Guest Column

Politics of the Elites vs. of the People

By Saw Kapi 6 September 2016

What appeared to be minor procedural differences around the planning of the 21st Century Panglong Conference held recently in Naypyidaw emerged, in fact, out of two different schools of political thought—politics of the elites, on the one hand, and politics of the people, on the other.

The whole event was broadcast live and uncensored. A total of 72 people from different political and ethnic backgrounds presented their thoughts and hopes for the country, representing a range of political parties as well as the military, the government and ethnic armed organizations. Ten minutes was allowed for each presentation.

Whether this arrangement was planned and agreed to in advance remains a question. Who authorized the live broadcast of the event is also a matter of speculation.

Some, especially those who subscribe to the politics of the elites, are concerned that broadcasting the whole conference live through government-owned MRTV has opened a Pandora’s box. The situation could get out of control, they worry, after leaders of ethnic armed organizations and political parties were allowed to speak freely and openly—not only in front of Burma Army officers in the conference hall, but to the whole country.

These worries are rooted in the perspective that Burma’s current conflicts should be resolved behind closed doors by political elites. They think the agenda of the conference should have been carefully managed by “conflict resolution experts,” and that ordinary citizens should have received the information through carefully staged press conferences.

They have often argued from the standpoint of information security, contending in the most blatant terms possible that the Burma Army should not concern itself with ethnic political voices.

Another school of thought is more in line with the pulse of the country: politics of, for and by the people.  The thinking goes that, if we are to openly and honestly solve this country’s ills together, we all need to be on the same page—collectively identifying the problems, and recognizing their magnitude and complexity. No one should pretend as though he or she has the silver bullet.

This view holds that solutions to the country’s long-standing political problems should come directly from the very people who have suffered from the absence of peace and national harmony.

People aligned to this viewpoint—which this author believes includes State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi— recognize that it is extremely important to set the right stage and tone from the start. They appear to understand that the required trust can only be gained by being transparent to the people about this historic conference.

In the end, it seems the latter view won. The 21st Century Panglong Conference was televised live over the full four days. A Pandora’s box has indeed been opened—but was this not a necessary step, if we are to truly understand our nation’s political and psychological condition, and draw from it a plausible, shared solution?

Saw Kapi is a co-founder and director of the Salween Institute for Public Policy.