Two articles in the most recent edition of Contemporary Southeast Asia will be of interest to many New Mandala readers. Both pieces engage with important questions for the future of Burmese politics.

Derek Tonkin. “The 1990 Elections in Myanmar: Broken Promises or a Failure of Communication?“. Contemporary Southeast Asia. April 2007. Vol. 29, Iss. 1; p. 33 (22 pages)

Abstract: The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a resounding victory in the May 1990 general elections, but was unable to persuade the ruling military junta to agree to the transfer of power. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) had initially promised when they took control in September 1988 that whichever party won the elections could form the new government. But within months they backtracked as democracy activists, led by the NLD, pursued a vigorous campaign for basic civil rights, including freedom of expression, publication and assembly. Internationally, the junta could not compete for the world’s understanding against the iconic, charismatic personality of the daughter of the leader of Burma’s independence, Aung San Suu Kyi. A more appropriate charge against the SLORC than failure to hand over power is that they did not allow elected members of the new National Assembly to play the major role in supervising the drafting of the new constitution, as they had promised both before and after the elections This article argues that the facts about the post-election constitutional process set out prior to the elections by the SLORC should be recognized if the continuing confrontation between the NLD and other pro-democracy parties and the military regime is to be fully understood.

For some context, in the immediate aftermath of Thailand’s September coup, Derek Tonkin, the author of this article and a former British Ambassador to Thailand, wrote to The Times expressing his support for the military junta. An account of Tonkin’s stance on Thai politics is available from the New Mandala archives. He is now retired from the Foreign Office, serves as a Director of Euro-Thai Investments Ltd. and is described as an “an independent writer and commentator on Thai, Vietnamese, and Burmese affairs”.

Ashley South.Karen Nationalist Communities: The “Problem” of Diversity“. Contemporary Southeast Asia. April 2007. Vol. 29, Iss. 1; p. 55 (22 pages)

Abstract: This article examines how, since the colonial period, different actors in and from Burma (Myanmar) have mobilized political support around sometimes competing notions of Karen ethno-nationalism. Christian elites in particular have sought to impose a homogenous idea of “Karenness” on this diverse society. These concepts and processes have been legitimized by outsiders, including missionaries and (more recently) human rights activists and aid workers. However, attempts to impose Karen unity from above have often proved divisive in practice, and have helped to fuel 60 years of ethnic conflict in Burma. This article also narrates the re-emergence of civil society networks within and between Karen communities over the past decade, and concludes by sketching the outlines of a consociational approach to the problem of Karen “unity in diversity”.

Both articles make important and provocative arguments about the appropriate framework for debating Burma’s many pressing political issues. Their arguments are certainly worthy of much further reflection. Of course, New Mandala reader thoughts and ideas in response to these articles are very welcome here.