You are on page 1of 9

Myanmar in 2009: A New Political Era?

Author(s): Donald M. Seekins


Source: Asian Survey, Vol. 50, No. 1 (January/February 2010), pp. 195-202
Published by: University of California Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/as.2010.50.1.195 .
Accessed: 30/11/2013 05:21
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

University of California Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Asian
Survey.

http://www.jstor.org

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

DONALD M. SEEKINS

Myanmar in 2009
A New Political Era?
A B S T R AC T

The appearance of an unwanted visitor in Aung San Suu Kyis lakeside compound in
Yangon gave the SPDC military regime a pretext to extend her house arrest, while
the refusal of major armed groups in the border areas to accept subordination under
the Tatmadaw (armed forces) central command posed serious problems for Myanmars
future stability.
K E Y WO R D S : Aung San Suu Kyi, unwanted visitor, James Webb, 2010 general elec-

tion, border areas

Myanmar in 2009 witnessed nothing comparable to the Buddhist


monk-led Saffron Revolution of September 2007 or Cyclone Nargis, which
devastated the Irrawaddy Delta and caused 140,000 fatalities in May 2008.
For the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the most
challenging issue was the unraveling of ceasefires between the junta and ethnic armed groups in the border areas on the eve of the 2010 general election,
a crisis long in the making. As 2009 drew to a close, the SPDC faced two
major questions: (1) can it stage-manage the election as efficiently as it did
the May 2008 constitutional referendum, held in Nargiss aftermath; and (2)
will instability on the borderpossibly escalating into large-scale fighting
derail progress toward the councils goal of disciplined democracy?
A n U nwelcome V isitor

On May 14, 2009, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and detained at Insein Jail north of Yangon (Rangoon) on charges that she had violated the
terms of her house arrest by allowing a 53-year-old American, John William
Donald M. Seekins is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Meio University in Nago, Okinawa,
Japan. Email: kenchan@ii-okinawa.ne.jp.
Asian Survey, Vol. 50, Number 1, pp. 195202. ISSN 0004-4687, electronic ISSN 1533-838X. 2010
by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Presss Rights
and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI: AS.2010.50.1.195.
195

AS5001_18_Myanmar-Seekins.indd 195

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2/12/10 2:11 PM

196 asian survey 5 0 : 1

Yettaw, to enter and stay at her residence on the shores of Yangons Inya Lake
during May 35. The offense carried a maximum sentence of five years in
prison. According to her defense lawyer, she refrained from having the unwelcome visitor thrown out because he was ill and exhausted. On August 11,
she was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor, but a special
order from SPDC Chairman Senior General Than Shwe reduced this to 18
months of house arrest. Yettaw was given a seven-year sentence.
This bizarre incident left many unanswered questions. The devoutly religious but psychologically troubled Yettaw claimed he had seen a vision from
God that Daw Suu Kyi would be the target of assassination and wanted to
warn her. But how did he get past the tight security cordon enveloping her
compound at 54 University Avenue, not only in May but on November 30
of the previous year, when he made his first visit and gave religious literature
and a letter for Suu Kyi to her housekeepers? Why did the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok grant him a visa after this 2008 visit, which Daw Suu Kyi
had reported to the authorities through her personal physician?1
The SPDC might have ordered security personnel to let him in because
they wished to embarrass the pro-democracy leader and highlight her alleged
connections with sinister foreign forces. This view was supported by Yettaws
own account of the incident: I dont know why they [security guards] didnt
stop me. . . . The man with the AK-47 [rifle] shook my hand and let me in.2
Equally mysterious is Yettaws claim that he, a diabetic in very poor physical
condition, was able to swim back and forth across the deep and muddy waters of Inya Lake to her house wearing crudely improvised flippers. He reportedly also carried heavy items, including two black chadors (customarily
worn by conservative Muslim women) that, supposedly, Daw Suu Kyi could
use in attempting an escape from impending assassination.3 Her conviction
by the court aroused a storm of international criticism, but it achieved the
useful objective for the SPDC of keeping her isolated until the general election planned for 2010 is completed.
1. Tony Dokoupil, The Lady and the Tramp: The Missouri Misfit Who Helped Bring Down
Burmas Future, Newsweek, June 22, 2009, at <www.burmanet.org>, accessed 06-24-2009.
2. Yettaw Says Guards Let Him Enter Suu Kyi Compound, Irrawaddy online, August 22,
2009, at <www.irrawaddy.org>, accessed 08-24-2009. Yettaw may have been set up by SPDC
agents posing as dissidents in Thailand, where he stayed before entering Burma.
3. David Paquette, Is Yettaw a Triathlete? ibid., May 28, 2009, at ibid., accessed 05-30-2009.
However, Yettaw testified at his trial that he walked, not swam, to Daw Suu Kyis residence. Yeni,
Confusing Testimony, Conflicting Reports Emerge from Yettaw Trial, ibid.

AS5001_18_Myanmar-Seekins.indd 196

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2/12/10 2:11 PM

S eekins / M yanmar I N 2 0 0 9 1 9 7

A W elcome V isitor

Within days of Daw Suu Kyis conviction in mid-August, James Webb, a


Democratic senator from the U.S. state of Virginia who is a vocal critic of
U.S. sanctions on Myanmar and chairs the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, arrived in Myanmar.
He met with Than Shwe in the new capital, Naypyidaw. The same day, he
flew back to Yangon and met briefly with Daw Suu Kyi at a state guesthouse,
a privilege that the SPDC denied to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
during his visit to the country in early July. Released for humanitarian reasons, Yettaw accompanied Webb on his flight out of Yangon to Bangkok
and returned home to be reunited with his bewildered family.4
The Bush administration had condemned the SPDC as an outpost of
tyranny and imposed tough new economic sanctions after the May 30,
2003, Black Friday incident, an attack in Upper Burma by pro-regime thugs
on Daw Suu Kyi and her supporters. The new Obama administration is attempting a more nuanced and pragmatic approach. During a February 2009
visit to Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a review of Washingtons policy toward Myanmar, acknowledging that the sanctions imposed
on the SPDC by the U.S. government over the years had failed to promote
democratic change. In statements made later in the year, she said U.S. policy
would retain sanctions but also promote engagement with the regime.5
However, Clinton also expressed concern at a July meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that growing military cooperation
between Myanmar and North Korea posed a serious security risk. The SPDC
has relied increasingly on Pyongyang for arms, expertise in the construction
of underground fortifications (especially around Naypyidaw), and muchrumored assistance in developing a nuclear capacity, which might be used to
produce weapons.6 In June a U.S. Navy destroyer shadowed a North Korean
4. Grant Peck, U.S. Senators Visit Could Herald a New Myanmar Policy, Associated Press,
August 19, 2009, at <www.burmanet.org>, accessed 08-22-2009.
5. Daw Suu Kyi said in September that she would support lifting of sanctions on Myanmar by
the U.S. and other Western countries if dialogue included the opposition as well as the regime.
Myanmars Suu Kyi Gives Backing to U.S. Engagement, New York Times online, September 25,
2009, at <www.nytimes.com>, accessed 09-26-2009.
6. According to one article, evidence from Burmese defectors and satellite photographs indicates
that Myanmar may already have a secret nuclear facility built with North Korean assistance, and a
nuclear-armed Burma is a genuine possibility. See Burmas Nuclear Secrets, Sydney Morning Herald, August 1, 2009, at <www.smh.com.au>, accessed 08-06-2009.

AS5001_18_Myanmar-Seekins.indd 197

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2/12/10 2:11 PM

198 asian survey 5 0 : 1

cargo ship, the Kang Nam 1, suspected of carrying a shipment of arms to a


port south of Yangon; the ship turned back before reaching its presumed
destination or being stopped and boarded by the naval vessel.
During his talk with Daw Suu Kyi in August, Senator Webb suggested that
Chinas rapidly growing economic and military power constitutes a threat to
her countrys independence. Diplomatically, she replied that we will not deal
with anyone with fear and insecurity. . . . As we cant choose our neighbors, we
understand that we need to have a good relationship with China.7
Webb and other opponents of sanctions have argued that their imposition
by Western states following the establishment of the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC, predecessor of the SPDC) in September 1988
has driven the countrys leaders unwillingly into Chinas arms. Relations between the two countries have historically been problematic (especially Beijings support for the Communist Party of Burma [CPB] insurgency along
the Shan State-Yunnan border during the Ne Win era). But post-1988 ties
have provided the Myanmar and Chinese regimes with two things they
crave: stability and predictability. Beijings economic support and no-questions-asked attitude concerning its neighbors human rights and political
problems, and Myanmars role as a reliable source of natural resources (teak,
gemstones, natural gas) fueling Chinas economic growth, have created a
uniquely symbiotic relationship. This has been enhanced by the ceasefire
framework between most of the major ethnic armed groups and the central
government thatuntil 2009stabilized the Burma-China border area and
opened it up to considerable cross-border trade.
Active engagement by Washington might increase its influence in Naypyidaw, but it would not constitute an effective containment of Chinese influence. Daw Suu Kyis comment to Webb suggests that she believes something like Finlands relationship with the Soviet Union, preserving that small
countrys independence and neutrality in proximity to a huge and powerful
neighbor, is a better model for Myanmar than democratic Georgias relations with Vladimir Putins Russia, a point of view Than Shwe probably
shares.
A major step in the integration of Myanmar into a China-centered regional economy was the beginning of construction in late 2009 on two
7. U Win Tin, An Election Burmas People Dont Need, Washington Post, September 9, 2009,
at <www.washingtonpost.com>, accessed 10-17-2009.

AS5001_18_Myanmar-Seekins.indd 198

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2/12/10 2:11 PM

S eekins / M yanmar I N 2 0 0 9 1 9 9

pipelines. These will carry oil imported from the Middle East and Africa and
natural gas from off-shore wells in the Bay of Bengal from Kyaukpyu Port in
Myanmars Arakan State through central Myanmar to Kunming, capital of
Chinas Yunnan Province. When the pipelines are completed in 2012, China
will obtain enhanced energy security (oil imports will not have to pass
through the sensitive Straits of Malacca), and the Myanmar army-state will
benefit from a new source of revenue from energy exports.8
T h e 2 0 1 0 G eneral E lection

Preparations for holding a 2010 general election were ongoing in 2009, with
individuals from a variety of backgrounds expressing their intention to form
parties and participate in the vote. If it is completed successfully, the election
will be marked by the disbanding of the SPDC martial law regime and its
replacement by a military-controlled civilian government whose structure is
defined by the 2008 Constitution.
Post-SPDC political aspirants include a coalition of 10 embryonic political parties known as the Third Force or the National Politics Alliance League.
Among them are former parliamentarians from Suu Kyis National League
for Democracy (NLD) elected in May 1990, known as the G-7 (Group of
Seven). They broke with the mainstream NLD because of their participation
in the regime-organized National Convention, which held protracted discussions on the basic principles of the new Constitution. In September 2009,
Mya Than Than Nu (daughter of former Prime Minister U Nu) and two
daughters of other leading parliamentary-era politicians declared the establishment of the Democratic Party.9 In Kachin State, Manam Tu Ja, a prominent former member of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), set
up the Kachin State Progressive Party with the promise to represent all of his
states diverse peoples.10 The National Unity Party (the post-1988 incarnation
of the Ne Win-era Burma Socialist Program Party) is also expected to
participate.
8. Wai Moe, China-Burma Pipeline Work to Start in September, Irrawaddy online, June 16,
2009, at <www.irrawaddy.org>, accessed 06-16-2009.
9. Nem Davies, Ten Party Alliance Drafts Electoral Policy, Mizzima News, September 1, 2009,
at <www.mizzima.com>, accessed 09-02-2009; Wai Moe, Juntas 2010 Election: Loading the Dice,
Irrawaddy online, September 24, 2009, at <www.irrawaddy.org>, accessed 09-24-2009.
10. Myint Shwe, In Search of Democracy: Kachin Leader Engages Junta, Bangkok Post, October 18, 2009, at <www.bangkokpost.com>, accessed 10-18-2009.

AS5001_18_Myanmar-Seekins.indd 199

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2/12/10 2:11 PM

200 asian survey 5 0 : 1

Few observers doubt that the SPDCs grassroots national organization,


the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which has
over 20 million members, ample funding, and a close connection with the
senior general, would win the most legislative seats in the upcoming election after forming one or more major political parties. According to a Yangon informant, the USDA will oblige its millions of members to turn their
marked ballots over to its cadres, rather than going to vote at polling stations, telling them that it is their duty to choose USDA candidates.
Moreover, the SPDC in September 2009 chose 300 military personnel as
candidates of the National Politics Party, described by The Irrawaddy news
magazine as a proxy party for the military.11 Details are unclear, but these
persons will probably fill the 25% of national legislative seats allocated to the
military.
The scheduled election leaves the NLD in a difficult position: participation would constitute an admission that its May 1990 election victory is
politically irrelevant, while a boycott might leave it permanently on the
sidelines. In April 2009, 150 NLD delegates from all parts of the country
met at the partys headquarters in Yangon and laid down conditions for
participation, including release of all 2,100 political prisoners and a review
of the new Constitution.12 The impossibility of these concessions being
granted led U Win Tin, a veteran journalist, dissident, and political prisoner who helped establish the NLD in 1988, to describe the election as a
sham. In a September 9, 2009, piece for the Washington Post, U Win Tin
wrote, We will not be cowed or coerced into participating in a fatally
flawed political process. . . .13
Many Burmese seem to share this skepticism. As one local observer said:
Politicians are like actors and actresses on the stage. Once the orchestra
begins to play, they will start to dance. But the music will not begin until
the SPDC decrees new election and political party laws, which had not occurred by the end of 2009. This may reflect the juntas determination to give
the new parties very little time to organize and campaign, while the USDA
and others close to the SPDC enjoy privileged access to information on the
11. Junta Announces Selection of Proxy Candidates, Irrawaddy online, September 16, 2009, at
<www.irrawaddy.org>, accessed 09-16-2009.
12. Marwaan Macan-Markar, Myanmar Opposition Weighs Options, Asia Times online, at
<www.atimes.com>, accessed 05-06-2009.
13. U Win Tin, An Election Burmas People Dont Need.

AS5001_18_Myanmar-Seekins.indd 200

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2/12/10 2:11 PM

S eekins / M yanmar I N 2 0 0 9 2 0 1

content of the new laws.14 New parties that displease the junta could be
subject to de-registration on legal technicalities, as occurred in the run-up
to the May 27, 1990, general election.
C risis in t h e B order A reas

Article 338 of the new Constitution states that [a]ll the armed forces in the
Union [of Myanmar] shall be under the command of the Defense Services,
a provision of pivotal importance. The provision also presents the SPDC
with its biggest challenge: getting ethnic armed groups that since 1989 have
signed ceasefires with the central government to surrender their autonomy
and submit to top-down control from Tatmadaw (armed forces) headquarters in Naypyidaw.
While the existence of private armies is an intolerable situation for any
nation-state, the SPDCs Border Guard Force (BGF) proposal unveiled in
April 2009 has received a lukewarm, if not hostile, reception from the principal armed groups. Under this scheme, the ethnic forces would be reorganized into battalions, each of which would have three commanders of major
rank, one of them being seconded from the regular ranks of the Tatmadaw.
Other commissioned and non-commissioned officers would be brought in
from the regular army, which would also pay the BGF rank and file their
salaries. Only the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and a couple of smaller
armed groups have accepted this reorganization. The largest and most powerful of the 17 ceasefire groups, including the 20,000-strong United Wa State
Army (UWSA) and the 4,000-soldier Kachin Independence Army (KIA),
expressed unhappiness with a plan that would fall far short of the genuine
federal autonomy they wish to see enshrined in the new political order.
In late August, Tatmadaw troops seized and occupied Laogai, headquarters of the Kokang ceasefire group in northeastern Shan State, formally
known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
This is a relatively small group targeted by the SPDC because of the groups
internal divisions and reputation for drug dealing. Its leader Pheung Kyashin (Peng Jiasheng) fled to China, followed by as many as 37,000 Kokang
14. Soon after the SLORC junta seized power in September 1988, it decreed a Political Party
Registration Law and in February 1989 a Pyithu Hluttaw (Peoples Assembly) Election Law. The
existence of this legal framework long before the actual May 1990 election gave parties time to organize and establish nationwide branches, which was especially true of the NLD.

AS5001_18_Myanmar-Seekins.indd 201

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2/12/10 2:11 PM

202 asian survey 5 0 : 1

refugees. Resistance to government forces occupying Laogai included not


only soldiers loyal to Pheungs MNDAA but troops of the UWSA and the
National Democratic Alliance Army, another cease-fire group that is headquartered in Mongla, Shan State.15
Beijing has expressed rare (and restrained) criticism of the SPDC for provoking armed clashes along a sensitive border area. At the October ASEANChina summit in Thailand, Premier Wen Jiabao told Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein that China hopes that the Burmese [Myanmar] regime will
achieve stability, national reconciliation and development.16 Border unrest
is the wild card in the SPDCs schemes for a future military-controlled civilian polity. Should fighting between the former ceasefire groups and the Tatmadaw include the full participation of the UWSA or the KIA, the general
election slated for 2010 could be indefinitely postponed. This in turn could
plunge these border areas into instability and war of a kind not seen since the
late 1980s and early 1990s.

15. Saw Yan Naing, Burmese Ceasefire Breaks Down, Irrawaddy online, August 28, 2009, at
<www.irrawaddy.org>, accessed 08-29-2009; Thomas Fuller, Fleeing Battle, Myanmar Refugees
Head to China, New York Times online, August 29, 2009, at <www.nytimes.com>, accessed 08-292009.
16. Wai Moe, Chinese Premier Raises Border Stability at ASEAN Summit, Irrawaddy online,
October 25, 2009, at <www.irrawaddy.org>, accessed 10-26-2009.

AS5001_18_Myanmar-Seekins.indd 202

This content downloaded from 130.194.20.173 on Sat, 30 Nov 2013 05:21:35 AM


All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

2/12/10 2:11 PM