YANGON – One of the great recurring questions in recent history is how Winston Churchill could have led the allies to victory in World War II and then manage to lose the 1945 British general election that handed power to Clement Attlee and his Labor Party. The consensus is that the Brits were tired of war and saw their future aspirations expressed more in Labor’s forward-looking slogan, “Let us face the future” than Churchill’s backward-looking appeal to let the Tories “Finish the job.”
British society eventually moved on – but here in Myanmar, the ramifications of that election are still felt every single day. More than 70 years later, the changes set in motion by the switch from Churchill to Attlee have led to a modern-day Catch-22 that is preventing this nascent democracy from becoming a real nation.
The issue is rooted in the conflict between the ethnic Burman majority and 135 ethnic minorities that have uneasily co-existed here since the Middle Ages. Back then, the central valley of this lush land was ruled by one ethnic Burman kingdom, which occasionally warred with the separate ethnic hill kingdoms – the Shan, Karen, Chin, Kachin, and Karenni – that surrounded them. When the British conquered the Burman monarchy in 1886, British leaders feared empowering the two-thirds of the population that were ethnic Burmans, choosing instead to put ethnic minorities in important colonial positions. During World War II, ethnic minorities fought with Britain while the Burmans sided with Japan, switching sides at the last minute when the allied victory became clear.
As I’ve written before, for their loyalty, the hill tribes expected Churchill to make them independent territories. When Attlee won, he not only turned his back on the ethnic minorities, he invited the leading Burmese general to meet with him in London, where he offered to give Burma, led by Burmans, complete independence. That general’s name was Aung San.
Ethnic leaders protested that that the Burman general didn’t speak for them. Trying to stave off violence, Aung San brought several of the hill tribes together in the Shan town of Panglong in February, 1947, where he negotiated a power-sharing agreement that the ethnics could opt out of after 10 years if they felt they mistreated. But it was not meant to be: Aung San was assassinated, derailing Panglong and leading most of the hill tribes to declare war against the Burman majority. After a 1962 coup, that civil war played out on ethnic lands – home to Burma’s greatest natural resources – between ethnic militias and the marauding Burman army, which claimed precious jade, teak, and other treasures as the spoils of war.
While the military junta was applauded globally in 2010 for allowing the first parliamentary elections in 20 years and successfully installing a civilian government, both the Burman army and the ethnic generals continued their own separate grips on the country’s most precious resources. In 2012, the Constitution specifically gave the Burman military responsibility for the three government Ministries – Home Affairs, Border, and Defense – that oversaw ethnic territories. Whoever was elected to run the country would do so without a single constitutional lever to direct real change in the parts of the country still tearing it apart.
That leader, of course, was Aung San Suu Kyi – Aung San’s daughter – who had been released from two decades of house arrest in 2010 and led the National Democratic League to a majority in parliament in 2015. Despite having rarely, if ever, uttered the names of ethnic groups publicly during her house arrest, she promised to follow in her father’s footsteps, calling for a Panglong 2 in early 2016. But she quickly proved unwilling or unable to pick up where her father left off, in part because of the Catch-22 facing Myanmar today: the ethnic states most vital to unifying the nation resist reconciliation.
The fact remains that the Burman military remains the most powerful force in Myanmar, and Suu Kyi cannot continue to lead if the military withdraws its support. As David Steinberg has written, the military “has continuously justified its actions against civilians by the fear of what they consider chaos – the disintegration of public order,” though “other observers might conclude that it was not chaos they feared but the attrition or destruction of the military’s role in society.” It is a problem of geography: the ethnic areas are the source of Myanmar’s illegal economies, which the military profits from at the expense of the people.
“Nothing will change because the generals and the head of the ethnic groups are getting rich from the current situation,” Ma Thanegi, a former assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi, tells me. “The military is not about to give power back to the states.”
The great irony – as military leaders have learned in Indonesia and Pakistan, where military-run corporations are central to the economy – is that national reconciliation could make the military better off by making Myanmar a destination for foreign investment. But the way they see it, reconciliation will just threaten their entrenched interests.
Suu Kyi hasn’t helped, exhibiting what friends say is a strong desire for control coupled with an unwillingness to get down into policy details or empower subordinates. One NGO leader described Myanmar under Suu Kyi as “a kind of autocratic democracy with one person taking all the decisions” and noted that “if you meet with ministers, you don’t get answers because they are waiting for their orders.” Suu Kyi “just meets with her team and reads over proposals, that’s it,” says Ma Thanegi. “She is used to being the opposition and that’s what she’s good at.”
A country at war with itself. A military that profits from division. A leader who needs the military. How could this ever produce a nation?
Here’s the best we can hope for: gradually re-shape the military’s calculus over time and teach both the Burman military and ethnic minority military leaders to better understand each other and work together. The real problem is that six decades of military rule has left military officers on both sides with no real role models other than China – whose officers also know little of life in a real democracy.
There is a program that could open the eyes of both ethnic and Burman soldiers: the U.S. International Military Education and Training Program (IMET). IMET promotes military-to-military relationships, civilian control of the military, and other norms that define the U.S. military. By bringing foreign soldiers to the U.S. to learn how military officers operate in a true democracy, IMET has helped teach the basics of rule of law and free markets for half a century to young leaders who return home to inspire others. Alumni – like Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong -- often rise to positions of influence.
Will Myanmar ever become a real nation? The answer will be written in the hills. Fair or not, this question will define Aung San Suu Kyi’s legacy.
The answer will only be “yes” if she is able to channel both Atlee and Churchill: to face the future – and finish the job.
Stanley A. Weiss, a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades. His recently published memoir, "Being Dead is Bad for Business," is available in bookstores around the United States and online.