Making Friends with Foes?

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 30 December 2012

Making friends with enemies always entails an element of risk that the reverse might occur. In politics, that means losing allies and supporters and perhaps even being deemed a traitor to your cause. Although indeed risky, this is the current approach undertaken by both Myanmar’s opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and reformist President U Thein Sein.

Why should these two former foes—captive and captor—become friends? Various reasons: to rebuild the nation; avoid reversing recent tentative reforms; reconcile the government, opposition and ethnic groups; lift international sanctions; and win the 2015 election.

The motives of each might differ, but the more important question concerns what the people of Myanmar will gain out of this new tactic.

The “making friends strategy” began curiously with the two publicly praising each other. After meeting U Thein Sein for the first time in August 2011, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced her belief in the president’s sincerity.

This was heart-felt praise for the ex-general who has embarked on a series of bold liberalization measures since taking office in March 2011. His willingness to alter electoral regulations also persuaded the Nobel Laureate and other minority parties that boycotted the 2010 general election to rejoin the political process.

In September, while receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in the United States, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi insisted, “We must remember that the reform process was initiated by President U Thein Sein. I believe that he is keen on democratic reforms.”

The president, likewise, did not miss an opportunity to congratulate his former prisoner during an address to the UN General Assembly in New York. “As a Myanmar citizen, I would like to congratulate her for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy,” he said. These words would have been unthinkable only two years ago, and marked the first time that anyone from the military-dominated government has officially paid tribute to the democracy icon.

Then, with the blessing of U Thein Sein, two key ministers of the President’s Office, U Soe Thein and U Aung Min, attended a ceremony commemorating the 24th anniversary of the country’s pro-democracy uprising, known as 8-8-88, in which at least 3,000 peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the then-junta.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) MPs donated one million kyat (US $1,150) to the organizers, the 88 Generation Students group comprised of former political prisoners. Their gesture went some way towards appeasing the critics of the government.

Moreover, the president and his team also reached out to ethnic armed groups in order to agree ceasefires and invited exiled dissidents to return home and take part in their reform process.

All parties—including opposition and government—seem to be attempting to achieve the national reconciliation which many leaders believe is essential for future peace, prosperity and democracy.

Three main divisions of power—obvious offspring of the former junta—currently exist in Myanmar: the government comprised of ex-generals, generals-turned-parliamentarians in the legislature and the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other leading democracy advocates realize the need to tread carefully in order not to excessively antagonize this trio. The still-dominant Tatmadaw is not yet ready to return to the barracks. Moreover, the military continues to wield near-total power and is able to interfere in politics at any moment, according to the widely-condemned 2008 Constitution.

This new political order looks more challenging and complicated for the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman and the wider dissident community.

For the past half-century, no one—including the NLD, other opposition groups or ethnic rebel armies—has been able to free Myanmar from the clutches of its current and former generals. Thus, having some “reformists” emerging out of the old political order offers the best opportunity to move forward. This is why we must welcome the forging of new friendships, even if this involves some risk.

Friends without Benefits?

Despite her noble intentions, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s image has become tainted both internationally and domestically.

Probably in an effort not to alienate the government, she has taken a “neutral” stand—seemingly at odds to her customary outspoken character—and choose to be silent on sensitive issues such as the ongoing conflict between government troops and the ethnic rebel Kachin Independence Army in northernmost Myanmar, where tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to refugee camps by the Chinese border.

Most Kachin feel betrayed, thus costing the opposition leader the support of many who enabled the NLD to win 73 percent of Kachin State parliamentary seats in the annulled 1990 general election.

But that is not all. Regarding the bloody conflict between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in western Myanmar, the 67-year-old said, “We do not want to criticize the government just for the sake of making political capital. We want to help the government in any way possible to bring about peace and harmony in the Rakhine State.” Again, her “neutral” stand disappointed everyone outside Naypyitaw’s corridors of power—the international community, the Rakhine people and the Rohingya.

The reason behind this conciliatory approach became apparent when she said during her trip to the US, “What has happened in the past has taught us that if we want to succeed we have to work together and the whole future of Burma is before us,” using the country’s former name. “If we are to ensure this future for the succeeding generations, we all have to learn to work together.”

Having huge influence over foreign leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi advocated Western countries to lift sanctions against Myanmar—something that U Thein Sein’s administration desperately desired while also providing the opportunity to reintegrate into global affairs.

Understanding the important role of the powerful Tatmadaw in the reform process, she also informally tried to befriend high-ranking military officials in Parliament by inviting them for informal meetings over lunch. But the top brass reportedly refused her offers, signaling that there is still a way to go. This will be a monumental task for the opposition leader, despite being the daughter of national hero Gen Aung San, the founder of the Tatmadaw.

Successful or not, this pacifying political trend is highly likely to continue until the 2015 election. As chairpersons of the NLD and the ruling USDP respectively, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Thein Sein must try to defeat each other at the upcoming ballot, despite the need to maintain a cordial atmosphere for national reconciliation.

But how long can this last? Considering the schoolyard taunting that characterizes the UK Parliament and the belligerent rhetoric that marred this year’s US presidential elections, it appears that “true democracy” requires a willingness to accept a certain amount of confrontation when debating key issues.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will try to win a landslide victory for her party as she did in 1990—if conducted freely and fairly, such an outcome seems almost certain. On the other hand, U Thein Sein and his team will be determined to maintain the current political structure of having three important power holders—the government, Tatmadaw and Parliament dominated by the military—while also maintaining an NLD presence in the legislature for the sake of appearances.

Thus, we can assume that it is highly unlikely that the 2015 election will be strictly free and fair. Myanmar’s next five years look likely to be a continuation of the status quo but with the NLD and other parties gaining more seats in the legislature.

Even if the 2008 Constitution is amended to allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to take top office, the highest position she might be able to obtain is as one of the two vice-presidents. Seeing the growing support for U Thein Sein, both internationally and domestically, and the USDP’s determination to come out on top by hook or by crook, he looks likely to stay in power until the end of the decade.

However, if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the president shift away from the “making friends strategy,” Myanmar’s traditionally uncertain political landscape could become even more unpredictable.

This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.