Last October, the military-turned-civilian government bent its visa rules on blacklisted individuals and Harn Yawnghwe, head of the Brussels-based Euro Burma Office (EBO) that has been assisting activist groups struggling for democracy and ethnic rights was allowed to return to his home country after spending 48 years in exile.
The trip coincided with a report by Financial Times on 25 November that had quoted him saying: “They have decided to change. It’s not what we called for, but there are changes. Even if they are pretending to change, we should push them so the change becomes irreversible. If we keep saying that ‘you haven’t change the way we want’ and put obstacles in the way, then the changes will never come.”
What Harn said was interesting, as it parallels with what Sun Tzu (also spelled Sun Zi), the Chinese military maestro who flourished 2,500 years ago: Success in warfare is gained by carefully accommodating ourselves to the enemy’s purpose.
The translator Lionel Guiles explains further: Ts’ao Kung says, “Feign stupidity” – by an appearance of yielding and falling in with the enemy’s wishes. Chang Yu’s note makes the meaning clear: The object is to make him remiss and contemptuous before we deliver our attack.
Sun Tzu’s words could not have been more relevant. Since he took office at the end of March, ex-general Thein Sein who had been handpicked by the ageing but still all powerful Senior General Than Shwe to lead the new, “democratically-elected” government, had brought hopes (as well as suspicions) to his countrymen, both at home and abroad, and to the rest of the world.
While believers say Thein Sein “is his own man,” non-believers disagree, saying, “How can he be? He’s not elected by the people like Obama was. He was on the contrary obviously appointed to play the old game with a new set of rules.”
But believer or non-believer, one cannot help admit that Thein Sein has been saying and doing what we have been longing to hear and see – only just short of the required extent.
For instance, his envoys have been busy negotiating peace talks with all the armed opposition groups since September, following the official “Invitation for Peace Talks” announced on 18 August, group by group or “groupwise” as the announcement says. Already most of the major armed movements have entered negotiations with:
- 3 of which signing peace agreements (United Wa State Army, National Democratic Alliance Army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army)
- 2 more agreeing in principle to sign them (Shan State Army “South” and Chin National Front)
- 3 more agreeing to hold further talks (Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party and Kachin National Organization)
It is also holding talks with the Shan State Army “North” through the go-betweening of its former boss Gen Hso Ten, who was sentenced to 106 year imprisonment by Naypyitaw but released after serving 6 years.
The only major group that has so far stayed out of the negotiations after the 6 October preliminary round in Ye is the New Mon State Party (NMSP), that is insisting that Naypyitaw talk to the non-Burman armed groups “collectivewise” and not “group-wise”.
In addition, like the peace talks in 1989 held by its predecessor, the Thein Sein government is offering 3 things:
But whereas the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) had promised ceasefire, development and “talk politics with the next government” which took almost 22 years to emerge, Thein Sein’s negotiators are assuring their opponents of ceasefire, development and “an inclusive conference in the style of Panglong, maybe even better than Panglong”.
To the non-Burmans, especially Chin, Kachin and Shan, co-signatories together with Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, the words of U Aung Min, the President’s special representative on 19 November, were nothing less than honey. At least both the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Shan State Army (SSA) ‘South’ have declared that with the promises of Panglong – “Full autonomy in internal administration” and “rights and privileges which are fundamental in democratic countries” – fulfilled, there will be no need for them to continue their armed struggles.
Indeed, if the SSA “South” had any reservations about agreeing to sign a ceasefire pact, the promise of another Panglong was the clincher. As a result, it is expected to attend a formal signing ceremony before the end of the year.
However, despite the promising signs, many questions remain unanswered:
- Why are Burma Army bases, established along the border of Wa-Mongla territory after tensions in 2009, still there and being reinforced although the two sides have signed the ceasefire agreements?
- Why since Naypyitaw desires peace and is ready to hold peace talks with every armed movement, has it not declared a nationwide ceasefire instead?
- Why is it adamant on talking to them “groupwise” when doing it collectivewise makes more sense?
Of course, according to President Thein Sein, the non-Burman ethnic groups have different aims and desires, which is only partly true, true for individual ethnic group issues, but when it comes to common issues, they have always stood together. Just take a cursory look back at the Panglong Conference (1947) and Taunggyi Seminar (1961), out of which emerged the following 5 point call:
- Burma Proper must be a constituent state like Chin, Kachin, Shan and others
- Equal power to the two Houses of Parliament
- Equal representation for each state in the Upper House
- Reservation of the following subjects for the Union government and the remaining subjects for the states: Foreign affairs, Defense, Finance, Coinage and paper currency, Posts and Telegraphs, Railways, Airways and Waterways, Union Judiciary and Sea Customs Duty
- Fair distribution of the revenue collected by the Union Government among the states
The President and his advisors should therefore not be bent on talking to them groupwise if they are ready to speak to him collectivewise, just because of differences in minor individual preferences.
All these and others beg the question why he isn’t going all the way, when his advisors insist he “is his own man.” Is it because he is afraid of Than Shwe returning to power, as hinted by some, or is he just following the Senior General’s dictate: more words but less deeds?
Not that I’m suggetting that we have to wait until the conditions are ideal, because they will never be, if history has taught us anything. I’m only humbly counseling caution to leaders both at home and abroad, both national and foreign, not to put all the eggs in the same basket, when we are dealing with such a situation, at least when many things are still in the dark.
Personally, I would prefer Thein Sein becoming another Aung San, the leader that consolidates what his predecessors have won by negotiations, to becoming Mikhail Gorbachev who lost everything they had achieved.
Because, after all is said and done, what the people of Burma need is an Arab Spring and not a Prague Spring.