Rethinking the Burma Strategy (A new approach )

Dr. Tun Kyaw Nyein

Dr. Sein Myint

Moethee Zun

Bo Kyaw Nyein

January 2006.


The paper discusses the political environment in Burma since the 1988 uprising, the policy and rationale of the Burmese military government, and why the opposition’s strategy of dialogue failed. Based upon recognition of political realities, the authors recommend a strategy change to overcome the current political stalemate: multi-party talks between the Burmese military regime and global and regional powers are the only way to open up an avenue, and to encourage the military to seriously pursue a transition to democracy. Negotiations about a new power arrangement, which includes the ethnic nationalities and the Burman opposition groups, will have to take place at the second stage. It is not realistic, to force the military establishment after more than 40 years of military supremacy to relinquish power abruptly. How they get integrated into the transition process will be crucial to the establishment of a new civil-military relationship within a democratic framework.


The current compromise of the United Nations Security Council to discuss Burma issues behind the close-door session may appear like a victory for many Burmese activists and a good sound bite for U.S. diplomats. In reality however, it is most unlikely that this move will bring the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) any closer to negotiations, dialogue, or even a compromise solution. It is just as unlikely as the United States’ and EU strategy of sanctions or the “constructive engagement” policy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These carrot and stick-policies are based on a misreading of the SPDC Generals.

To bring the SPDC regime to the negotiation table, the International Community has to be realistic and aware of the rationale of ruling Generals and especially of the issues they fear most. It will be necessary to open the route where they can walk confidently without fear for their future. Neither punishing them with sanctions nor coddling them with economic cooperation has been effective. Only a coordinated multilateral effort pursued by the international community -like the six-party talk for North Korea and Afghanistan- remains as an alternative route to easing the gridlock.

In this paper we will first explore the political background, which led to the current situation in Burma, and then discuss a new strategy to address Burma’s problems.

The background

The 1988 uprising: opportunity missed

The pro-democracy uprising in Burma in 1988 is comparable to the Big Bang: Chaos was prevalent and everything was unsettled. During the protest, the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) lost direction, especially when their chairman General Ne Win stepped back, and the military became highly unsure about themselves and their duty. While retreating into the barracks, the administration was mainly left in the hands of the people. In some instances, student leaders like Min Ko Naing and Moe Thee Zun, who were Chairman and General Secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), ran many of the government functions.

It was a most crucial point of time, when U Nu, Burma’s last democratically elected Prime Minister, together with Aung San Suu Kyi, and student leaders could have agreed upon a strategy of concerted action. U Nu attempted to reclaim his legitimacy as Prime Minister of the 1960 elected government. In fact, with U Nu’s government likely to be recognized and backed by the international community, the possibility of reinstalling civilian rule and returning the military to the barracks was only a hair’s breadth away. At this critical juncture, however, the opposition leaders failed to rally behind U Nu and to agree upon a common strategy.

Consequently, the military leaders took advantage of the disunity within the democratic movement, and staged a coup d’etat in September 1988, effectively crushing the democratic protests. There is no doubt that the mastermind of this coup was none other than General Ne Win. But the military regime -calling themselves State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)- was apparently shaken by the uprising and not quite settled at first: it promised to hold elections in 1990 and encouraged the people to form as many political parties as possible, probably to create confusion and “democratic chaos”.

SLORC obviously miscalculated because the NLD won the election in a landslide victory, in spite of the fact that their General Secretary Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under detention. They refused to hand over power and quickly announced that the task of the elected representatives was to write a Constitution, not to form a government.

Here would have been another opportunity for the opposition inside the country to claim their right and form an elected government as the military regime was back in the saddle, but still lacked resources and support from the people. Yet, two years after the uprising, the democratic opposition forces couldn’t gain further momentum: they found themselves in an “inflationary period” to put it in astronomical terms.

At this point, the Western world started to identify and support Aung San Suu Kyi as the epitome of Burma’s struggle for freedom and democracy.

The phase of consolidation

To stay within astronomical metaphors: like the Universe took shape after the Big Bang, SLORC (later renamed SPDC) started to consolidate its power after the 1990 elections, arresting major opposition leaders and keeping Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Thousands of people left the country to escape detention and the aggravated living conditions.

Among the major ruling generals Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt, the latter was the most politically astute. As chief of the military intelligence he was the political strategist and decisive for the survival of the military in these trying times. As the military junta was short of foreign exchange, Khin Nyunt’s Military Intelligence not only negotiated with the notorious drug lords Khun Sa and Loei Sit Hun, who were hunted by the Western drug agencies; he also guaranteed them safe sanctuary in Rangoon and, most likely, profited from money laundering. Moreover, he succeeded in reaching ceasefire agreements with several ethnic insurgence groups, who in return got some limited autonomy rights from the Rangoon regime, allowing them to exploit natural resources.

Khin Nyunt also started to take charge of foreign policy issues and created the Office of Special Services (OSS), which included a military think tank. By strengthening the relationship between Rangoon and Beijing, he secured China’s support for the junta. He allowed the Chinese to occupy a military post (most likely a listening post) on some of Burma’s most southern islands in the Andaman Sea, and subsequently used this “Chinese card” to initiate a dialogue with Indian military officers. Since the time of the Independence movement, Indian governments have always been supportive of the Burmese democratic leaders.[1] However, after eight years of courtship and Burma’s growing closeness to China, the Indian government gave in to the demands of its own military officers with their regional security in mind. In passing, the discovery of Natural Gas along Burma’s Arakan coast may have added another incentive to India.

Likewise the Burmese Generals changed their policy towards Thailand. Both countries have had a long and, from time to time, violent history of rivalry; the Thai government had often used Karens and other ethnic insurgency groups as a “buffer” along the common border. Nevertheless, SLORC succeeded in softening the Thai Generals-turned-politicians by offering lucrative business deals. Today, the Thai government ranks as one of the staunchest supporters of the Rangoon regime within ASEAN.

Within a decade the military intelligence’s “Triangulation Plan” was completed: strong trade relations with China, India and ASEAN were established helping to overcome and counterbalance the sanctions imposed by the Western countries. Moreover, with Australia and Japan staying somewhat neutral, Khin Nyunt’s military intelligence ran also a pretty active and successful foreign policy within the extended region. For instance, Korean companies started to actively help the Burmese, especially in the energy sector. With the sale of a nuclear reactor, MIG29s and other military equipments, Russia and Ukraine also found themselves in SLORC’s corner. Many analysts believe that even France has taken a neutral stand, as the French oil giant Total has heavily invested in Burmese gas.

When General Khin Nyunt was finally promoted as Prime Minister in 2003, many of his supporters in the military establishment were running a whispering campaign that this politically astute man was the solution for Burma, even in place of Aung San Suu Kyi. Some ASEAN countries, Western think tanks, academics and Burmese activists bought the idea and banked on the military chief. But with the sudden removal of the military intelligence chief-turned-Prime Minister in October 2004, several supporters lost their shirts and their future and left foreign observers quite helpless.

What comes next in the military?

The removal of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt seemed to indicate a critical change within the SPDC regime, and gave the political opposition and foreign observers some reason for speculation. But without any major political disruption, the military government moved on as usual, even sticking to the original plan for resuming the National Convention without the participation of any significant political party.

After successfully marginalizing all opposition groups during the 1990’s, SPDC unveiled the Seven-Point-Roadmap to Democracy in 2003, thus trying to solve the “legitimacy” issue, which is their major problem since the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party in the 1990 elections. To overcome this issue, SPDC follows the playbook of General Ne Win, the godfather of present day military dictatorship, who held one-party-elections in 1974 establishing his military rule in civilian guise through the Burma Socialist Program Party.[2]

Similarly, the military rulers are currently planning to transform the mass organization, Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), into a civilian party.[3] They have recalled the National Convention and intend -probably sometime in 2006- to hold a referendum for the constitution followed by national elections. Ethnic groups who are also known as “ceasefire groups” for coming to terms with the military regime, are supposed to participate in the upcoming elections to give the impression of a multi-party, multi-ethnic vote. It goes without saying that most ruling Generals will be elected. And by staging an election and a new constitution in hand, they might be able to reinvent and transform themselves into “legitimate” military rulers in civilian garb.

The final scenario is conceivable: once the NLD-“legitimacy” derived from the 1990 elections is overwritten by new elections, it will be much easier for SPDC to showcase their “legitimacy”. Moreover, with time, the elected representatives from 1990 -many of them of old age- will pass away one by one, and with another election cycle, most of them will be forgotten, as it happened to Prime Minister U Nu’s elected government of 1960.

What about the opposition? (Or: What is the strategy of the opposition?)

The situation of the opposition within Burma is more than dreary. With Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon of the democratic movement under house arrest for more than ten of the last seventeen years of SLORC/SPDC rule, the Burmese democratic forces are wandering in political wilderness. Their members are either in detention or get constantly harassed and neutralized by the military intelligence.

The current ruling Generals have learned from Ne Win, who was not only a power-hungry General, but also a skillful and seasoned politician. Following his model, SPDC Generals systematically arrested all capable leaders and sentenced them to long-term imprisonments to detach leaders from the followers. Next, they broke the strength of the followers by constantly harassing them and squeezing out all opportunities for their survival. After some time, the opposition lost their critical political infrastructure and organization to wage an effective strategy. After 16 years of military suppression, NLD, the main opposition party, is struggling with no effective organization power. When Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, famous leaders of the 1988 uprising, were released from prison in 2004 after 16 years of detention, they found most of their former student comrades scattered across the globe without any organization structure.

Outside the country the situation is just as bleak. None of the exile organizations have any strength, significant following or a plan to launch an effective opposition campaign. After 16 years of self-destructive mismanagement, the National Coalition Government of Union of Burma (NCGUB) has basically become a five-member NGO dependent on political welfare of the donor community. They spend their time attending conferences and writing plan after plan how to build capacity and run the government if and when Burma embraces democracy, but without a strategy how to achieve it.

The Federation of Trade Unions–Burma (FTUB) and the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) can still give some heartburn to the military generals but none of these organizations is well organized or well funded to effectively change the existing stratocratic system.

Thus, while the military is adapting to a changing environment and challenges, and has an obviously well-defined plan to legitimize and prolong their rule, the opposition forces are weak, surviving mainly around Aung San Suu Kyi, and not able to adapt to any changes. Moreover, the opposition is pursuing the same strategy for now 15 years without any progress: By asking the military regime to enter into dialogue while clinging to their claim of legitimacy derived from the 1990 election.

Looking back, the NLD leadership formed a policy to ask for a dialogue with SLORC while Western democracies exerted pressure on the military junta through sanctions. For the moment, sanctions seemed to take effect, as the military rulers were still struggling for their survival. In 1994, and then again in 2001 and 2002 they agreed on talks with the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Whether it was a ploy or a genuine misunderstanding between the two parties (no one knows with certainty), anyhow, the military retreated after May 2002 and never returned for a dialogue.

Today the military junta has skillfully implemented their strategy and succeeded in actively building relationships with their neighbors and Asian trading partners. Most of the exiled opposition leaders are therefore quick to blame China, India and ASEAN for supporting SPDC, not understanding that all nations act first in their own self-interest in any decision making process.

In short, in the current political situation –with a weak opposition and good regional relations- the ruling generals have no incentive or desire to come to the negotiation table for a dialogue with NLD.

A new approach [or: A strategy change]

Looking at the rationale of the military regime

First, it is important to understand the rationale of the ruling military and to have a look at the historic-cultural background of their “collective thinking”. Their ideology and nationalist mind-set is molded by the experience of British colonial rule, the anti-colonial struggle, and the widespread ethnic and communist insurgencies after reaching independence, and the intervention of Chinese Nationalist KMT troops in Northeastern Burma (with the support of the CIA). It is very easy to provoke xenophobic and nationalist feelings in the Burmese military, as the idea that the Army is the only force since the Independence Struggle sixty years ago to prevent the country from disintegration and selfish foreign interests, is at the core of their identity.

Consequently, the imposed sanctions and political demands from the western democracies are conceived of as insult and threat to national sovereignty. Moreover, as they regard NLD and its General Secretary Aung San Suu Kyi responsible for this, they disdain her with the same passion, as she is supported and worshiped in the democratic movement and by the Western public for her courage and steadfast struggle for democracy. Related to this perceived threat from outside and watching Iraq, the SPDC seemed concerned that Burma could be the next military target of the United States, although the facts and logic may not support such military adventures. However, using millions of dollars in building bunkers close to the mountains and the recent moving of the military headquarter from Rangoon to Pyinmana in central Burma, could be seen as indication that the Generals are taking a foreign attack quite seriously.

Another and probably major reason for the Generals’ reluctance to share or relinquish power is the fear of facing an international criminal trial. The images of Slobodan Milosovic standing trial in The Hague in front of an International Criminal Tribunal, and the recent Saddam Hussein trial, have definitely chilling effects on the junta. They are anticipating that Aung San Suu Kyi once she is in power, will not only search for criminal persecution, but also destroy the livelihood of the whole military establishment.[4]

Instead, the Generals have already made quite clear how they conceive of their role in future Burma under a new constitution. They want their livelihood, their interests to be protected and demand a decisive role in the building, developing, and governing of the nation: 25% of all seats have to be reserved for military officers in both the state and national parliament, and the President has to have military experience.

Therefore, if the only demand and priority of the opposition and the Western governments is for SPDC to enter into a dialogue and negotiate with Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta will ignore it as it has always done and continue their rule at all cost.

Looking at the options of the international community

Given the above-described rationale of the military, the current efforts at United Nations Security Council to discuss the Burma’s issue may be a good move at the tactical level, just to bring the issue back to the forefront. But it is not a winning strategy for a long lasting solution. It may also evoke false hopes for many Burmese, that the United Nations will save the country, and worse, it could instill the idea among the Burmese opposition inside Burma that Democracy will simply fall into their laps. It is almost certain that the SPDC Generals will not cave in to demands of the United Nations led by the United States, but instead relying on support from United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Veto-Powers like Russia and China.

Although the opposite impression is somehow prevalent in the public discourse, the SPDC Generals are no fools with regard to international- and geo-politics. In addition to their well-established relations to China, the Generals are quietly building their relationship with the Kremlin not only to counter their dependency on China, but also to ask for help from Russia, if needed for instance in the UNSC. Business announcements are expected in a few months, which will reveal their growing relationship with Russia.

Even if the United States could overcome a possible veto by China and Russia in the UNSC and reach a resolution calling for Aung San Suu Kyis release and demanding SPDC to negotiate with NLD, SPDC will certainly refuse because of all the above-mentioned reasons, and their sense of pride and nationalism. The scenario, which would follow is easy to anticipate: the UN would be forced to impose sanctions. Knowing from the Iraq experience, SPDC generals would probably try to bribe with their Natural gas, and there are some people who are always willing to help by-pass sanctions. There would be a long tug-of-war, which the innocent population would have to bear, while the Generals retain their wealth and power. It would describe another dark age for the Burmese, suffering under Generals, who stubbornly resist sanctions and outside pressure.

Except for military intervention, there is no clear solution deriving from the United Nations Security Council. However, with Iraq war dragging, continuous and more severe nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, and a Global Islamic terrorism, it is doubtful that the United States will consider a military invasion, especially as the Burma regime poses no clear and present danger to America.

China, on the other hand, could offer one avenue for a realistic approach. One of the key strategies of the current Chinese policy is to focus on development and economic stability in the region. It is gradually transforming from a big brother bully to a civilized nation interested in regional development projects and good economic relations with the regional neighbors. For example, taking a leading role in the Mekong project and the change of heart in the Spratly Islands dispute was China’s debut in influencing its neighbors through peace and development rather than flexing its military and economic muscles. Currently many Chinese officials are frustrated because it seems that the Burmese are the only one among the regional partners who do not comply with the project goals.

Beijing is fully aware that Burma with its erratic Generals and the constantly suppressed people is a time bomb. They want to avoid a repeat of the 1988 uprising, which would attract more international anger, damage their image as a supporter of the regime, and, most importantly, jeopardize regional political and economic stability. For that reason it is in their interest to cooperate with regional partners and the United States to find a solution for Burma.

How to encounter the military and to pave way for multi-party talks

Against this background and given the difficult reality in Burma’s current political situation, the United States has to keep the lead in its effort to bring a genuine solution for the country. Instead of only demanding SPDC to come to a dialogue with NLD, the United States should initiate multi-lateral talks with China as leading co-partner and include other international allies and regional powers like India, Russia, Japan, ASEAN and EU. The North Korea six-party talk could serve as a model. By welcoming China as a leading co-partner and bringing in the regional powers and allies, the United States invites to solve the thorny issue together and thus promotes multilateral policies rather than pursuing unilateral interests. In addition, if Thailand’s attempt to restart the Bangkok process should succeed, America- and China-led seven-party talks could serve as continuation of the Bangkok process.

The most difficult part, however, will be to convince the Burmese Generals to take part in negotiations in an American-led international forum in the first place. What could induce them to participate in talks, which will address no less than their own future? It is tempting at this point to invoke Thucydides who said, nations were motivated by only three things: fear, pride, and self-interest. After being shunned by the U.S. and Western nations for over a decade, it is likely that the Burmese Generals will welcome an opportunity to participate in talks on an international level having their injured pride assuaged and with a reasonable comfort zone provided by the presence of friendly regional powers such as China and India. Another incentive for the Generals would be a chance to make their case to the multilateral parties without having to sustain a unilateral and moralistic lecturing from the U.S. and other Western democracies. Last but not least, one of the most important issues for the Generals before even starting the talks will be to guarantee them, not to be indicted in the International Criminal Court. This guarantee will allay their fears and will be crucial for the ruling Generals to come to the negotiation table and to search for a genuine solution for Burma.[5]

The talks: a short outline

The initial stage will start with multi-lateral talks between SPDC, United States, China, ASEAN, India, Russia, EU and Japan. The goal of the first phase is to bring the SPDC Generals to the negotiation table. The key factor will be to give assurances to the Generals that they will not face prosecution at the International Criminal Court with the proviso that this assurance can and will be withdrawn if SPDC do not implement or follow agreements obtain from these talks. The goal of this stage will be to establish confidence-building and general discussion on a framework for a new civil-military- relationship within which both, the military and opposition groups can work together and participate in the political process.

In a second phase the Burman and ethnic opposition will be included. This allegedly subordinated position of the opposition seems crucial, given the fact that the deep resentments of the Generals towards Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have been the main reason given for the current stalemate. Equally it is decisive in this phase that the international community and negotiating partners refrain from defining the Burmese opposition exclusively as NLD. The Burmese opposition has to include beside the NLD, ethnic representatives, the student leaders of 1988, such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, and other seasoned Burmese politicians. This certainly does not mean that Aung San Suu Kyi’s role is diminished. The first and ultimate goal however, is to halt and slowly sunset the military dictatorship in Burma and to pave way for democracy in Burma. Therefore, as will be shown later, Aung San Suu Kyi will play the crucial role in the following, third stage of the negotiation- and transformation-process.

It is essential at this stage that all agreements be defined clearly, recorded and signed by the agreeing parties. During the short talks between NLD and SLORC, there seemed to be no written agreement and without the written record of the discussions they were is open to misinterpretation and understanding and even abuse.

The third stage will deal with the future constitution of Burma and the shape of the multi-ethnic state. While the first and second stage are determined by building confidence and general discussions -on how to handle the transition, the political participation of different political groups within the process, handling law and order and economic issues- the constitution writing process will be the most complex one. It touches the most sensitive issues in Burma politics: the role of the military in future Burma and the shape of the multi-ethnic state. It should be noted here, that since 1962 coup d’etat, the endeavors for more autonomy of some ethnic groups and the “threat of disintegration” of Burma was always the most effective and convincing explanation used by the military to justify their rule.[6]

The first inter-ethnic agreement signed in Panglong 1947 was designed in a hurry and was not comprehensive. It did not cover all the major issues concerning Burma’s ethnic composition and problems. Meanwhile, some ethnic groups have been trying to write a constitution in exile for more than 10 years with the help of some Western governments and scholars. As they cannot be considered of being legitimate representatives, and their idea is based on an 8-states-model instead of the current 14 states in Burma, these proposals will be definitely a non-starter for many Burmese. The country is desperately in need of a comprehensive look at the multi-ethnic issues, autonomy rights, rights of the states versus national (or federal) entity etc., and has to find a constitutional solution which is fair and balanced for both, the Burmese majority and the ethnic minority groups.

Thus the Burma Constitution problem is the utmost complex, sensitive, and explosive issue. At this stage of moulding the constitution for a multi-ethnic state, Aung San Suu Kyi will have to step in. The situation needs the eloquent persuasion of a leader of her status, posture and credibility to overcome mistrust and misunderstanding. As the daughter of Aung San, she epitomizes political morality and enjoys the respect and acceptance of both, the Burmans and ethnic groups. Only she will be able to walk the last mile to unite the people, and like her father, to transcend the whole nation.

Prospects for the transition phase: a wish list

Rebuilding the nation

To rebuild the nation is a gigantic task, which no single group alone can accomplish. Neither the military nor the opposition possesses the capacity to administer and oversee the restoration of the country with effectiveness and free of corruption. One of the basic issues in the restoration process will be to avoid corruption, which makes it necessary to separate “politics” from “administration”. The best strategy to achieve this goal is to put the administration strictly in the hands of “professionals” or “technocrats” during the transition period, while politicians, political leaders and operatives are sorting out the crucial issues related to the Constitution process.

Due to the total domination of military officials in every corner of governance and society many young professionals have left Burma to seek better opportunities and are scattered all over the globe. Many are now well established in their chosen professions. Most of these professionals and technocrats have gained valuable experiences. They are well trained, and have mastered global standards and practicing in modern corporate world. Many are still emotionally attached to the motherland. If they are given a chance, many of these seasoned professionals and technocrats will return to help rebuild the country. These Western trained professionals will become the core and driving force not only in rebuilding the country they can be vital in educating and promoting Democracy in Burma.[7]

Certainly, the selection process of choosing able technocrats from the pool of professionals will be a challenge in order to satisfy both sides. There is already a team of well-known intellects, technicians and professionals formed to contribute in their respective fields called Technical Advisory Network (TAN) from the exile side. Also, there are many capable experienced hands from the military side who had been retired, removed or sidelined because they did not fall into military orders such as Brig generals Abel and Zaw Tun and there are many well-qualified civilian technocrats currently serving in the government. TAN can be expanded to become a Joint Military-Civilian Selection Committee to choose the “best and the brightest” to form the core of the Transition Government.

The separation of politics from day-to-day governance must be implemented down to the State levels, and there must be an effort to put the local issues and developments in the hands of local technocrats to encourage autonomy, responsibility and accountability. There are many young, experienced and talented professionals from ethnic groups who are educated and trained in developed countries. They should be encouraged to take part in the development of the country and the Union states.

The shape and model of a technocrats’ government

The Burmese military is currently in total domination of the society. Therefore, it will be a sensitive and difficult issue to convince the generals to give up their positions, which are their source for income and corruption. Even if an agreement can be reached, the military will demand for the Defense and Home (Interior) portfolio. Without their control over national security issues the generals will not agree to any change in the government. The composition of technocrats in the government could therefore include ex-military ministers who have shown efficiency, capacity and credibility.

Another important aspect will be to distribute the policing to localities instead of keeping it centralized.

The international negotiation partners have to be prepared to solve the currency problem (Burma’s currency is “kyat”), and to offer programs that the technocrats can implement to reinvent the economy. A plan should include the reengagement of international financial institutions but with responsibility and accountability given to credible leaders at the head of the ministries. Because of the uncertainty of the direction during the negotiation with the SPDC generals, only the skeleton of the shape and architecture is proposed for discussion. Details are deliberately left out to provide flexibility and maneuverable space for future discussions: Forms shall follow functions.

Because of the basic suspicious nature of the ruling generals, it is recommended that a blue ribbon council of elder statesmen, ex-military generals, politicians and distinguished citizens supported by international experts should take a look at the direction and shape of some important ministries such as defense, agriculture and industry. They will then be able to give guidelines and set expectations to the technocrats who will be leading these ministries. Moreover, United States government should bring in Wall Street specialists, Capital market professionals and Venture Capitalists (if possible) to encourage private investment in the future of Burma.

The energy sector should be one of the focus area with special attention paid to LNG (Liquidified Natural Gas) technology and New Chemical Processing techniques such as producing gasoline from Natural gas (Burma may be able to export gasoline cheaper than other producers). This move will satisfy the Burmese generals and will help build the Burmese private sector as well as the Burmese business community with knowledge of global standard.

The role of military during the transition period

With the guarantee not to get indicted, it is possible that the head of state could be a General. The members of the seven-party talk could consider the replacement of

General Than Shwe with General Maung Aye as head of state during the transition period. It is widely known that Than Shwe has an extremely negative attitude towards NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, and many young Generals are displeased with his eccentric manners that made him think of himself as an Emperor. As there is a genuine power struggle going on between Maung Aye and Than Shwe, the talks may favor Maung Aye to ask for Than Shwe’s retirement within the ruling clique. Some local analysts believe that Maung Aye is more pragmatic and reasonable in dealing with the opposition, especially with Aung San Suu Kyi.

SPDC favors the Indonesian model where the military controls 25% of the parliament or any legislative body so that they will have veto power to stop any law that will prosecute them for the crimes they may have committed during their absolute military rule. If some form of amnesty can be worked out with a “truth and reconciliation committees” formed in accordance to the model of South Africa, it will take the “fear” out of the military officials.

Still, the military may seek some oversight mechanism before relinquishing their total control. It is quite conceivable that the military may want some control over the transition government run by technocrats. Burma could look at the Turkish model where the elected civilian government leaders met with the military brass regularly to get the consent of the military particularly on matters concerning with National Security issues through National Security Council, led by a four star general. Recognizing that the military regime has never demonstrated competence to manage any sector of government, this mechanism of semi-oversight by the military over civilian government through National Security Council shall exist only as a procedural, face-saving tactic during the transition period and shall have a sunset clause once the Constitution is complete, ratified and representative constitution is implemented.

Who will control the military budget during the transition?

One of the biggest hurdles will be the control of the military budget. The military elite is accustomed to an “Open Budget Cycle” for the military budget due to their absolute control of power. This preference of military budget is also one of the main reasons for the economic failure the country is facing at present time. A “Military council” as practiced in China can be the model to control the military budget. The members should be elder statesmen with long military experiences and senior members of the cabinet. The military council should not only consider the military budget but also approve the military planning and preparedness. It should reexamine the size and force structure relative to the threats the country is facing and should based on economic strength and viabilities. There should be a balance between what the country can afford to meet the realistic national security needs and the wish list of the military brass. There is no shortage of experienced old hands and social-military experts in Burma to take positions in this council. Under no circumstances should the military have budgetary authority to decide its allocation of the national budget.

If the talks fail and the military cheats

It may be that a dictatorial regime plans to cheat or slows down the transition process. North Korea is an example. It should be clear from the start that the guarantee to abstain from prosecution depends on the willingness and the progress of the Generals to implement the agreement reached between SPDC and the opposition. It should be clear that if SPDC started to dishonor their agreements signed with the opposition, recognized by the International Community, the guarantee from prosecution shall and can be withdrawn and United States shall take a lead in submitting Burma’s case to United Nations Security Council to be followed by UN sponsored International sanctions.

Also, U. S. should develop a plan to invite Burmese opposition leaders in exile with the aim to form a United Front in the form of Burma Congress in exile. For 15 years, United States has been focused only on organizations and people who claim to represent NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. Many of them are inefficient, bureaucratic operatives who don’t know how to organize or lead a movement. They have become totally reliant upon the donor community for their survival. In accordance with a new strategic approach, United States should look beyond these named opposition groups. Moreover, the U.S. should attempt to expand their help to reach the population inside Burma through other exiled organizations.

One of the critical events that SPDC is always afraid to face is the threat of another national uprising like 1988. While the negotiations are moving ahead and if some political space becomes open, these newly energized exile groups can meet and re-connect with their supporters inside Burma. These groups will become democracy- operatives and workers during future election campaigns. Should the negotiations stall and SPDC start to cheat the process, they can easily move underground and provoke strikes and demonstrations, which could lead to another national uprising.

As an insurance policy, U.S. should have a plan to groom and build the opposition operatives both inside the country and in exile.


It will be a difficult road to Democracy for a country like Burma where a dictatorial culture and a military mind-set have ruled the country for nearly half a century. The worst Ne Win has left, as his legacy is a mind-set where corruption, self-centricity and living for survival became the norm. Ma-lho-te ma-shoat ma-pytoe -no movement, no interference, and no losing (of jobs)- became the slogan. Both, the NLD opposition and the ruling SPDC elite, are unknowingly surviving according to this mentality, and nothing gets done for the country. Even the opposition living in exile is still influenced by this mentality. Although many so-called activists are shouting for Democracy, they do not know how to handle opposite views with tolerance and understanding. There is a long road ahead for Burma. But even with all these difficulties, gradually we will reach our goal for freedom and a democratic society.

The alternative is bleak: the military junta is building a society where they are controlling every aspect. Burma is marching towards a Sparta-like society where education, high-level jobs, business opportunities are reserved only for the military establishment, their families and cronies.

Teachers are promoting students without teaching but are giving private tutoring after schools, bureaucrats are asking for bribes openly, and even doctors have to be bribed to do a surgery. The military elite has special schools for their families and have now built special professional universities attached to military academies for medicine, engineering and computer science. Usually, the military recruited the professionals after graduation, but now the military has taken awaythe best resources (professors and equipments) from the civil universities and moved them to military academies, leaving the public universities under civilian administration to shambles.

The opposition has been marginalized, and Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, with her age and health declining, will become another Dalai Lama: a beloved icon and leader but without any political power to free her country. If she passes away from the scene, the opposition within the country without any upcoming leaders in the second row, and the so-called exile leaders in total disarray, the voices for opposition will fade away.

So, what are we fighting for? If the goal is to free Burma from the yoke of military dictatorship, we should focus on achieving DEMOCRACY. The military is guarding the entrance to the door, and after fifteen years of failed hope for dialogue and a never ending stalemate, this paper tried to outline a new strategy how to pass through the gate: by negotiation with the Generals based on “interest” rather than “emotions” and with the assistance from global and regional powers. It is still possible to achieve peace, development and democracy but only with the help and full commitment of the international community. The most precious gift the United States can offer to the world is the export of freedom and democracy. To use the words of Aung San Suu Kyi: Please use your freedom to help us.


Dr. Tun Kyaw Nyein is a Burma activist since the 70’s and member of the Strategy Group for Burma, a Burmese think tank. As one of the leaders in the pro-democracy U Thant-uprisings in 1974, he got imprisoned in Insein jail for nearly 5 years, and finally left Burma in 1983. Dr. Tun Kyaw Nyein, an Acting Dean at the University College of the North Carolina Central University, received his medical degree M.B.B.S. from Rangoon Medical College and his Ph.D. from University of Tennessee, Knoxville, U.S.A. He is the son of U Kyaw Nyein, one of the leaders of the Burma independence movement, who became Deputy Prime Minister in the U Nu government.

Dr. Sein Myint is a member of Strategy Group for Burma and Technical Advisory Network (TAN), a team of Burmese intellectuals. He also serves as Director for Justice for Human Rights in Burma (JHB) and as a member of Board of Director for Burma Fund, the financial arm of NCGUB. Dr. Sein Myint received his engineering degree from Rangoon Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. from Manchester, United Kingdom. He is Vice President for Engineering at Marioff Inc. in Maryland.

Moethee Zun became famous as one of the top student leaders in the 1988 democratic uprising in Burma. He was General Secretary of All Burma Students Union (ABSU), known since the independence movement as the powerhouse in Burmese politics. After leaving Burma to escape arrest, he became the Chairman of the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF) for nearly ten years. Moe Thee Zun is also the founder and President of Democratic Forces of Burma (DFB) and member of Strategy Group for Burma. He received his Bachelor degree in Physics from the Rangoon University and his Master of International Affairs in Public Policy from Columbia University, New York.

Bo Kyaw Nyein has written several articles and position papers on Burma’s politics, many of them posted at Mizzima, Burmese affairs website and news center. Like the co-authors, he is a member of Strategy Group for Burma. Bo Kyaw Nyein is the youngest son of U Kyaw Nyein and was imprisoned for nearly five years for his leadership in the U Thant uprising in 1974 along with his brother. He received his engineering degree from Rangoon Institute of Technology and his M.S. from Western Illinois University, U.S.A. He served as an engineering professional and manager in several Fortune 100 companies such as Unisys, HP and Cisco.

[1] In 1947 Nehru had promised General Aung San not to allow the use of Indian troops in Burma if the negotiations between the Burmese and the British delegation on Burma’s independence would fail. During the civil war in the 1950s, India came to help the U Nu government by sending arms, when both the Western democracies and the Communists refused their support. After the coup d’etat of Ne Win in 1962, the Indian government was siding with the Burmese democrats who fought against the military regime.

[2] After staging the coup d’etat in 1962 and heading the Revolutionary Council for a decade, Ne Win ordered the writing of a new constitution and formed the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). One-party-election were finally held in 1974 and won by the BSPP with over 90% of the votes. This marked the beginning of the one-party dictatorial rule that lasted until the uprising in 1988.

[3] Formed in 1993 as a non-governmental association and affiliated with the Burmese Red Cross, the Women’s Affairs Committee, military-backed welfare groups and retired military members, it is assumed that USDA includes 12 million people across Burma. Senior General Than Shwe, chairman of SPDC, is the patron of the organization.

[4] It is not quite clear, why the military is so strongly convinced that Aung San Suu Kyi’s wants to put them on trail, as she repeatedly mentioned, not to seek revenge. On the other hand, suggestive statements about the regime of Aung San Suu Kyi like: “…Because what they are doing is against the law. According to the terms of the law, some of the things they have done are crimes. So they are criminal activities” or “Let me put it this way. The majority of Burmese leaders today are extremely rich. Twelve years ago they were not at all well off. Let that be an indication” (see quotes of Aung San Suu Kyi on the official website, may have fostered their conviction.

[5] Although it is more than understandable that most people in the opposition yearn for revenge and justice, after living under military rule for nearly half a century and experiencing repeated abuses, the Burmese will have to accept the fact, that the military regime holds governance powers, and that there will be no peace and development in a foreseeable future without the military at the negotiation table. It will be hard for many Burmese to swallow, but it should be the price the people have to pay to attain freedom for 52 millions Burmese.

[6] Burma has several major ethnic and several hundreds sub-ethnic groups. During colonial rule, the British installed a “divide et impera” policy by keeping “Ministerial Burma” (mainly ethnic Burmans) and the “Border areas” (inhabited mainly by minority groups) separated. To demonstrate “national unity” towards the British became the main issue of the independence movement led by General Aung San. He finally signed the famous Panglong treatment together with some of the major ethnic leaders, a precondition for the 1947 Constitution. In Panglong, Aung San agreed on the demand from the Shan leaders that the Shan and Karenni have the rights to secede from the Union of Burma after 10 years (similar to what Kurds are demanding in Iraq today). When the Shan in 1962 called a meeting to discus this specific clause, Ne Win took this event as cause to stage a coup d’etat. He justified his violent takeover with the explanation that he had to save the country from disintegration.

[7] With time, younger generations of Burmese who are born and raised in foreign countries will lose their emotional attachment and cultural touch with Burma. If we fail to utilize these generations of seasoned and well-trained professionals for Burma in rebuilding and redevelopment, it will be a great loss for the country

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