So many degrees of separation

Myanmar’s reconciliation process is often compared to South Africa’s but the entirely different conditions make it far more complex

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

Published - October 08, 2012 12:48 am IST

After a triumphant tour of western Europe in June, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has just completed a coast-to-coast journey of the United States. She met U.S. President Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, addressed audiences at Harvard, Yale, Columbia and other prestigious institutions. Even as her tour unfolded, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein came calling in New York, fresh from his visit to China. He addressed the U.N. General Assembly and met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who expectedly announced the U.S. decision to ease sanctions further. Mr. Obama chose not to receive Thein Sein, but the latter is already being hailed as Myanmar’s Gorbachev.

Now that Suu Kyi has collected her awards and Thein Sein has praised her in public, can they all live happily ever after? Is Myanmar now well and truly set on the path of reform and progress? Are the changes irreversible? Since the November 2010 elections, Myanmar has indeed changed significantly, but its journey has just begun. The road ahead looks bumpy. Myanmar’s elite may need to display much wisdom in steering the state in the right direction.

Six differences

It is easy to find similarities between today’s Myanmar and South Africa’s transformation from an authoritarian apartheid regime into a democracy. Suu Kyi and Thein Sein are being compared to Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. While common trends are discernible, differences in the situation of the two countries are more instructive. As an Indian diplomat who served as ambassador in Myanmar and high commissioner to South Africa, I outline here six such differences. First, the black majority, with support from Indians and many whites and coloureds, was united enough to form a rainbow coalition in South Africa under Mandela’s inspiring leadership. In contrast, the Bamar or Burman majority community stands divided, with the bulk being supportive of Suu Kyi while a sizeable section is still beholden to the real power wielder, the army. Further, besides Suu Kyi, three other power centres have emerged — the President, the Speaker and the Commander-in-Chief — who all may covet the presidency in 2015. When first democratic elections took place in South Africa in 1994, Mandela was the natural choice. Second, the minority in Myanmar comprising at least eight ethnic groups represents 32 per cent of the total population, much larger than the whites in South Africa then at 19 per cent. The latter gave away political power, but retained much of economic power that they enjoy even now. Ethnic groups in Myanmar, however, suffer from deprivation and alienation. First democratic leaders and then generals tried but failed to eliminate this alienation. Thein Sein is making fresh endeavours, but can he achieve much without involving Suu Kyi and other political forces?

Third, there is no Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Myanmar. Victims of oppression in Myanmar are being asked to forgive without establishing “truth” and promoting “reconciliation.” South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission did valuable work, but this is not even contemplated in Myanmar. Suu Kyi is saint enough to forgive, but can others do it? Fourth, the African National Congress was and remains a powerful political organisation, but the National League for Democracy is truly a one-woman party, a car running on fuel of the lady’s charisma. Working from behind her are octogenarian “uncles” who seem to be blocking its renewal. Where are its future leaders?

Fifth, unlike South Africans who crafted a new constitution through genuine multiparty negotiations, Myanmar’s constitution is the army’s gift. It has failed to satisfy the National League for Democracy (NLD). It bars Suu Kyi’s election as president. It has certainly deepened disillusionment of most ethnic minorities which resent continuation of a strong central rule under a new garb. Constitutional reform is now becoming a major issue. Finally, new South Africa emerged as the Cold War between U.S. and Soviet Union had ended. Change in Myanmar coincides with the possible beginning of a new U.S.-China Cold War in East Asia. The U.S. needs allies, and focusing on Myanmar makes strategic sense as the latter has been heavily dependent on Beijing so far. The U.S. may now woo the Myanmar military with offers of dialogue, training and more.


Suu Kyi has urged the world “to distinguish between genuine progress and what is just progress on the surface.” She believes that, like life, Myanmar has “many shades of grey.” Thein Sein agrees, stressing that the transformation process would be “complex and delicate that requires patience.”

Burman leaders will need to achieve more harmony among them. They should display magnanimity towards ethnic minorities, adopting the essence of federalism with an adequately strong central government. They may have little choice but to undertake major surgery on the constitution. The leadership must focus on economic progress and inclusive governance that benefit the common man. Myanmar will also need resilient diplomacy to leverage its newly established strategic importance for the West.

As for Daw Suu Kyi, she is and will remain an Asian leader.

(Rajiv Bhatia is Director General of Indian Council of World Affairs. The article reflects his personal views.)

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