Guest Column

Myanmar’s ‘Neutral’ Intellectuals Are Poison

By Banyar Aung 12 December 2022

Once prominent opposition figures who fought the military dictatorship, some former activists are indirectly helping the current military regime in Myanmar.

But this is not unusual in this Southeast Asian nation. Its political history is littered with such opportunistic political scoundrels.

When the enemy is too strong to defeat, they opt to cooperate with it. They betray their political principles and commitments, and willingly serve the interests of the enemy in exchange for some entitlements granted to them.

In the post-independence period, politicians contested for highly paid seats in the government and parliament with the pledge to serve the interests of the people. But they forgot their words after they were elected to office. They betrayed the public’s trust in them.

When General Ne Win seized power in 1962 and subsequently introduced his economic ideology, the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” which finally pushed Myanmar into grinding poverty, many rose against his rule. But then, some opponents obediently worked to advance the general’s “socialism” dream after bravely fighting the military on the front line for years. They betrayed themselves.

Similarly, those who once advocated loudly for democracy and federalism in the country are serving the current military regime today. Some dissidents who bravely fled life imprisonment from notorious Cocogyun Island are now submissively working for the junta.

Once they fought bravely for the cause of democracy and human rights in Myanmar, but today, they are cooperating with those whom they once called the enemy.

While some are publicly collaborating with their former enemy, some are not. The way they are helping the regime is so subtle that it is difficult to notice.

After the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, many went into exile, and some reached Western countries where they were trained by international agencies in democratic norms, and conflict resolution. Some of them obtained master’s degrees and doctorates.

Some got familiar with political theories of Western countries though they did not obtain degrees. They tried and worked out solutions for Myanmar’s conflicts. They also shared their thoughts with the public, and were appointed to international organizations, international news agencies, and Myanmar-focused organizations funded by Western countries. From revolutionaries, they became political intellectuals.

After the democratization process in 2010, there were louder calls for dialogue and national reconciliation, following some political reforms initiated under U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government. Inevitably, the political intellectuals and organizations backed by Western countries played a part in this trend.

Their theories and perceptions of democracy, federalism, human rights, gender equality and environmental conservation commanded considerable attention from the educated. Citing the interesting examples of Colombia, South Africa, Indonesia, Nepal, and India’s federalism, they promoted themselves as the political know-how in Myanmar’s peace process.

It must be noted that the notion of national reconciliation was at the time centered around the commonly held belief that Myanmar’s military, as the strongest institution in the country, couldn’t be left out of the country’s politics if Myanmar’s prolonged political problems were to be solved.

This notion grew stronger when the previous government dominated by ex-generals accepted the electoral victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and handed over power to it in 2016. With that notion growing in popularity, people did not care about which side those political intellectuals supported.

The military coup on Feb. 1 last year forced a drastic change in Myanmar’s political landscape. The political bubble of national reconciliation burst, and the notion of military-centered problem solving was thrown into question.

The coup has also forced politicians and those involved in politics to choose one side. It is also impossible for political intellectuals to hold a neutral stand because they must have a firm stance and view in order to judge a political problem.

Most of them still uphold the military-centered approach and call for dialogue to solve political problems in Myanmar. They condemn the armed resistance, ignoring the fact that Myanmar people were only peacefully demanding democracy until many of their friends and relatives were deliberately shot dead in brutal crackdowns. And they have not spoken a word in criticism of the military putsch.

They have advocated ceasefire and dialogue, and try secretly to promote ceasefires between the regime and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). They fail to stand by the Myanmar people and make no effort to understand their plight. They are tight-lipped about the regime’s faults, and its countless atrocities, and fail to objectively assess the changing situation.

In other words, they are serving the interests of the regime in the name of peace and political dialogue, while ignoring the fact that the Myanmar military has never had a genuine desire for peace.

They ignore the need to recognize and engage with the parallel National Unity Government and the People’s Defense Force, which represent democracy forces from Bamar-majority central Myanmar, if Myanmar’s crisis is to be solved.

Instead, they have only engaged with EAOs, and urged them to observe a ceasefire. Their action contributes to the regime’s strategy to make a temporary truce with EAOs, and focus its efforts on crushing the democratic forces in central Myanmar.

Unlike the political scoundrels of previous eras, political scoundrels of today do not publicly cooperate with the regime. As they enjoy fat remuneration packages from their foundations funded by Western countries, they don’t need to ask for entitlements from the regime, and don’t need to risk their image by openly supporting the regime.

They are not as noticeable as political scoundrels from previous eras. But they are still a major obstacle to Myanmar’s prospects of achieving genuine democracy.

Citing their personal experience of armed struggle in the past, they argue the ongoing armed resistance is hopeless, and will finally end up at the dialogue table. If the military had a real desire for dialogue and genuine peace in Myanmar, there might be something to what they say.

Using their image, they are promoting the idea of dialogue. But they are ignoring the regime’s violence against the Myanmar people. They have not mentioned a word about the thousands of people who have died at the hands of the Myanmar military since last year’s coup. They are silent about the regime torching many villages in central Myanmar.

The foundation of their thought is not to complain about what the Myanmar military does, and to take what it gives. They are acting based on that view.

It is important for people to be aware of their thoughts and actions. They are poison to both the country and the people.

Banyar Aung is a political and military analyst.