"The Mission is Not Accomplished": David Williams on the Future of Burma

"The Mission is Not Accomplished": David Williams on the Future of Burma

The case of Burma provides a unique glimpse into the challenges of moving from a military dictatorship to a more open society. To get insight into this process, we reached out to David Williams, the Executive Director of The Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University, who has spent years working with ethnic minorities in Burma. He spoke to our host, Madeleine Brand, at length about the nation’s future.

Madeleine Brand: Let’s talk about your role. You have worked with the government in Burma to refashion the constitution or write a constitution.

David Williams: Right. They have a constitution that they developed in 2008. My role has been primarily working with the ethnic minorities, about 40 percent of the population. They've been in civil war since 1947, or at least some of them have been. That's because they feel that the constitution that was written after World War II allowed the ethnic majority to dominate them. This was a civil war fought really over constitutional design. That's the kind of work I do so they asked me in to advise them. 

For a long time, I was walking in across the border to meet with the generals of these ethnic resistance armies in the jungle, because I was the only one who was in a position to do it. These days, luckily things are a lot better. It's a lot safer for me. I was an enemy of the state for about 10 years.

Everything has changed recently because the new government, I think, genuinely wants peace with the ethnic resistance armies. They're looking for ways to settle this conflict.

They understand that's going to include reform of the constitution. As a result, suddenly I'm welcome in Rangoon. I've been there once. I'm going to go again in a few days. I got a visa, which is amazing, because I was an enemy of the state for so many years. They understand that I'm closely connected to these ethnic resistance groups and that they tend to take my advice. If I tell them that a deal is a good deal, they will be more inclined to go along with it.

MB: Are you aligned with all of the ethnic resistance groups?

DW: Not all of them. A few of them, to be blunt, are narco-traffickers. I have nothing to do with them. What I think of as the good faith resistance groups, yes. We advise almost all of them. I like to believe that we have helped them put together a common platform. When we first came in, they were all fighting for different things. If you fight for different things, then you fight in disunity and that means you fight in weakness. It's only when you come up with a common platform that you can actually negotiate from strength. 

Part of the miracle of the last couple of years is the government has now agreed to negotiate with all of these groups together. The groups are now mostly united around their common demands. The peace talks that are going on right now are all about constitution reform. For years in Burma, federalism was the F word for the government. They just hated the idea of federalism. They thought it meant that the country would fall apart. 

MB: What is the main point of disagreement between them and the government?

DW: Traditionally, the disagreement is over the following: the government disliked the ethnic minorities in principle. The policy was one of Burmanization, which means to make them more like the ethnic majority group. The government would forbid the speaking of ethnic minority languages. They would burn down churches because a lot of the ethnic minorities are Christian and the majority is Burman. 

More generally, it was just animosity that the army hated these minorities. I've been in villages in Burma that no longer exist because the government mortared them flat because they hated the idea of resistance as such. A lot of this is just deep-seated ancient hostility. 

The new issue that has been arising in a big way has been natural resources. Since the economy has opened up, a lot of foreign companies are coming in and starting to develop areas in the ethnic minority regions. Suddenly, the ethnic minorities are finding their land disappearing out from under them because they don't have state recognized title. A lot of what they want is control over natural resources development.

MB: Now where does Aung San Suu Kyi the famous resistance leader who was under house arrest for many years, fit into all of this?

DW: In the past, she was a spiritual leader. She was under house arrest so she couldn't really do anything at all, but she could speak for people who were hurt inside Burma. Her father, Aung San, was the founding general, sort of their George Washington. She comes into this with a very profound family pedigree. 

Since there have been elections, she has now moved into Parliament, where she is one of the Parliamentary leaders. The government has mostly kept her to the one side. The Parliament is dominated by military-backed political parties who, in the first election, won almost all the seats. The NLD [National League for Democracy], which is Aung San Suu Kyi's group, won a lot more seats in the last election. Clearly the NLD is a growing power and clearly Aung San Suu Kyi is herself a significant leader. 

Now, under the 2008 constitution, she cannot become President. This is one of the big political issues inside Burma. She's disqualified because she has foreign entanglements. That is to say she married an Englishman. One of the big pushes is to change the constitution to allow her to become President. I worry a little bit about this focus, though, because the reality is even if she becomes President, the situation in Burma is such that there's not that much that she can do. The constitution is still really, really bad. 

The hope that she will become President and save Burma I think is mistaken. She's not going to be able to do that unless there are many other changes. There's a wish fulfillment thing going on here, a kind of fantasy, that if she becomes the leader, all things will be healed.

MB: Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not being as vocal a proponent of ethnic minorities as perhaps she could be.

DW: I'm afraid that I will go on record as saying that I think she has not been as vocal a proponent for any of the ethnic minorities. Early on, she spoke strongly in favor of ethnic self-determination. Since she's moved into the Parliament, she has not done nearly as much I believe as once she did. I was always concerned that if she went into the Parliament, she would become more of a politician.

I thought that maybe she would be a better spiritual leader, outside of the Parliament, where she could speak her mind. My perception is, and it may be wrong, that now that she's inside the Parliament, she figures she's got to deal with the other members of government and that includes some of the military-backed parties. I think her silence on this is in fact marked. It's a change.

MB: The President met with Aung San Suu Kyi. I think he tried to press her to be a little more forthcoming and a little more supportive of the ethnic minorities. Why is the United States interested in what happens in Burma?

DW: Southeast Asia has moved sharply in a democratic direction in the last several decades. In part, that's because of US encouragement and part is because of internal developments. The reality is that the US does better with democracies. This is a big, big thing because of China. China does not do as well with democracies. Southeast Asia is China's back door. 

What I think President Obama has realized is this is an emerging area of influence for us. Of course the emerging global conflict, if there is going to be a conflict, will be between us and China. For us, therefore, to have feet in Southeast Asia is hugely significant.

MB: Is the ruling government more inclined to align itself with the United States or with China?

DW: I think a huge part of the reason for the change is they wanted to shift towards the United States and away from China. I think that continues to be the case, though there's division at the highest levels. 

China tends to be a very heavy-handed partner, especially if you are in their backyard. China treated the government of Burma as though they were servants. I think part of what happened is the government in Burma got very, very tired of that thumb. The wanted to be treated with more dignity and they wanted to have more independence. 

Part of the reason for liberalization is they understood that unless they did that, the US would never warm up to them. They want connection with the United States as a buffer against China. I think they're hoping that their trade links with the US will increase. Overwhelmingly right now, they trade with China. I think they're hoping that there will be a political buffering effect that we can play. 

Finally, and I know this is very hard to grasp at one remove, but psychology is hugely important in a place like Burma. Having face, having dignity, having respect, having independence—these things all matter a great deal. When the President of the United States goes to Rangoon and meets with leaders, there's an enormous amount of prestige that comes with that. I think the leaders of Burma had felt like they were pariahs for a very long time. Everybody spoke very badly of them and they hated that feeling. Now they're actually feeling much better about themselves.

MB: Give me your assessment of President Thein Sein. What kind of man is he? Is he someone that is truly interested in reform and in democratizing the country?

DW: Thein Sein was kind of a yes man for Than Shwe, who is the outgoing military general. Than Shwe really, really didn't want democracy, and really hated protests of any kind on principle. He wanted to oppress everybody. If you talked back to him, no matter what you were saying, even if it was true, he wanted to kill you. Everybody thought Thein Sein was going to be another Than Shwe. It turns out he's really not. He actually is somebody who is interested in change. My read on him is that he's not truly interested in democratic reform for its sake. He's an opportunist. That is, he wants good things for his country and if it takes democratic reform to get there, that's what he's prepared to do. 

His chief negotiator, Aung Min, really has been remarkable in being willing to grant certain concessions to the ethnic resistance armies in terms of the constitutional demands. These two are guys who, if they've got to compromise in order to get good things for their country, they will do it. That's not because they really deeply believe in democracy. They don't. 

Thein Sein was a general for years and years and years. He's realizing now he's the head of the civilian government. His interest is no longer in letting the military dominate things. His interest is in making sure that the civilian government manages to be the leadership. That may mean moving in a democratic direction.

MB: Who are the other players in the election?

DW: I think the NLD will gain some seats. The ethnic minority parties I think will gain some seats. Part of what's going to be interesting is: will there be movement in the top leadership? Thein Sein has been President now for a while. I think he wants to remain President. There's every possibility that a guy named Shwe Mon will come in. He's another one of these ex-generals. He's a significant leader, a little bit more hard-line than Thein Sein but an effective politician. 

Burmese democracy is so new that it's very hard to know how the elections will go and how political power will move around. I'll be honest, I've been surprised at how free and fair the elections actually have been. That's not to say they have been free and fair, but they have been freer and fairer than I would have anticipated. I think the number of parties is going to come down. There's talk inside the country about changes in the electoral system, about moving from a first past the post system to a PR system. If that happens, that would have huge consequences. 

I think an awful lot is still very much up for grabs. Really the question is ultimately how much is the government going to allow to go forward? Are they actually going to keep the elections free and fair or are they going to start to rig the system? 

The shoe that's always ready to drop in the background is: will the military come out of retirement and take over again as they did before? What everybody wonders about is if the constitution is changed so that Aung Sung Suu Kyi is allowed to become President, will Than Shwe decide that's the one thing he will not tolerate? We just don't know the answer to that. 

There's been a lot of liberalization. There's been a lot of opening. The very fact that I could get a visa and speak openly about reform is a miracle. That's something you never would have seen. Nonetheless, the constitution is profoundly deformed and the military is still allowed to be utterly in power if it wants to be. The government is also strongly hierarchical. The decisions come out of the President's office. He runs everything at this point. 

What we need here is more genuine democratization in the next 10 years or so. The US should really be pushing hard for reform. Meanwhile, in the ethnic areas, things have not gotten a lot better. The war is still going on and there are still atrocities being committed by the government. It's way too early to say, "Mission accomplished," which I'm afraid a lot of the international community is saying. The mission is not accomplished. There are many, many, many more miles to go before the situation in Burma should be deemed remotely tolerable.