Guest Column

Burma Takes a Big Step Backwards

By Min Zin 13 March 2015

Earlier this week, the Burmese authorities staged a violent crackdown on unarmed student protesters and their supporters, arresting at least 127 and seriously injuring dozens of others. The latest violence took place after a week-long standoff between students and police in the town of Letpadan, 90 miles north of Rangoon, Burma’s largest city. It was the second such incident within the space of just a few days. On Mar. 5, pro-government plainclothes thugs charged protesters in Rangoon itself. Burmese civil society groups and international watchdogs are decrying the violence. The US State Department has also condemned the crackdown.

Since January, thousands of students, including high schoolers, have been marching—in some cases for hundreds of miles—from major provincial cities to Rangoon. They’re doing so as part of a protest against Burma’s new National Education Law, which they believe is explicitly designed to curb academic freedom. After a series of talks with student representatives, the government agreed to amend the controversial law, and a special parliamentary committee is now debating the proposed changes. But the students pulled out of the discussions last week in response to a police blockade of their main protest group in Letpadan. Then the government attacked. In a country where students have played a crucial role in advancing political change—from the independence movement in the early twentieth century to the democracy movement of the late 1980s—the latest brutal crackdown does not bode well for Burma’s political transition.

In the past, the regime has successfully combined harsh violent reactions to dissent with political ploys to weaken the opposition, confuse the public, and defuse international pressure. Perhaps the regime is now studying this page of their old playbook and considering whether to apply it again. If it does, we can expect several rounds of talks between President Thein Sein (or Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing) and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Though such talks are not likely to facilitate a political breakthrough, they could eclipse the headlines of students being beaten and jailed.

Nonetheless, if previous patterns are any indication, Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), will probably swallow the bait again and seize the opportunity to downplay the student movement while advancing her political agenda. “The NLD never supports the use of violence,” she said when asked to comment on the latest violence. “There is nothing special we have to say. The rule of law is for everyone.” Later the NLD joined the general chorus of condemnation, stating that the government’s harsh action against the protestors was “not appropriate in a civilized society.” In fact, both the government and the Suu Kyi-led mainstream opposition view the student protests as an unwelcome challenge.

For the government, the student reform campaign is a conspiracy by radical veteran communists seeking to unseat the regime through confrontation. Late last month, the Ministry of Education circulated a confidential memo among senior university administrators alleging that the education bill the student protesters propose is nothing more than a communist attempt to overthrow “the current democratic system of governance.” For her part, Suu Kyi views the protests as a distraction from her own focus on changing the current military-authored constitution, which contains a number of provisions specifically aimed at preventing her from becoming president. Only by getting rid of these provisions can she hope to be elected to the country’s highest office. In recent speeches and interviews, the Lady has cautioned the students against exerting pressure on parliament about the education bill, while urging the public not to lose sight of the priority of constitutional reform.

It is true that some student leaders hold increasingly strong views and employ increasingly radical tactics. But this is because they have noted the obstructionism, the broken promises, and the delaying tactics of the government since it tabled the education bill early last year. It is true that some veteran activists, who the government alleges are communists, aim to exploit the students for broader purposes (such as regime change). Nonetheless, most student activists remain focused on the goal of educational reform. More importantly, the conspiracy theories fail to address the people’s genuine grievances or offer any viable solutions.

It’s also true that the protests have become a distraction, at least temporarily, from much-needed constitutional reform. But this has far less to do with the students’ demands than with the government’s brutal crackdown and the opposition’s conspiciuous inaction. The student movement has gained momentum because the mainstream opposition (above all the NLD) has failed to speak up about injustices ranging from land grabs to ethnic conflict, labor unrest, and, of course, educational reform. It is also possible that the opposition feels intimidated because the student protests mark the first national grassroots movement in 25 years which stands outside its purview.

“The students are the winners” has now become a major slogan on Burmese social media. But the reality is rather more complicated. Ironically, the first winner will probably be Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. Because this latest crackdown calls to mind the military’s past brutalities, people are more likely to cast protest votes against the military-backed ruling party in the next general elections scheduled for later this year. This will give an added boost to the NLD, which already enjoys strong public support.

If more urban protests ensue, however, and if instability intensifies as a result of the military’s latest campaigns against rebellious ethnic regions, the generals could step in to declare a state of emergency and postpone the general elections. The constitution allows the armed forces to sideline parliament and rule the country directly when a state of emergency is declared. The recent military takeovers in Egypt and Thailand are attractive models to Burma’s generals. After the Thai coup, Burmese army chief Min Aung Hlaing visited Bangkok as the first leader from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to meet with the military junta. The Burmese general made a point of praising his Thai counterparts for “doing the right thing.”

Senior Burmese officials have told me in private that there are regular high-level exchanges between two armies. Burmese generals are keen to learn how the Thais managed to pacify their notoriously fractious country, while the Thai army admires Burmese constitution that enshrines the army’s leading role in politics. The officials I interviewed last November told me that senior Burmese officers have also been carefully studying the situation in Egypt with interest as well. One thing’s for sure: In this case, the army will be the real winner.

It’s highly unlikely that the victims of this week’s violence will ever see the perpetrators—above all the minister of internal affairs—brought to account. As usual, the government will set up investigative commissions run by its own officials, but there will be little in the way of substantive follow-up. Senior spokesmen have repeatedly asserted that what happened in Rangoon and in Letpadan was in accordance with the law. Though the government has now released 17 of the detained students, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that any unlawful activity or “attempts to destabilize the country” will be charged and punished. Failing effective disciplinary action by the executive branch of government, it will be left up to parliament, which was quick to unanimously condemn the United States for sanctioning a notorious regime figure, to demand an accounting. Will its members live up to their responsibilities? Will the country’s unreformed judiciary allow attempts by victims to sue their abusers? The answers to these questions will show whether Burma’s embattled political transition has any life left in it at all.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Foreign Policy’s “Democracy Lab,” where this article first appeared on Mar. 12, 2015.