Burma Special: Why we must talk to the generals

Focusing on Aung San Suu Kyi may not be the best way to bring democracy to Burma, argues Maung Zarni

Starting as one of the progressive political actors that drove out the fascist Japanese occupiers, the tatmadaw (combined armed forces) now stands accused of similar abuse. But we need to discard demonisation. It cannot be part of our solution. It has ill served our nation. Like it or not, the army has succeeded in inscribing its future role on our body politic. It is so deeply entrenched in our politics, economy and bureaucracy that engagement with the military regime is necessary if there is to be any chance for Burma's misery and isolation to end.

The tatmadaw is the same force that was founded by Bogyoke Aung San, the slain independence hero, army general and father of Aung San Suu Kyi. The generals are mainly drawn from the urban elite, but hundreds of thousands of Burmese families, of all ethnicities, have members of the army in their midst. However unpalatable the thought, both the leaders and the rank and file are unmistakably cut from the same existential fabric as the rest of us. They all embrace a xenophobic nationalism. They are family men who worship the same Buddha and believe in miracles and astrology. They all suffer from the anxieties and sense of insecurity that come with being at the centre of the vicious cycle of post-independence conflicts, both with their own citizens and now with the outside world.

For years, the west had no interest in Burma. During the cold war, there was no outcry when Karen insurgents blew up Rangoon-Mandalay passenger trains or when the tatmadaw burned down suspected guerrilla villages. Living behind the teak curtain of isolation imposed by the army, we heard about General Ne Win - who ended our parliamentary democracy in 1962 and gave us 26 years of one-party socialist rule - having tea with Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace while the CIA trained his deputies in counter-intelligence. Times have changed.

The post-cold war west has rediscovered human rights and no longer welcomes Ne Win's successors, nor tolerates their style of authoritarian governance. Yet the almost exclusive focus on Aung San Suu Kyi and her epic story has been unhelpful. Though well-intentioned, her endorsement of the tourist boycott, economic sanctions and political isolation has failed, and holds back the possibility of reform.

The army approaches politics as if it were a war, seeking unity at gunpoint. It suffers from a sense of being under siege by the west. It is the public that bears the enormous cost of the country's conflict. The record of the military governments since 1962 in public health, education, economy, human resource development, natural resource management, rural development and ethnic integration is abysmal. No improvement can be expected as long as the generals' priorities remain security, security and security.

But the military is capable of change from within, for better or worse. After all, despite decades of careful screening and intense propaganda aimed at ensuring ideological coherence, it still suffers chronic internal power struggles.

Change within the army, however, is slow and costly to those who initiate it. In 1976 Captain Ohn Kyaw Myint, an aide-de-camp to the then vice chief of staff, led an abortive coup to install a reformist government. The young ringleader was hanged and his co-conspirators, including the chief of staff, were all sacked. In 1983 Brigadier Tin Oo, then national security adviser, was ousted by the senior military leaders and his entire national intelligence network dissolved. The senior army leadership felt the spymaster was becoming too powerful. In 2004 General Khin Nyunt, who held executive posts as prime minister and chief of military intelligence, reached out to the Burmese opposition as well as the west. This overture by the third most powerful general was thwarted by inward-looking hardliners, who ousted him and dismantled his power base. Since then, these men have withdrawn from the international community and slammed shut the door to the opposition.

The army, controlled by hardliners, is absolutely unprepared to accept anyone as the country's leader who is not a battle-seasoned general, and least of all a civilian politician. So where is Burma heading? Oppressed under military rule and suffering quietly, the masses will continue to struggle to put food on the table while the country's heroine languishes under house arrest. Meanwhile, the junta trades with China, Thailand, India, Russia, Singapore and South Korea in the face of a Cuban-style economic blockade by the Americans.

Unfortunate as this is, the army is the only in stitution through which reform is possible. We have no choice but to talk to the generals. If the west and the opposition fail to invest in creating a capitalist class or supporting soldier-reformers, Burma's future will be bleak. As it is, finding reformers is like finding needles in a haystack.

Dr Maung Zarni is a visiting research fellow at Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, and founder of the Free Burma Coalition

The jungle VIPs: who's who in the junta

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which grew out of the State Law and Order Restoration Council - formed to crush the pro-democracy protests that erupted after the dictator Ne Win stepped down in 1988 - was created in 1997. It has 12 members, all of whom are tatmadaw generals. Two of them also hold cabinet positions: Than Shwe is defence minister and Soe Win is prime minister.

SPDC members:

Senior General Than Shwe

As chairman of the SPDC and head of the army, 73-year-old Than Shwe is Burma's hardline head of state. Originally a postal worker, he joined the army at 20 and worked in the department of psychological warfare. When travelling to India on state business recently, he was "accompanied" by the wives of the other generals; some say he took them as hostages, fearing a coup while his back was turned.

General Maung Aye

Maung Aye, 68, is vice-chairman of the SPDC and has a reputation for ruthlessness. He is a career soldier with links to prominent businessmen and drug lords in Asia's Golden Triangle and has been hostile to minority ethnic groups. Despite this, Irrawaddy magazine reported rumours in 2004 that Aung San Suu Kyi had referred to him as the most charismatic of Burma's leaders; it also suggested that the two had dined together.

Lieutenant General Soe Win

Soe Win, roughly 58, has been prime minister since 2004. He commanded an infantry division that crushed a pro-democracy rally in 1998 and is believed to be responsible for a bloody attack on Suu Kyi's convoy in 2003. Another hardliner, Soe Win persecuted the Christian Chin ethnic group as regional commander responsible for Chin State.

Former SPDC member:

General Khin Nyunt

Prime minister until he was sacked in October 2004. Some have labelled him a "pragmatist"; others have pointed out that, as head of military intelligence, he was responsible for torture.

Former dictator:

General Ne Win

Though he stepped down in 1988 and died in 2002, Ne Win remains the guiding spirit of the regime. He seized power in 1962 and his "Way to Socialism" made Burma one of the world's poorest nations. Obsessed with astrology and omens - in particular the number nine - he changed the currency so that notes came in denominations of 45 and 90, wiping out the savings of millions. Before his death four members of his family were sentenced to death for allegedly plotting a coup.

Research: Daniel Trilling

Tags:Burma