Guest Column

Why Burma's Opposition Is Playing with Fire

By Min Zin 28 July 2012

Burmese government ministers and their proxies are building up their frequent flyer miles. They’ve been making trips to their Southeast Asian neighbors as well as Western countries ranging from Norway to the U.S., the newest enthusiasts of Burma’s reform. The cynics might characterize these trips as part of a charm offensive, but in fact they’re much more substantive than a PR ploy. These are not the usual attempts to solicit aid from the West; they are, in fact, part of a campaign “to bring the exiles back home.”

Major Zaw Htay, the director of the Presidential Office, recently made a visit to the U.S., where he met with a cozy reception from the State Department and some Burmese groups. Hla Maung Shwe, a leading businessman-cum-advisor to the regime, is due in August. In fact, Burma’s general-turned-civilian president, Thein Sein, has apparently assigned his trusted aides to lead these delegations to court the West and the community of political exiles.

Min Zin
Min Zin

Traditionally the regime has used various combinations of three strategies against dissenters: coercion, containment, and co-optation. Now, for the first time, the Burmese state is relying primarily on co-optation to stabilize and legitimize its regime-led transition. One of the most repressive states in the world is now working hard to embrace and absorb the opposition, both at home and abroad. (In the image above, opposition leaders take the parliamentary oath.)

Thein Sein explicitly announced this agenda in his inauguration speech of March 31, 2011. He urged all parties to “work together in the national interest” rather than engaging in oppositional politics against the government. Parliamentary leaders discourage the non-ruling members of parliament from using the word “opposition” in parliamentary debates.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who entered parliament after a sweeping victory in the by-elections earlier this year, has so far responded to the regime’s overtures. She emphasized that she joined the parliament — which is dominated by the military-backed party — in order to cooperate with all the forces represented there, not to oppose the government. Suu Kyi has proved her credentials as a member of the “loyal opposition” by accepting an assignment from the parliament to help in lifting Western sanctions against Burma. (For instance, she called U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and asked him to remove the remaining trade sanctions.)

I have no quarrel with any of this. I have long argued that the opposition should allow themselves to be co-opted into the existing political game as an inevitable part of a dual-track strategy that places equal emphasis on participation and contestation. In this fragile phase of the transition — one in which the balance of power is skewed toward the ruling elites — the opposition must work with the incumbents to undertake much-needed institution-building.

However, the recent violent ethnic riots in Arakan state between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims has opened an unexpected and larger opportunity for the regime to put its co-optation strategy into practice by exploiting nationalist passions. Both sides in this communal conflict are underdogs: The Arakan people, who are repressed and exploited by the Burmese-dominated military regime, and the Rohingyas, who reside at the very bottom of the country’s discriminatory pecking order. By killing each other, the two groups themselves become the ultimate losers. But the regime — which has allegedly committed human rights violations against the Rohingyas after having declared a state of emergency in the region — has successfully managed to stir up a siege mentality within the Burmese people at home and abroad.

In early July, President Thein Sein told UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres that the country will not allow the illegal immigrant Rohingyas to live in the country, and that the only solution to the problem is to hand the Rohingyas over to the UNHCR, which must put them in refugee camps, providing food and shelter. Otherwise, they will be sent to a third accepting county.

Burmese racists are rallying behind Thein Sein’s massive resettlement policy. State flags are flying in Arakan state hailing the president’s position. There are also plenty of unashamedly racist comments circulating in social media outlets. But it is above all the local media and some leading activists and monks — the same ones who spent years in the military’s gulags for championing democracy and human rights — who are cheerleading the regime’s approach. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, a symbol of morality in the world at large, is silent on the racist nature of this discrimination and violence, instead treating it as an issue of the rule of law.

The once much-despised army is now being regarded as the indispensable defender and savior of “national security.” Ironically, many exiled “freedom fighters” — who sought refugee status in democracies like Japan or England after crying out against the military’s violations of human rights — are now staging demonstrations in support of Thein Sein’s plan to expel 800,000 Rohingyas from the country. They use the phrase “national interest” without explaining what they mean by it. They style themselves as defenders of “national sovereignty,” without understanding that in the modern world, the matter of external sovereignty (such as territorial integrity) is protected by international law. (And, in so doing, they tend to overlook that the critical issue in Burma right now is actually the democratization of internal sovereignty — reforming, in other words, the relationship between the state and the people by giving greater power to the latter.)

The Arakan violence shows that the mainstream opposition, along with a considerable segment of the population, have failed to appreciate the universality of human rights and dignity. Contrary to Buddha’s teaching, they fail to practice compassion for all victims of violence. (And it’s worth noting that, in any case of communal violence, it is always hard to claim that one side is purely innocent and the other the absolute villain.)

All this makes them highly susceptible to the regime’s demagoguery. Such situations can lead to different outcomes. In certain cases, where pro-democracy activists have managed to maintain their focus on liberal values, being co-opted by the ruling regime has ultimately led to an open society. (I’m thinking here particularly of Chile in the 1980s.) But there are other cases where opposition forces have succumbed to state nationalism, which then becomes a recipe for fascism and bloodshed. (Just take the Balkans in the 1990s.) Burma’s presumed pro-democracy activists would be well-advised to keep these two possible paths in mind.

Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.