Saluting Burma's Next Step And Keeping Hands Off

Bagan Pagoda field during sunset
Bagan Pagoda field during sunset

Saluting Burma's Next Step and Keeping Hands Off

Susanne Dumbleton, PhD

This week, Aung San Suu Kyi will walk to the podium in an assembly hall in Myanmar (Burma) and call to order representatives of the 135 ethnic peoples who make up the population of the country. In convening this Second Panglong Conference, she is resuming the work her father, Aung San, began in 1947, and left unfinished because assassins ended his life.

This will be more than a touching event at which a heroic woman will live out the dream of her assassinated father. If all goes well, the gathering will accelerate the peaceful progress toward democracy in this critically important Asian nation.

The Second Panglong's goal is as profound and difficult as that before the men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1789--to define, to the satisfaction of all, a way in which regions would form a union yet share power. If deliberations succeed, it will be one of the most meaningful developments on the current world political scene.

Not surprisingly, eyes in world capitals are watching closely. It is critical that hovering international interests watch but not interfere.

Just getting to this date has been an epic struggle. For more than 50 years after Aung San's death, a military junta wielded cruel power over the people, using the premise that the multiple ethnic differences made the people so unruly that only an iron fist could keep them from falling into disarray.

The opposite was true, of course. It was the military that created chaos--executing, imprisoning, or driving into exile all elected officials, closing universities, silencing the press, forbidding assembly, and using forced labor, land seizures and crony capitalism for personal benefit.

The generals have been backing down, but even after free elections in 2015, they retain the right to reassert military rule. Chapter XI of the military-drafted Constitution gives the National Defense and Security Council the authority to impose martial law, disband parliament, and return to full control at even a hint of unrest.

Moreover, people who have survived oppressive rule over two generations are understandably short on trust. Many Burmese, especially those living far from the centers of power, are reluctant to believe central government will respect their rights and address their needs.

In this context, Aung San Suu Kyi remains an inimitable force. By virtue of her legacy, she carries sway, a sway she expanded by being willing to suffer beside and stand up for her people for decades. Interestingly, the credibility that carries most weight these weeks is what she earned on her own, going out in the country to listen to the people.

One remarkable result of her influence is that attendance will be an unprecedented, actually unexpected, 100 percent. One week before the conference was to begin, even the most resistant leaders--those in the regions most offended by the former regime--agreed to give the Second Panglong a chance. Some say the most reluctant attendees changed their minds because they cut individual deals with China. Perhaps rumors of outside interference nudged Aung San Suu Kyi to invite UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to attend as a respected elder.

Success is not guaranteed. Even with full participation, the task is daunting. Those heading to the Conference site disagree strongly on issues, particularly regional rights versus centralized rights and the right to field militias. Hovering over all is the question of the people in Rohingya, whose citizenship is in question and who have not been included on the invitation list.

Complex compromise is the only way forward.

Aung San Suu Kyi considers the meeting's purpose vital. "If you ask me what my most important aim is for my country, that is to achieve peace and unity among the different peoples of our union. Without peace there can be no sustained development," she told a press conference.

This event is in President Obama's sights because it aligns with his focus on Pacific Rim interests and because he admires Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Leaders in Japan are watching, too, eager for power balance in Asia. Most interested of all are Myanmar's immediate neighbors--India, China, and Thailand--who want stability on their borders and a strong trading partner.

The Burmese welcome the interest, but they want no interference. From the start they have insisted, especially on this matter, that the Burmese people must be in charge. They are right. The world should watch with interest, but keep hands off.

Susanne Dumbleton is Professor Emeritus and Former Dean at DePaul University. She is studying the work of Aung San Suu Kyi, Wangari Maathai and Helen Prejean as leaders for social justice and human rights.