Positive development seldom comes about, particularly in the case of Burma, the ASEAN's problem child. But this might be changing for the inward-looking Burmese military junta is having a second thought and even agreeing to open its door to ASEAN-led initiative to assess its so-called democratisation process. Hopefully, the junta would earnestly comply to its promise and not back down again for fear of real democratisation in all-inclusive term, as called for by the UN and well-meaning, concerned international and regional players.
Encouraging news, that make many think that the positive change might be in theoffing are, first, the US-led UNSC informal briefing; second, the ASEAN's insistence that Burma needs speedy change in its democratisation process; third, Burma's PM Soe Win's agreement or positive response that ASEAN-led team would be allowed to assess the real situation in Burma; fourth, the recent Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Charter, emphasizing the promotion of democracy, human rights and obligations; and fifth, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s commendation of the ASEAN for its call on Myanmar to “expedite” both its political reform efforts and its release of political detainees and the positive response of Burma's decision to accept the envoy.
While ASEAN's good will intervention is a welcomed move, it should not forget that the core of the problem in Burma is two folds. One is the constitutional crisis or proper arrangement to reflect the desire and aspiration of the people, which stem from conceptual differences between the Burman dominated militaryregime and non-Burman ethnic nationalities, and the other, the immediate humanitarian crisis, which is threatening to explode into regional and international ramification.
The woes of Burma today are deeply rooted in the inadequate constitutional drafting of 1947. The Union Constitution was rushed through to completion without reflecting the spirit of Panglong. The ethnic homelands were recognized as constituent states but all power was concentrated in the central government or the government of the Burma Mother state.
Almost all the non-Burmans and Burman democratic opposition groups are in agreement that the ethnic conflict and reform of social, political and economics cannot be separated from one another. And the only solution and answer is to amend the 1947 Constitution according to Panglong Agreement, where equality, voluntary participation and self-determination, of the constituent states, formed the basis for the Republic of the Union of Burma.
The successive military dominated regimes, including the ruling SPDC, see Burma as an existing unified nation since the reign of Anawratha thousands of years ago. As such, all other non-Burmans Shan, Kachin, Chin, Arakanese, Mon, Karen and Karenni - are seen as minorities, which must be controlled and suppressed, lest they break up the country.
On the other hand, the non-Burmans maintain that the Union of Burma is a newly developed territorial entity, founded by a treaty, the Panglong Agreement, where independent territories merged together on equal basis.
Given such conceptual differences, the Burmese military goes about with its implementation of protecting “national sovereignty” and “national unity” at all cost. This, in turn, gives way to open conflict resulting in more suppression and gross human rights violations. The intolerance of the military and its inspiration to “racial supremacy”, political domination and control has no limit and could be seen by its refusal to hand over power to the winners of 1990 nation-wide election, the NLD, SNLD and other ethnic-based political parties. The genuine federalism platform, which the NLD and ethnic nationalities embrace, is a threat to its racist mind-set and obsessionof domination and control.
Within Burma political arena there are roughly only two types of conflict. One is the ethnic conflict, which has a vertical nature in contrast to horizontal one, and the other, the ideological conflict played out between entrenched military dictatorship and the democratic aspiration of the people, which has a horizontal effect, covering the whole political spectrum within Burma.
The ethnic conflict is seen as vertical for the oppression of the non-Burman nationality groups comes only from the dominant, ruling Burmese military clique and not horizontally spread out racial-instigated hatred like one people killing another, such as in Sudan or Rwanda.
In contrast, the conflict between military dictatorship and democratic aspiration of the people is horizontal, for the desire of democratisation or a change to civilian rule is widespread and among the peoples of Burma.
While humanitarian aids to the needy population must be tackle fast and as comprehensive as possible, it is problematic to fundamentally implement it in a nation-wide scale. To be able to address it at such level, political settlement and peaceful atmosphere must be in place first and there is no other alternative. But this is not to say that piecemeal humanitarian help should be neglected. In contrast, the already existing projects should be expanded to cover more grounds, while conflict resolution or political settlement must go in tandem or hand-in-hand, so that the two processes could complement each other.
For example, the contested border areas along Burma-Thai border could be a case in point. The Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon areas along the Thai-Burma border, where around half a million or more refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) are residing, should be a project where ASEAN and the UN could alleviate the sufferings of the population from hunger, disease, shortage of food and accommodation. Thailand being a signatory of the recent ASEAN Charter shouldn't have problem to let the international humanitarian aids agencies implement the project. Burma, which also recognises the humanitarian need shouldn't object such intervention by claiming the notion of "non-intervention". If it is not in a position to help, it might as well agree formally to it and the ongoing process will evolve automatically, i.e., developing trust and understanding through cooperation with the international agencies, the battered population and last but not least, the resistance armies of the Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon. In turn, with the healing process and time, peaceful co-existence could be worked out in the long run, with the peoples who are at war with the Burman dominated Burma Army for decades.
Though the military junta have been sending mixed signals by indicating that it is willing to "dig-in", if pressured too much, the recent acceptance of the ASEAN overture is a welcomed start and all parties concerned should take this hint and "strike while the iron is red". So that a long waited positive outcome might be given a chance to start.
In concrete terms, UN and ASEAN could take this opportunity to push for more opening of the political arena, leading toreconciliation, restoration of democracy and equality.
In this respect, the forth-coming UNSC informal briefing should happen soon before the end of the year and if possible, personally conducted or briefed by the UN General Secretary to show the seriousness and commitment for a real positive change in Burma.
ASEAN's immediate follow-up should take place, sooner than later, to loosen the political tension by first securing the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Hkun Htun Oo and all political prisoners, followed by nation-wide ceasefire andgradual implementation of all-inclusive national convention, with the promise that the military regime would be an integral part of the transitional process and guarantee of blanket amnesty for its human rights violations.