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Birthday blues in Burma

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In Brief

Burma’s most recognisable political figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, turns 64 today. She will likely celebrate this milestone alone. Her captors, the military men who have kept her incarcerated for 13 of the past 19 years, do not share the world’s empathy with her plight.

They dismiss Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize winner as a ‘foreign stooge’. In the next breath they can be heard celebrating the glorious life of her father, Burma’s independence hero, General Aung San. With mind-numbing regularity the senior ranks of the Burmese military heap scorn on her political party; and her supporters are disciplined and punished to a point where many find life in Burma intolerable. Each year these supporters struggle to survive while the Generals grow richer and more confident.

Over the next year we expect that the Generals will seek to engineer a transition from absolute military rule to what they call 'discipline-flourishing democracy'. In their preferred system—one they are willing to impose with jackboots and nation-wide intimidation—there will be no place for anyone with strong foreign ties. Aung San Suu Kyi’s marriage to the late Michael Aris, a British academic, means that she may never be allowed an active role in politics again.


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Whatever sophistication they have acquired over their decades in charge the Generals generally retain their deeply xenophobic inclinations. They don’t trust foreigners or those who fraternise with them.

From that perspective the curious American aquatic intruder who interrupted Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest in early May 2009 was simply perfect. He gave them an opportunity to cast new doubt on Aung San Suu Kyi’s intentions. One particularly out-spoken Burmese government official broadcast the view that ‘we have no idea whether he is either secret agent or her boyfriend’. It seems likely that he was neither.

But this does not matter now that his peculiar intrusion has catalysed a renewed effort to keep Aung San Suu Kyi locked up. Her hastily arranged trial has been postponed, for the moment, to consider whether further defence witnesses will be allowed. There is widely-voiced anticipation that at the end of this judicial process she will continue her incarceration.

In this battle of wits and stamina both sides are unwilling to yield.

In this stalemate it can, however, be easy to overlook the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi versus the Generals is only part of the story. What is most telling about the current configuration of power inside Burma is that she is not the only anti-government force that the Generals are worried about.

Over recent months we have seen increasingly strong signals that many, if not all, of Burma’s major ceasefire armies will resist efforts to be co-opted as part of the government security apparatus. These efforts are integral components of the road-map to ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’. The Generals hope to out-manoeuvre and eventually dis-arm the more than a dozen other armies on Burmese soil.

To achieve this goal the head of the government’s military intelligence agency has been actively courting the leadership of armed groups across the length of the country. But some of the major ceasefire armies, like the Wa and Kachin, are voicing concerns about any political future that does not include their desires for substantial, and permanent, autonomy.

Since signing their ceasefire agreements a crucial part of their survival strategy has been the maintenance of their weapons and armed strength. It is a strategy that now sees some of the ethnic ceasefire armies in positions where they are, once again, contemplating open opposition to the government’s agenda. In recent weeks there have been reports of troop movements around the country’s borders that point towards a future resumption of hostilities.

If armed opposition to Burmese military rule escalates in the border areas there is every reason to expect that Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement will not be able to stay on the sidelines. The Generals will, of course, see any preparations for war from the ethnic armies as part of a foreign plot, with Aung San Suu Kyi at its apex.

Their fear is that without the strong and experienced hand of military leadership, Burma will fracture into a dozen, or more, separate ethnic realms. They have no faith in Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to keep the country together. For the Generals it is the military alone that is capable of preserving national unity, peace and development.

For many of us, Aung San Suu Kyi’s 64th birthday is yet another sad milestone in her long and unjustified imprisonment. However, for the Generals it pales against their other worries for the year ahead as they attempt to make an inevitably difficult transition to ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’. For Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters the Generals’ current troubles, and their looming confrontations with the ceasefire armies, will be no consolation at all.

Whichever way you look at it, there is no happy birthday this time around.

Since June 2006 Nicholas Farrelly has co-convened the New Mandala blog. It specialises in mainland Southeast Asian politics and societies. He works in the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

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