The dust is starting to settle after Aung San Suu Kyi’s election win. A cascade of optimistic vibes has washed across Burma, and now its ripples are beginning to influence discussions — both popular and policy– around the world. Right now, the questions that we ask tend to be pretty consistent. Will the changes last? What do the military men really want? Is this too good to be true?
But for too long the equations about Burma have been too simple. Aung San Suu Kyi = good; The generals = bad. Ethnic politics + Burman chauvinism = strife. Burma < Thailand.
You all know the sums.
Instead of rehearsing my responses to those questions, and my analysis of the prevailing equations (all of which I have done a fair few times in recent days, for audiences big and small), let me turn to some of the changing political equations that aren’t yet getting enough attention.
First, for “reform” to get real traction the relationship between the Burman majority and the non-Burman minorities needs to be re-conceived. I sometimes suggest that former military commanders — familiar with the terrain, cultures and even languages of ethnic minority areas — are well-positioned to help negotiate minority issues. Compared to many urban Burmese they, at least, have some sense of why ethnic minorities have put up such fierce resistance. Relatively few urban Burmese ever travel to places like Myitkyina or Lashio, let alone to far-flung corners like Haka or Mong Hsat. Therefore, a big chunk of Burma’s reformist energy will need to focus on the inter-communal learning, sharing and compromise that comes with creating a peaceful, multi-ethnic union. On the long list of challenges that lie ahead I think this is the most daunting.
Second, there are going to be tricky issues when the spoils of the transition are distributed and questions are asked about who most deserves a slice of the action. Burmese migrant workers living in Malaysia, exiles in Thailand, and countless refugees and others scattered around the world, are now looking closely at their prospects for return. Many will come back with suitcases bulging with skills, resources and contacts. But will everyone readily accept their return? Re-integrating a politically and socially diverse diaspora is rarely straight forward. If they choose to return home, their re-entry to Burmese society will change the equations and introduce all manner of unpredictable elements.
Third, there are the 400,000 (or so) members of the armed forces that need to be taken into acount. For the past seven decades, young, ambitious Burmese have joined the armed forces, or married into it, in an effort to get closer to power and prosperity. The process of demilitarisation of Burmese society is as sensistive as it is essential. In 2012 the armed forces are too unwieldy and carry too much baggage to provide effective internal security. And their tasking for international contingencies will need to be fully re-imagined. But as Thailand shows, it can be difficult to build a nimble and professional armed force that ever fully disavows political entanglements.
With these three sets of issues in mind, President Thein Sein and his allies are hoping to change Burma’s equations. The events of the past week should give them extra confidence that many well-wishers, from Burma and around the world, are ready to contribute to this process. Many wonder what Burma will look like if it manages to get rid of the shadow of military dominance, and ethnic war, and grinding poverty. We hope it will be a much happier place.
Many years ago I wrote:
I certainly agree that it will be a wonderful day when a slogan like “Happy Land: Myanmar” can be proclaimed with a straight face.
With that prospect in mind I have more writing and thinking to do. Realistic assessments of the changing equations are one place to start.