The Awkward Dance of an Awakened Dragon

By Bamagyi 28 May 2012

It is said that when the Buddha achieved enlightenment, a giant Kala dragon awoke from its long sleep. According to the legend, the dragon was disturbed by the sound that the Buddha’s bowl made when it dropped after floating away on the Naranjara River. The dragon briefly stirred from its slumber to acknowledge that a new Buddha had come into being, and then returned to its slumber.

As this is the Year of the Dragon on the Chinese calendar, many observers have noted that Asia now has another newly awakened dragon: Burma. “Don’t wake a sleeping dragon,” Napoleon supposedly once said of China. Now many pundits are expressing concern that the rise of Burma may have a negative impact on some neighboring countries. The Burmese people, on the other hand, are quietly hoping the dragon doesn’t fall asleep again.

The last time Burma woke up was 64 years ago, when it emerged from colonial rule. But this wasn’t to last, and within a decade and a half, the country succumbed to the soporific influence of military rule. Now, more than half a century later, it is still having trouble waking completely from that nightmare.

Of course, as dragons go, Burma is no match for China in terms of being a potential menace to others. It is not of the fire-breathing variety, and it is only when our yearning for democracy reawakens that the world notices our rumbling and watches in apprehension.

At this stage, we can’t say how long this long-suppressed desire for freedom will continue to animate the country. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which has tried to harness this latent energy, is now wondering if it can keep it under control. It are no doubt more nervous than most, knowing that a fully democratic Burma will probably have little use for this vestige of the past. Meanwhile, the party has to contend with internal divisions—between the the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, between sub-committees and cabinet ministers, between the Lower House speaker and the president, and so on.

Lacking any ideological backbone, the USDP feels abandoned by its patron and mentor, Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Without the old dictator in charge, the party is flailing like a headless body. Aung Thaung and Tin Aung Myint Oo, his trusted minions, formed a hardline group to keep the discipline in Than Shwe’s “disciplined democracy.” But even more effective than their efforts to keep the dragon in check has been the deadweight of a bureaucracy built up under decades of military rule.

And then there’s President Thein Sein, who is like the head of a dragon in a traditional Chinese dragon dance. Despite his best efforts, the dragon’s body lies almost motionless behind him, stubbornly refusing to get in the spirit of things.

By contrast, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is full of enthusiasm after its April 1 by-election landslide. But it still lacks any viable power base in Parliament, and desperately needs to restructure itself and recruit and nurture new talent. Long led by old warriors, they will also have their work cut out for them as Burma undergoes dramatic changes and a new generation emerges.

But the NLD is nothing if not ambitious. On top of its internal overhaul, it has set itself the task of amending the 2008 Constitution, which is also designed to keep the dragon in chains. During the election, the party vowed to make sweeping changes to this military-drafted charter, and now it must deliver on those promises.

Even if it lacks the numbers to dominate Parliament, the NLD can use the national legislature as a stage on which to demonstrate its ability to tackle the state’s affairs. Before the next election in 2015, it must formulate and actively pursue comprehensive socioeconomic policies if it hopes to form the next government. New laws must be put in place to protect the interests of the people.

In the meantime, the USDP is still holding all the cards. If it wants to remain at all relevant, it will have to use this advantage to make the system more transparent and credible. Although it has paid lip service to the need for democratic reforms, it must go much further in abandoning the old ways if it wants to build a workable economy, which is the only thing it can do to legitimize itself in the eyes of ordinary Burmese.

Thein Sein has repeatedly prodded his advisers to mix and match the best of the old and new ways of doing things. Nobody expects the USDP to fundamentally change its ways, and nobody believes that the party has a genuine mandate, but with competent, trustworthy cabinet ministers, it could do much to redeem itself. One legacy of the old regime, however, is that it put many of the wrong people in positions of power in the new government. The sooner it can get rid of them, the better it will be for the USDP and for Burma. But that will be easier said than done.

First and foremost, the USDP must abandon the notion that only army personnel can be trusted to run any organization of importance. Professionals and scholars are needed to run a modern government, not men in uniform. Ministers should be chosen on the basis of their qualifications and good reputations, not on their loyalty to an antiquated system of military patronage. For example, in the areas that are most urgently in need of repair—the agricultural and educational sectors—the government should bring in genuine experts, rather than leaving policy in the hands of military men and those close to them.

Of course, even the best people will be powerless to make a difference if the whole group cannot work together harmoniously, like a dancing dragon. To achieve that, however, changes will need to be made. In some cases, those who are now dragging their feet can be taught to keep the rhythm with the rest. But for those who refuse to move, there may be only one solution: heads must roll.