Today Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is to attend the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels, where he is expected to press the case for moves towards democracy in Burma. This is ahead of the first elections in that country since 1990, the results of which were ignored by the military junta. Because the then victors, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, are boycotting the November polls and “the Lady” herself, as she is known, is still a political prisoner, it is understandable that some campaigners against the regime dismiss the election as a worthless sham.
Jeremy Browne, the Foreign Office Minister of State who is accompanying Clegg to Brussels, has said: “More than 2,000 political prisoners are being held in Burma, which makes it impossible for a meaningful election to take place.”
But 37 parties have registered to stand, and not all of them, especially those representing the country’s numerous and diverse ethnic minorities, can be considered stooges; neither should it be assumed that the NLD is the only legitimate voice of the Burmese people.
Still, there will be plenty urging Clegg and Browne to demand full, fair and free elections, and to insist that nothing less is of any value. As such elections would be expected to wipe out any candidates put up as window dressing for the status quo, the demand is effectively that the generals accept their regime’s instant dissolution.
This stand has principle and morality demonstrably on its side. How can one deal with a dictatorship that has brutalised its own people, routinely using rape, torture and murder as instruments of repression, and which has turned what was once the “rice basket of Asia” into an impoverished state that failed miserably to deal with the natural disasters of the last decade, including the Tsunami of 2004 and Cyclone Nargis four years later?
It is also a stand that Clegg and Browne must resist. They must make the distinction between the odious individuals at the top of the junta and the institution of the tatmadaw, the Burmese army, itself. The army was the creation of Burma’s national independence hero, General Aung San, and much of Aung San Suu Kyi’s power to speak out against the regime, especially initially, depended on her being his daughter. When she addressed the crowds at the Shwedagon Pagoda on 26 August 1988, she was deliberately inclusive.
“Let me speak frankly,” she said. “I feel strong attachment to the armed forces. Not only were they built up by my father; as I a child I was cared for by his soldiers.” Their rightful role – the one they could, and should, seek to live up to – was as “a force in which the people can place their trust and reliance.”
The army – in time, reformed, cleansed, disciplined, yes – but the army, nevertheless, will have to be part of Burma’s future; and a gradual letting go of its monopoly on power is the best anyone can realistically hope for. As much as its mission has been perverted and its members instructed to perpetrate increasingly evil acts since General Ne Win began military rule in 1962, the army is still the only unifying institution the country has, one whose more glorious history in its beginnings as a movement dedicated to independence and to resistance to Japanese rule towards the end of the Second World War may be the only narrative, semi-mythical as it may be, that Burma is left with, as and when it is able to rebuild in the future.
If Aung San Suu Kyi can acknowledge that, those seeking to help Burma would be most unwise to take more extreme positions – however principled they may appear. Indeed, the only effect of their fine words may be that the military junta digs in still further, seeking solace in ever closer ties to their new best friends, the one regime the world views with even greater distaste than that of Burma’s generals – North Korea.