A "Second Spring" in the Far East?
by Stephen Schwartz
In the first country, authorities have removed Communist officials from command over the "rebel" village of Wukan in Guangdong province and replaced them with a local party member, Lin Zuluan, a leader of protests against seizure of communal property for corrupt private sale and alleged electoral fraud. The Wukan party bureaucrats fled the village last month when the revolt there widened and an advocate for the demonstrators, Xue Jinbo, died in police custody.
Since the Arab turmoil began in December 2010, Chinese democracy activists and foreign observers have noted increasing factory strikes and other discontent in the vast country, predicting a "Jasmine Revolution" – a term briefly used to denote the North African revolts. Nevertheless, Beijing continues to repress dissident intellectuals – most recently indicting poet Zhu Yufu for "subversion" in writing a poem calling for street assemblies by disaffected citizens.
Zhu was detained early in 2011 for composing the verse. As quoted partly in Western media, he wrote, "It's time, Chinese people!/The square belongs to everyone/the feet are yours/it's time to use your feet and take to the square to make a choice." Zhu is founder of the China Democracy Party and had previously served nine years in prison, based on two separate trials, in 1999 and 2007.
But world media have concentrated recent attention on the new political upsurge in Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi, the 66-year old Nobel Peace laureate for 1991, and her National League for Democracy (NLD), have been authorized to appear on the ballot in a by-election scheduled for April. That victory for popular sovereignty came thanks to president Thein Sein, who was elected to end military rule in 2010, signed a truce with anti-government combatants recruited from the Karen ethnic minority, and released hundreds of political prisoners.
Myanmar, formerly called Burma, with its capital in Yangon, ex-Rangoon, and both still referred to by their older spellings in a range of international media and official documents, are now little known to the rest of the world. The majority Burmans are Buddhist, as are most of several significant minorities, including Shans, Karens, Kachins, Chins, Mons, Rakhine (Arakanese) and others. Christianity is represented among Karens, Kachins, and Chins. Islam accounts for some four percent of the population, mainly Rohingya, a "minority within a minority" living in the western state of Rakhine. Rohingya Muslims comprise roughly 750,000 citizens out of a population of 55 million. They were persecuted by the military clique that took power in 1962, and in 1978 about a quarter million Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh. These victims of oppression were objects of jihadist propaganda during the 1980s, but with little impact, especially when compared with violent Islamist activity in the southern, Malay-speaking districts of Myanmar's eastern neighbor, Thailand.
Historically, Myanmar has had complex relations with India. The British occupied the land and annexed it to India in 1886, abolishing the Burmese monarchy. Under British rule, Indians (including Muslims), Anglo-Indians, Chinese, and Jews made up a large share of the commercial classes, with Indians and Anglo-Indians also participating in the British administrative and police organs. Today, most of these groups, except for Chinese, at three percent of the population, and Indians at two percent, are forgotten, or remembered by few.
Aung San Suu Kyi is named for her father, General (Bogyoke) Aung San. The political history of Aung San was convoluted. It is claimed that he was a founder of the Burmese Communist Party, having joined previously in the "Thakin" movement of the 1930s, a nationalist trend that proclaimed themselves "thakins" or "lords" of the country in an expression of anti-British (and anti-Indian) defiance. The new, European masters were customarily addressed as "thakin," as they were called "sahib" in India, but the Burmese reclaimed the title. Some "Thakins" participated in a delegation known as the "Thirty Comrades," who went to Tokyo after Japanese imperial forces conquered Burma in 1942. The pattern of nationalist cooperation with the Japanese against the British, Dutch, Americans, and French was also visible in the life of the Bengali leftist Subhas Chandra Bose, a former associate of Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as in the Dutch East Indies, which would become Indonesia, the Philippines, and, briefly, Indochina.
Aung San was installed as an officer of the Burma National Army (BNA), a Japanese puppet force, then elevated to Minister of War in the Japanese-controlled "State of Burma." As elsewhere in Asia, but particularly in Burma, national sentiment quickly turned against the occupiers. Aung San and the BNA contacted the British in India and organized anti-Japanese resistance. The BNA rose up against the Japanese early in 1945 and cooperated with the British in retaking the country. The political arm of the anti-Japanese movement, named the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), included the Burmese Communists.
The British negotiated independence for Burma to be effected in 1948 and many people expected Bogyoke Aung San to serve as head of the new government. Such an outcome might have been, at least, ambiguous. Bogyoke Aung San was no Nehru. He rather more resembled Tito in Yugoslavia, who led an antifascist movement and installed himself as a dictator following the defeat of Germany. Similarly, Sukarno, who collaborated with the Japanese and declared Indonesian independence under their patronage, governed the country as a quasi-dictator until 1967.
In 1947, Bogyoke Aung San, at 32, was assassinated with six of his associates by a group whose motives and backing remain unclear. In death, he became a mythical national hero, as is the case with many political figures that die young. The new Union of Burma was brought into being in 1948 with U Nu, a Thakin but not among the "Thirty Comrades," as its first prime minister. Unfortunately, the country fell immediately into political and ethnic insurgencies.
The Burmese Communists were expelled from the AFPFL by its more moderate Socialist and nationalist factions. The Communists launched an insurrection, like the Indian ultraleft Communists under B.T. Ranadive, the Vietnamese Communists led by Ho Chi Minh, the Chinese Communists in then-Malaya, and the Philippine Communists. All were apparently under orders from the Soviets to participate in an Asia-wide offensive along with the Chinese Communists. Certainly, the Burmese, Vietnamese, Sino-Malayan, and Indonesian Communists were strongly influenced by the mainland Chinese Communists even before the latter were victorious in 1949. The Burmese Communist insurgents had divided into two factions, the majority "White Flag" Communists led by Aung San's brother-in-law, Thakin Than Tun, and the ultraleft "Red Flag" Communists under Thakin Soe.
Other forces that declared war against the post-independence authorities included members of the People's Volunteer Organization (PVO), which represented former anti-Japanese fighters in the AFPFL, and militants from among the Karen, Shan, Kachin, Wa, Pa-O, Mon, and Rakhine (Arakanese) minorities. These ethnic insurgencies are viewed as the longest-lasting civil war in the world. After 1949, the situation of the country was also affected by the flight into its northern regions of Chinese Nationalist Army (Kuomintang or KMT) refugees from Communism. Of the armed groups fighting against or uncontrolled by the central authorities, the Chinese Nationalists were by far the most numerous, followed by the Communists and the Karens.
Internal discord weakened Burma gravely, but the country's condition was further undermined by a military coup led by General Ne Win in 1962. Although it had once been one of the most prosperous and productive territories in Asia, Burma became impoverished and dilapidated. Ne Win, a Thakin and one of the "Thirty Comrades" in Japan, was an eccentric authoritarian. He established a party-state under the "Burma Socialist Programme Party" and became infamous for such bizarre acts as reissuance of Burmese currency, the kyat, with denominations of 50 and 100 removed from circulation purportedly as an anti-speculative measure, and then replaced by bills in 45 and 90 kyats, supposedly for astrological reasons. Ne Win's "monetary policy" wiped out personal savings and further degraded the economy, imposing a retreat from normal relations with the world.
During the so-called Chinese Cultural Revolution imposed by Mao Zedong in 1966, the "White Flag" Communist guerrilla chiefs carried out bloody purges imitative of those in China. In 1988, during a massive uprising against his rule, suppressed at the cost of thousands killed and jailed, Ne Win resigned and was succeeded by a military clique known, successively, as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), until last year. SLORC held free elections in 1990, but they produced an overwhelming victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD, and the dictatorship refused to honor the result. Ne Win died in 2002.
The Burmese regime, such as it was, had many characteristics of a satellite of Beijing beginning with its diplomatic recognition of the Chinese Communists in 1949. Under military domination, with the SPDC renaming the country and its capital in 1989, and deepening its isolation from the rest of the world, Myanmar had been drawn closer to China, which views Myanmar as a strategic asset for its location in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The Chinese have armed and trained the Myanmar military, developed the local oil industry, and built roads, dams, ports, and other infrastructure.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, may now have taken irreversible steps toward free and accountable political institutions. Buddhist monks have played a significant role in dissent, most notably in 2007 when monks led protests against removal of subsidies for purchase of petrol, diesel fuel, and natural gas, with rising prices on other commodities. Is it possible that a Buddhist-majority country may be more successful than the Arab Muslim states in achieving political democracy?
Embodied in Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, Myanmar has a clear perspective for establishment of a modern, responsive state apparatus. Unlike that of her father, Aung San Suu Kyi's dedication to democracy cannot be doubted. And it should not be forgotten that Myanmar's Muslim western neighbor, Bangladesh, has erected a stable republic with a female prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, committed to the struggle against radical Islam.
If Myanmar attains civic freedom for its diverse people, the years 2010-2012 may see a repetition of the "chain of revolutions" that took place in the opening decade of the 20th century. In that sequence of upheavals, the thwarted Russian revolution of 1905 was succeeded by a limited constitutional revolution in Persia in 1906, the "Young Turk" revolution of 1908 in the Ottoman Empire, which also failed, and the Chinese Revolution of 1911. The centenary of the last was observed only superficially by Beijing in 2011, but was celebrated more enthusiastically by the secure, democratic Chinese Republic on Taiwan.
The Russian Bolshevik Lenin saw this process as the entry of the colonial peoples into a world-revolutionary process, but could not predict that while real change was held back for years in Persia and Turkey, China, with all its confusion, continued its transformation. China moved ahead slowly, notwithstanding Japanese aggression against the Chinese commencing in 1894, and which, with China's humiliating defeat, was among the causes of the 1911 revolution.
A similar paradigm may emerge today. While the "Arab Spring" may have drowned in the murky waters and bloody massacres of Arab despotism, and the Iranian "Green movement" against the clerical state is stymied, Buddhist-majority Myanmar may step forward as a paragon of successful democratic transition. Myanmar may slip from Beijing's influence. The Buddhists of Myanmar, the Muslims of Bangladesh, and Hindu-majority India may form a solid alliance.
Globally, democracy appears to be sinking under the weight of the financial crisis, and the prevalence of bureaucratic statism in the West, radical Islamist statism in the Arab lands and Iran, and state capitalism in China appears to define the future. Every spark of authentic freedom must be kept alive and burning, and if an authentic breakthrough takes place in Myanmar, it will be good for the region and the world.