Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Mandela moment?

Wednesday, 30 November 2011 16:23 Bo Bo Kyaw Nyein

(Commentary) – Aung San Suu Kyi has been compared to Nelson Mendela, one of the greatest iconic statesmen of the 20th century, for her steely will and strong convictions while standing tall for democracy and fighting courageously for the freedom of the people. Like Mandela, she is committed to nonviolence. She is unwavering in her beliefs. Some so-called Western liberals have labeled her ‘stubborn,” “hard-headed” and some even dared to accuse her of politically naïvete.

“The Lady,” as she is known, took all the abuse but never showed any signs of compromising her political convictions. Fittingly, as a democratic icon, some people hailed her released in November 2010 as a Mandela moment. However, some, disagreed, like The Observer, in an article headlined: “A release to celebrate – but this is not a ‘Mandela moment’.”

On February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released, the event was broadcast live all over the world and thus many remembered that as the Mandela moment. But there was another moment. Mandela boldly encouraged black South Africans to support the mainly white national rugby team as South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. His argument was that his support for the previously hated team was for the greater good of the country, and he bravely appeared at the World Cup final wearing a South African green and gold rugby shirt. For many, this was the moment that was widely seen as the major step in the reconciliation of white and black Africans.

Only a brave and wise leader like Mandela would dare to take such a challenging and unpopular move and to willing confront die-hard supporters for the sake of the country. It was also the right thing to do.

Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi has the wisdom and courage to meet such challenges, and she took a decisive turn when the NLD announced it would re-register the party and enter the by-election. This was Suu Kyi’s Mandela moment, at least to this author. Just as there was no Black South Africa or White South Africa, but only one South Africa for Mandela, there is only one country for Suu Kyi.

Not surprisingly, some supporters, especially from the fringe of the left wing, protested and voiced their opposition. Many of them do not know any better than to oppose the military for the sake of opposing. What is remarkable is that like her father, General Aung San, who won over the people with his honesty and transparency, the “Lady” asked her party’s leaders to vote on the issue, in full transparency. They overwhelmingly supported her policy.

Many leaders when they are entrusted with the responsibility of a country take up the challenges and become reform-minded. Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping are good examples. It appears that President Thein Sein and his reform-minded ministers are a new breed of military officers. Thein Sein, who was prime minister during the days of the military junta, was relatively clean of corruption charges and his first speech to the nation after his election was like listening to an election campaign speech in a Western democracy. Many doubted his words, but he invited Suu Kyi for a meeting and a photo of General Aung San, her father, the architect of the country’s Independence, looked down on them. That was an image no one can easily forget.

No one really knows what transpired between the two during that meeting, but it was clear that Thein Sein was able to win the trust of the iconic leader to a certain degree.

Aung San who led the revolution against the Fascist Japanese army saw the destruction of the country due to two wars, and he was determined to win Independence from the British through negotiations. Similarly, Suu Kyi’s choice has always been negotiations. But a leader needs their counterpart to negotiate. Mandela spent 27 years in prison and only when President F.W. de Klerk came to power did he find his partner. Similarly, Suu Kyi showed defiance for 20 years and only now with the birth of Democratic institutions and the election of President Thein Sein, has she found her partner.

After their meeting, Suu Kyi was invited to seminars and Zarganar, a famous comedian, who is also a vocal critic, was released with a few other political prisoners. The release did not meet expectations because many of the 8888 student leaders were not released. Many do not realize that this is just the start of a complicated political dance that can lead to democracy. Many in the military old guard are power-mongers and very hardline regarding reforms. Many opposition members cannot differentiate between a “wish list,” a “possibility” and “reality.” The Darth Vader military men are no fools. All are smart in their own way, and some have both the wealth and power to derail the positive efforts made by the president and his fellow reformers, if their faction’s interests are threatened.

Another important factor is the invisible hand or the unseen influence still asserted by retired Snr-Gen Than Shwe, although he may also be in genuine retirement. No one really knows. Just as Deng Xiaoping instructed his followers to move forward carefully, Thein Sein and his reformers have to step carefully because they know they are in unchartered and dangerous waters.

While many foreign and domestic analysts had been underestimating the former SPDC chief, this author had come to the conclusion very early on that Than Shwe is a very shrewd strategist. His moves are methodical, thorough, strategic and very long-term oriented. He never showed his hand and one of his strongest characteristics is that he is a very patience man.

By design, he retired most of the old generals from the previous junta and placed a very junior general with a new face in place as the commander in chief. The army is his insurance policy, and its power was embedded in the 2008 Constitution. He placed relatively moderate generals, Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, as heads of the executive and legislative branches respectively, and he put a hard-liner, Tin Aung Myint Oo, as vice president to balance the two moderates. Than Shwe seemed to understand the danger of creating a strong man and this line up was his way of setting up a check-and-balance mechanism to make sure that no one could consolidate power and become another strong man.

Leaders want to leave a legacy, and Than Shwe is no exception. But he has shown great patience. When he became commander in chief, he did not possess actual power. General Tin Oo (Secretary (2) had the fighting forces and General Khin Nyunt controlled the Intelligence. They were proxies for the real strong man, General Ne Win. It took more than 10 years for Than Shwe to consolidate his power, and he used the wily Khin Nyunt to do his dirty work. While he was in power, Khin Nyunt repeatedly broke the cardinal rule to survive under any dictatorship: Never over step your “power.”  Because he controlled the ministries, Khin Nyunt was up front and center in the news. It did not bother Than Shwe, because he was sure of his power base, and he played the army against military intelligence well. He watched Khin Nyunt’s ambitions, utilizing the intelligence services to his maximum advantage. He even allowed a budget request from Khin Nyunt to expand his units for a power grab and only when intelligence made its first move did he crush them for good using their arch rival, the Army. He made sure that military intelligence will never be able to challenge its mother unit: the army.

When “Arab Spring” occurred, he completed his election schedule and only then did people realized that he was one step ahead of them. Than Shwe unerstood that there was a need for political reform in order for economic development to occur and bring an end to Burma’s isolation. He made certain that the transition did not jeopardize the security of the military with his hand-crafted 2010 Constitution, which gives ultimate power to the military not the civilian branch of government.

Then, with his cards in place, Than Shwe left the political scene peacefully. But many believe that he still wields major influence on the ruling clique even though he may be truly practicing a hands-off policy.

Now imagine this scenario: If Suu Kyi and Thein Sein can do the perfect political dance and over time gradually elevate Burma into a truly democratic state, Burma’s iconic leader will be able to deliver her promise and bring a second independence to the country. Wouldn’t she then deserve a second Nobel Peace prize? No one has achieved it yet. Then following a tradition, Thein Sein might also be standing next to Suu Kyi like President F.W. de Klerk, who received the Nobel Prize as the partner to Nelson Mandela.

In a similar fashion, the Nobel Prize was awarded jointly to Yasar Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East. If Democracy can be revitalized in the country and economic development can be reintroduced, then who is the playwright who wrote the whole script? Who knows but one day Than Shwe’s followers may build a statue in honor of his “legacy,” and future soldiers may salute a fourth statue at the military marching grounds in Naypitaw.

Than Shwe surely cares about his “legacy,” and so long as Thein Sein and Suu Kyi dance within acceptable boundaries, the ex-junta leader will not stop them from moving toward a full-fledged democracy. It is a win-win situation for all. Nearly 60 million people have suffered, and it is time for peace and economic development in Burma.

When the final curtain comes to a close, legacy and partnerships do matter to real leaders.

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