By ARTHUR SIM
In the mid-1990s, Burma began to see the emergence of a new class of foreign-educated civilian elites at home and abroad. Many Burmese youths on the border had decided to settle in a third country and Western embassies in Rangoon started to sponsor study trips and professional training for notable local personalities in media and social work who would later be known under the banner of “civil society.”
By the early 2000s, the ruling junta had learned how to cleverly manipulate different stakeholders for its own strategic interests by allowing them well-calculated and limited political space instead of merely using crude methods of oppression.
After Depayin, a few leading Western-trained Burmese activists came to reckon that there was no prospect of ending the deadlock in the traditional paradigm of the conflict between the junta on one side and the mainstream opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi on the other.
Renouncing sanctions and advocating Track Two diplomacy, they came to highlight the role of moderates in national reconciliation. This, in effect, seemed to be the beginning of a movement which would be joined a few years later by like-minded intellectuals, veteran bureaucrats, media people, NGO careerists, ethnic peacemakers and business people in and outside Burma.
Regular scholarly seminars and increased networking among the best-trained Burmese have finally given the movement an air of elitism. Ideological underpinnings can influence elite behaviour and ambitions. Is this movement just an elitist maneuver of masterminding strategic assumptions in closed-door meetings? How much are these new elites prepared for different scenarios of political and social change in Burma?
The movement obviously is not monolithic. Media organizations have attempted to pin down some of its voices as Third Force or Third Group. Policy circles want to promote it as “emergent civil society” or “alternative elites” that differ from military and opposition elites.
The third force can be understood in two different ways. The first one is to see it as a movement that is agnostic about the traditional power struggle between the military regime and pro-democracy oppositions. The second is to understand it as a force which would pursue its interests by collaborating (or cooperating) with status quo powers in a “given” political process. Two other forces are hardliners refusing to work with the regime and hardcore activists aiming to participate in the process as a battleground for further confrontations.
The third force therefore shows more political ambition in the second interpretation. Empirically, the process means the Road Map and 2010 elections. Several third forcers accordingly view the 2008 constitution as a “transitional document,” and the future legislature as a substantial political platform.Their optimism has been reinforced by certain theories of “pacted transition” that focus on agency in the context of elite bargaining. They apparently take structural conditions only lightly and argue that 2010 will be a “structural shift.”
This second definition of the third force not only presents analytical problems, but also makes it unattractive. For one reason, the idea can accommodate a myriad of agents ranging from pro-Road Map clans, disgruntled former opposition members, veteran and seasoned politicians to ambitious kingmakers and power brokers of all stripes who would receive relative gains in the new system. This conceptual ground will be untenable if one group wants to exclude the others on value judgement.
For another, political leanings and independence of these groups vary greatly, raising the question of the definition of “moderates.” In a democratic transition, moderates will not be marked with “moderate” sign on their foreheads. Were the handful of former National League for Democracy MP-elects who decided to remain at the National Convention moderates? Will an outspoken, democratic representative highly critical of the regime’s dishonourable policies be considered too confrontational and branded as a hardliner? Will institutional contexts allow such a citizen to make it to Burma’s legislature and survive?
The regional political atmosphere indicates that Burma is moving in the direction of an “authoritarian transition”, but without enlightened leadership and respect of liberal values. Against this backdrop, domestic civilian elites will have a role to play. However, the reality on the ground may not be as simple as a few select strands of strategic thoughts, speculations, and wishful thinking that some of them have chosen to believe.
One of the striking features of the third force intellectualism is its optimism about Burma’s new constitution. Many third forcers choose to overlook the fact that the 2008 constitution was never meant to be a “transitional document” by the ruling military. Burma’s constitutional conundrum actually runs deeper than conceding 25 percent of legislative seats to the armed forces. The amendment procedure is purposely made rigid and difficult. Even if an amendment in favor of further democratization is procedurally successful, the commander-in-chief can stage a coup d’état under the pretext of preserving the constitution.
In terms of rights and freedom, the constitution adopts a parsimonious approach. Even the most fundamental rights are at the mercy of the whim of the regime which it vaguely refers to as “laws”. In post-colonial, developing countries, the most disturbing problem is the system of “rule by law” in the guise of “rule of law.” In such a system, governments may use any law, colonial or post-independence, arbitrarily to suppress political dissent. Mainly identifying democracy with elections and constitutions, some third-force strategists make irrelevant comparisons between consolidated democracies and illiberal regimes, magnifying checks and balances, real and imagined, in the latter.
Commonsensical reading of the country’s history implies that structural conditions and the essence of the Union Parliament after 2010 will be similar to those in the National Convention or in the Burmese Socialist Programme Party-era People’s Assembly. The most likely scenario will be representatives or delegates reading out the scripts that have been prepared in advance and authorized by centralized committees. The constitution requires a minimum of only one session of the Union legislature per year. With military representatives who also are public servants, one session might not be able to run for more than a few months. In fact, the constitution does not even need legislators to make laws. Union level organizations can also initiate a bill.
Thus, in the years that follow 2010, Burma’s alternative elites will be judged not by how much fascinating ideas about elite agreement they possess, but by how much they can achieve inside rigid and illiberal institutions. It is the essence which really matters. The ideas that disproportionately pay attention only to the form will be no more meaningful than those of Burmese exiles writing one constitution after another or forming one parallel government after another.
Indeed, a variety of elite groups that can closely associate with policy circles have gradually emerged over the past decade. Some enjoy cosy relationships with the military top brass and have come to believe they can actually influence the men in uniform. Overestimating their own ability and underestimating the psychological game the regime plays with them, they ignore important aspects of societal attitudes and mindsets which constitute the nation’s political culture. For these pseudo-political Brahmans, lobbying, networking, and tea-leaves reading on military elites have become rites and rituals.
Elitist movements downplay mass preferences, and the correlation between politics and passion. Yet, how will it be possible to explain the choice of political prisoners prepared to spend several years in prison for their beliefs? Why are some activists taking great personal risks to engage in specific civic movements?
Burma has a paradoxical political culture that oscillates between two extremes. At one end lies the “zero sum” mindset which sees everything from an “absolute gain” perspective. On the other, there is lax accommodation which allows ample space for contradictory thoughts and actions. The tension between them seemed to have created both radical breaks and unresolved conflicts in the nation’s history. Under oppressive regimes, Burmese political elites who tried to change or undermine the system from “within” never had much success. They mostly became ineffective and unresponsive to the people’s inputs with time.
Burmese political culture also has been marked by populism exploited by paternalist elites. A number of pre-war Burmese politicians, who also were elitist conservatives, shrewdly ran their campaigns on populist platforms. The electoral victories of late prime minister U Nu and Aung San Suu Kyi came from their direct appeal to populist roots.
Democratization is a long, evolutionary process. Western consolidated democracies also had to undergo elite-monopolized stages of transition until this was effectively challenged by civil and political rights movements of the 1960s. The fact that there are dynamics of social movements in every political development should not be overlooked. Such dynamics were recurrent about every ten years in Burma under colonial administration and authoritarian regimes. Burma’s road to democracy will be long, but civilian political elites will not have an indefinite tenure to reform decades-old structural conditions. In a future government, they will also be countered by their military colleagues, a highly-opinionated class mostly trained in authoritarian political cultures.
Furthermore, the constitution carries inherent seeds of endless conflicts. The largest and major ethnic groups are left out from the process and military domination has been institutionalized. If third-force elites cannot prevent further escalations of conflicts, violations of human rights, outflows of refugees, and improve livelihoods of the masses over the next ten years, the intellectual excitement they are currently showing for 2010 will be completely in vain.
The emergence and survival of democracy depends not only on economic development but also on certain cultural factors. The latter can be shaped by empowering the people in the form of civic education and democratic values. Burmese society must be transformed from one driven by fear into one driven by wisdom. Without these factors, as in many countries in the region, elites’ disregard or manipulation of the masses will only bring paternalism and crony capitalism, even if Burma can manage to have formal institutions of electoral democracy. In the worst case scenario, Burma will be as poor and unfree under despotic rulers as it is now. After all, third-force intellectuals should know even the worst-case scenarios are useful for strategic calculations.
Arthur Sim is an independent observer on Burmese politics and society.