Jawaharlal Nehru was 57 years old when he chose to compromise, accepting Independence along with the partition of India. He and other Congress leaders persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to acquiesce, who did so reluctantly and with anguish. Nelson Mandela was 70 when he initiated “talks about talks” with the apartheid regime and prevailed upon the African National Congress to climb down from its rigid positions.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), now 65, faces a similar though more difficult choice: whether to carry on with her generation-long struggle, knowing that the adversary holds the most cards in his hands, or to follow the path of resilience and compromise without abandoning her convictions. Her decision will determine, in a large measure, as to how Myanmar strives to resolve its problems.
A fundamental clash of ideologies has been at the root of politics in Myanmar. Although daughter of an army officer who emerged as the ‘Father of the Nation', ASSK, educated in India and exposed to the functioning of western democracies, has always believed in the supremacy of the people — that is, in the notion that power vests in the people and their elected representatives alone have the right to govern. Tatmadaw (i.e. the military), on the other hand, has this (strange) belief that it knows better than its children — the people. It claims to have brought freedom — most leaders of the struggle were army officers; to have safeguarded the unity, territorial integrity and stability of the nation (when it came under huge stress during the era of democracy from 1948-62); and to have brought considerable economic development in the past two decades. Now, it also claims to have bestowed “discipline-flourishing democracy” on the people through its “7-stage Road map”, which took seven years to unfold.
The military still has its hand on all levers of State power. ASSK, on the other hand, retains her massive popularity and charisma, but her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is in a precarious condition today. Besides, the fait accompli of the recent general elections stares in her face. Would she reject them altogether and face the consequences, or would she find a way, this time to work with the military without alienating her constituency?
Her general remarks upon release and the day after (November 14) may provide a few indicators of her thinking. She called on her followers to work together for national unity. She urged the people that if they wanted change, they would have to achieve it in the right way. Referring to the authorities, she stated, “They treated me well. I wish they would treat the people the same.” It is, however, evident that she would require more time to craft her strategy.
Perhaps the tale of two elections — one held in May 1990 and the other in November 2010 — seems to contain some pointers. Twenty years back the NLD had won a decisive victory as people, tired of tyranny, flocked to vote for ASSK and against the military. The latter just ignored and overturned the results and went on to rule the country with an iron hand. Results of the recent elections are yet to be announced by the Election Commission. Despite this, the military's political front, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claims to have won about 80 per cent seats in the national parliament and 14 regional assemblies. Besides, the constitution's stipulation giving 25 per cent of seats in all legislatures to the military is an ironclad guarantee that nothing of political consequence can happen without the generals' approval.
Probably Myanmar's strong man Senior General Than Shwe would be the most surprised person in the world, having heard about President Barack Obama's comment on the country's latest elections. The U.S. President aptly depicted them as “neither free nor fair.” Than Shwe could justifiably exclaim: “But we did not promise that, did we?” In fact, his Prime Minister Thein Sein did, saying before the polls, that the Government was “determined to do its utmost for the successful conclusion of free and fair general elections …” Where Mr. Obama and the western media have erred is in ignoring the fine print, i.e. a few additional words uttered by Thein Sein in the same sentence: “… based on past experiences and lessons learned in the best interests of the country and its people.” In plain language, Myanmar's military rulers promised only a highly limited democracy under their guidance, to be ushered in through an electoral process tailor-made for the purpose. That is what they have delivered. “Why the fuss?” the generals might ask their critics.
Pro-democracy forces have answered the question. According to them, elections are “a travesty”, “a sham” and “a poisoned feast”, which were held so that the military could attain legitimacy. Further, they point out that ASSK has been released to blunt international criticism of the regime. This may be so, but the military does not seem to think so. It considers itself not only the legitimate authority, but also the true saviour of the nation.
This analysis underlines that Myanmar needs cooperation, not confrontation, between the military and political forces represented by ASSK. Innumerable attempts to promote it have failed in the past. If they have the flexibility and wisdom, both camps might realise that each needs the other; that each needs to reduce its antagonism to the other; that each can contribute to moving Myanmar on the road to progress; and, most importantly, that neither can secure this goal without the engagement of the other. In short, inclusiveness may be the key to the least unacceptable solution. It may not entirely be a coincidence that Suu Kyi's release has come between the end of polling and the forthcoming announcement of results.
International actors have a role to play, albeit a secondary one. They will act in accordance with their own beliefs and interests. They too need to accord the highest priority to encourage reconciliation between the military and ASSK. This would not come easily or naturally to two key players, namely China which backs the generals wholeheartedly and the West which fully supports ASSK.
Hence, those who tend to follow broadly the middle course — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India — have a special responsibility, particularly as the Myanmar political drama hangs in balance today. Instead of leaving matters in the hands of the U.N. Secretary General who has tried and failed many times in the past, ASEAN should consider adopting a new, innovative approach. Let it designate two of its key members, possibly Indonesia and Singapore, and ask them to work closely with India in offering their good offices for facilitating a fresh dialogue for national reconciliation. Sensitivity, speed and transparency should be the principal elements of the suggested approach.
Eventually everything depends, as before, on the will and wisdom of the military leaders and the ASSK camp, particularly Senior General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi. Standing at the crossroads, the people of Myanmar are perhaps counting on their leaders to take the “less travelled” road in order to pull them out of the impasse that has continued for far too long. As good Buddhists, they are aware that, in the end, salvation lies within.
( The author served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar from 2002-05.)
Myanmar needs cooperation, not confrontation, between the military and political forces represented by Aung San Suu Kyi. It may not entirely be a coincidence that her release has come between the end of polling and the forthcoming announcement of results. .