship largely remains and the democracy we’ve got is half-real and half-sham.

KZM: The NLD won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections but the military regime refused to transfer power. Then the whole world took different actions for a regime change in the country over the past 30 years. Myanmar people also took part in it. There are student unions as well as over 90 political parties now. So their pro-democracy efforts failed because they lacked better political strategies, shrewder moves, and closer cooperation? They were only oppressed by the other side because they lacked effective political strategies and were slower than the other side. We should review these issues. Only through self-assessment will we know what we should do in the future. Even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is under fire now. There has been criticism of her leadership, her weakness in operating policies, and the capacity of her cabinet members. Ko Sanny, what else do you want to say about this?

Sanny: The main problem of our country, our society is the military. Both active and retired military officials have political influence. Their attitude is that the military is the noblest institution in the country and their leaders have a monarchial mindset. The military has not yet decided how it would properly participate and behave in the society at large. (Real changes are unlikely) unless the military leaders accept that they must mend their ways and withdraw their role and interests for the development of society.

KZM: The military has no strong political will to implement change. This is the reason for today’s situation. Comparing today with 1988, the NLD has gotten power after 30 years though the 2008 Constitution, (but the government) still doesn’t meet democratic norms. They don’t hold 100 percent of the seats, but they have become the government. There is a certain degree of press freedom. Civil society organizations have emerged, so this indicates that we’ve been given space. If we are to proceed to genuine democracy – the ultimate goal demanded by the people in 1988 – how can we negotiate with the military leaders and change their political will? This will largely depend on the performance of those who demand democracy. The other side may not be willing to reduce their power to less than 25 percent (of the seats). Ko Yan Myo Thein, how can we change their attitude?

YMT: Trust-building is critically important, I think. As I’ve said, there was little dialogue between the government and the opposition before 2010. The NLD became the ruling party and government after 2015, but there is a need to have more dialogue, engage more and make a greater effort to build trust. There is a dire need to build trust now not only between civilians and soldiers, but also between ethnicities and different political organizations. Without it, the democracy we demanded in 1988 will not take shape. Again, I’ve found that the level of centralization is too high in both government and Parliament. Centralization is the opposite of democracy, so if we want to oppose dictatorship and establish a genuine democracy, we need to decentralize. But for the time being, there are weaknesses and shortcomings in grasping opportunities.

KZM: Civil-military relationships continue to exist in countries with unique political environments like ours. The Tatmadaw (military) needs to participate as an institution in political reforms of the country. Taking a look at our region, democracy doesn’t flourish much in Southeast Asia. There are only a few democratic countries. It has been 30 years. So, Ko Sanny, what is your suggestion for us to get genuine democracy?

Sanny: It’s not all bad; the gains we’ve achieved today are concessions we’ve won from the military.

KZM: It is the outcome of the efforts made in the 1988 uprising.

Sanny: Yes, in consequence we gained things such as the right to stand for election, and we got the right to legislate in Parliament, so we have gained a certain degree (of democracy). Though the General Administration Department is not under the control of the civilian government, other departments are. There are also things that need to be reformed in administration and legislation. We should also think about how we can make use of opportunities to persuade the military. We are still weak at doing this. We have only got what the military is willing to give, and we still don’t get the things that it doesn’t want to give. We should tell them how much they should give and make them give that. In that sense, there is a need for real dialogue. Dialogue may take place in different forms, but the most important thing is that it take place between real decision makers. The government should try to understand the concerns of the military and give it guarantees so that its concerns may ease, as in the case of Indonesia. It should be fine then.

KZM: Ko Yan Myo Thein, what are your suggestions for taking further steps?

YMT: I think the constitutional crisis is the most important thing to focus on. At the silver anniversary of the 8888 uprising five years ago, it was agreed that the Constitution should be amended or rewritten. If we can’t solve the constitutional crisis at present, there will be delays in the peace process and in the development of the country. To solve this crisis, in my view, political, military and ethnic leaders should take time and hold thorough negotiations.

KZM: An agreement will come from negotiations.

YMT: We need to build the future of our country based on that agreement. We might not be able to enjoy it, but we should build a good foundation for our children and grandchildren.

KZM: It has been 30 years now, and we’ll have to wait and see if we will achieve genuine democracy in the next 10 years. Thank you all!

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.