The Pitfalls of Burma's Opposition Politics and the Need for a Paradigm Shift
By Saw Kapi
Burma's opposition movement, a coalition of otherwise disparate groups – some have been fighting for a broader national autonomy for more than half a century but some started with a revolt in 1988 against bloody military coup – was known from the very beginning for not having strategic, collective vision for the future of the country. Over the past decade, the movement has become more and more misdirected in its strategy and approach to the issues facing the very people it claims to liberate. It found itself between two constituencies – on the one hand, the people of Burma and secondly the so-called international community composed of a handful of non-governmental organizations and governments in the west. As a result, it became a "captured" movement – responding more to the demands and desires of the international community and less to the daily concerns of the local people. If the opposition movement is to produce any positive result for the people of Burma, it has become clear now that it is desperately in need of shifting its current paradigm – from the negativities of condemnation and isolation of the country to the more constructive and inclusive approach that honestly addresses the problems facing the ordinary people of Burma.
The opposition voice over the years has been united by one aim: the removal of current military regime and the introduction of a new dispensation led by a new government, whatever it is. It is change for change’s sake. Evidently however, the opposition movement has not been very visible beyond the border areas, that is, the people inside the country do not feel its existence, let alone influence. When the military regime recently rearrested five student leaders, those in the opposition stood in awe, like a rabbit glaring at the headlights, hoping that the solution would come from outside. In the scheme of things, the movement has become desperate and has no significant role to play beyond promoting a signature campaign being launched inside by some courageous student leaders.
The biggest problem perhaps is that the movement seems to have lost its focus on the primary reasons for its emergence in 1988 and the key points of challenge against the military regime that really matter to the people. This is connected to the above point in relation to being "captured" by the international community. Instead of focusing on the wider primary reasons for people’s disgruntlement against the military regime, the movement became so obsessed with the matter of "human rights." This is by no means to discount that there have been human rights abuses in the country. However, what causes concern is the "reductionist" approach to the Burmese problem whereby everything is reduced to the human rights argument and must fit the human rights paradigm. Therefore every problem, every other issue which many of the groups that make up the movement against the government became quite simply a "human rights" issue. The key challenges against the government, such as political and economic mismanagement – which by the way was the primary problem long before the current human rights problems – have become marginalized topics that are discussed on a "by the way" basis. Emphasis is placed more on the removal of the regime than the reconstruction of the country.
It seems obvious why the movement has become so obsessed with human rights that it began to base its campaign against the regime on the basis of violation of human rights. It could not ably articulate the many issues represented by the many voices in the movement choir. Perhaps, some in the leadership listen to the tune and realize that there is too much discord, and therefore it is better to stick to one issue as the rallying point against the military regime: Human Rights – for that is universal and affects everyone. It universalizes the problem and covers all issues under a single umbrella.
This over-emphasis on human rights results in the loss of opportunities to challenge the military regime on key areas that directly affect people on the ground – education, health, infrastructure development, employment, economic progress, etc. Even the military regime knows this – while the regime is boasting about its infrastructure project in the rural parts of the country, what do we as a movement do to address the weaknesses of the current military regime regarding the education policies and practices? For instance, the restoration of human rights will not necessarily change the way public exams and healthcare system are run in Burma – the opposition movement needs to articulate these issues that find resonance among the ordinary people of Burma. Instead, all we hear is the military regimes attacks villages, arrest student leaders and violates human rights and nothing more.
There is no doubt that human rights matter to everyone, the knowledgeable and the ignorant alike. An opposition movement predicated upon human rights indeed sounds very right and sweet to the international community, and the introduction of democracy and promotion of human rights and removal of tyrannies is well in line with the current US foreign policy. But as a political strategy, it is necessary to put at the forefront, issues that are uppermost in the psyche of the people. It is good for the international community to understand our sufferings but it is also necessary to base the movement on issues that resonate in the national and local context – education, economic development and steady political progress.
Unfortunately, some of us have been relentlessly busy collecting names of "enemies," not friends, of the movement. The very movement that has aimed to establish a democratic Burma, in the end, has become so undemocratic that anyone speaking constructively of the military regime is considered enemy of the movement. Shifting from this paradigm, we will probably be better off collecting names of those who understand and support what we as a movement strive to achieve. After all must we not reason that if this military regime has been a big part of Burma's political problems, it could be a big part of solution as well?
Unless we refocus our energy and strategy on the practical need of the people, with whom the real power dwells, but continue to look to the international community – which frankly has more interests elsewhere and will continue to shout against the regime, but ultimately do nothing, the struggle that began almost half a century ago will ineptly continue. Constant condemnation of the military regime without credible counter proposal from us on issues directly related to the wellbeing of the people will not produce anything good either. Let us be real and pragmatic – a military regime with a firm grip onto power will not easily yield to the condemnation by, or heed the demands from, a militarily and politically much weaker opposition.
Saw Kapi is a former Karen refugee from Burma. He fled Toungoo, his hometown in Burma, in 1988 after the military coup, and came with his family to one of the refugee camps in Thailand, near the Burma-Thai border. Saw Kapi currently resides in the United States and works as an Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Maryland College Park.