Cablegate: Continuing the Pursuit of Democracy in Burma

Published: Mon 14 Jul 2008 06:06 AM
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Classified By: P/E Chief Leslie Hayden for Reasons 1.4 (b) & (d)
1. (SBU) Embassy Rangoon pol/econ chief departs Post this week after ending a two-year tour that saw the largest political uprising in Burma in twenty years, the arrest and imprisonment of the pro-democracy opposition’s most talented leaders, and the worst natural disaster in Burma’s recorded history. We asked her to share her candid observations on the current political situation, and her recommendations on how best to advance our democratic goals.
The Senior Generals
2. (C) The Burma army remains firmly in control throughout most of the country, with Senior General Than Shwe retaining almost absolute power. He has the final word on all significant political and economic decisions. While outsiders may portray him as an uneducated, crass, and blundering man, he has successfully consolidated and held onto power for several years, while at the same time building lucrative relationships with his energy hungry neighbors that undermine Western efforts to cripple his regime.
3. (C) The generals keep their power through a vast system of economic patronage, not unlike a Western style Mafia. Military-owned enterprises control every profit-making natural resource and industry in the country. Economic prosperity can only be enjoyed by rising thorough the ranks of the Army, or having extremely close ties to the senior generals. This is why China’s urging to the generals to begin reforming Burma’s economy falls on deaf ears. Economic liberalization and reform would require the generals to dismantle the very system that ensures their power. Dismantling this system will be one of the biggest challenges for any future democratic leader of Burma.
4. (C) Rumors of splits at the top of the regime are the result of uninformed analysis and wishful thinking of the exiles and outside observers. While the senior generals may disagree from time-to-time amongst themselves (as witnessed after Nargis), they follow the orders of Than Shwe. The senior generals are keenly aware that if they do not stand together, they will fall together. True democratic change will not likely happen until the top two generals, Than Shwe and Maung Aye, are off the scene. Both are extremely concerned for the safety and financial security of themselves and their families. Third-ranking general Thura Shwe Mann is rumored to be Than Shwe’s pick for Burma’s President in 2010, but if Than Shwe and Maung Aye are still alive, they will likely pull his strings from behind the scenes. Sources close to Thura Shwe Mann tell us he is smart, sophisticated, and well-aware of Burma’s problems. Some talented Burmese intellectuals and political dissidents tell us they pass him policy papers that are reportedly solicited on his behalf. However, he is intimately involved in Burma’s corruption, primarily through his sons’ business interests.
5. (C) Several of our sources close to high and mid-ranking military officers tell us that some of the regional commanders are reform-minded and aware of the need for political and economic reform. However, most of the military believe that working within Burma’s current military system is the only way to bring about this change while maintaining stability. While some officers begrudgingly respect Aung San Suu Kyi, they do not sympathize with the pro-democracy opposition in general. We should not expect an imminent coup to save us from the hard-line senior generals.
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Aung San Suu Kyi and the Pro-Democracy Movement
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6. (C) Since the September protests, the most dynamic and talented leaders of Burma’s pro-democracy movement have been jailed, left the country, or remain in hiding. Tellingly, the NLD remain free. While many outside Burma perpetuate the
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impression of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party as a large movement with massive support waiting to take the Parliamentary seats they won in the 1990 election, the reality is quite different. Without a doubt, Aung San Suu Kyi remains a popular and beloved figure of the Burman majority, but this status is not enjoyed by her party. Already frustrated with the sclerotic leadership of the elderly NLD “Uncles”, the party lost even more credibility within the pro-democracy movement when its leaders refused to support the demonstrators last September, and even publicly criticized them.
7. (C) Many of the younger political activists are turning away from the NLD and preparing to run in the 2010 parliamentary elections, to effect political change any way they can. This includes members of 88 Generation. There is reportedly an ongoing, heated debate among the 88 Generation leaders in Insein prison on whether or not the groups’ members should contest the election, with Ko Ko Gyi advocating members do so, and Min Ko Naing opting for a boycott. Those who want to run tell us they do not agree with the new constitution and despise the regime’s roadmap to democracy. However, with the absence of any alternative, they see the new Parliament as a possible mechanism for dialogue between the military, the pro-democracy opposition, and the ethnic cease-fire groups.
8. (C) The way the Uncles run the NLD indicates the party is not the last great hope for democracy and Burma. The Party is strictly hierarchical, new ideas are not solicited or encouraged from younger members, and the Uncles regularly expel members they believe are “too active.” NLD youth repeatedly complain to us they are frustrated with the party leaders. Repeated overtures from and “summits” with the leaders of the 88 Generation in 2007 failed to result in any significant cooperation between the factions. Indeed, lack of unity among the pro-democracy opposition remains one of the biggest obstacles to democratic change in Burma.
9. (C) The “Uncles” have repeatedly rebuffed the most dynamic and creative members of the pro-democracy opposition, who reinvigorated the pro-democracy movement throughout 2006 and 2007 by strategically working to promote change through grass-roots human rights and political awareness and highlighting the regime’s economic mismanagement. Nor has the party made any effort to join forces with the technically sophisticated bloggers and young, internet-savvy activists, who have been so clever at getting out the images which repeatedly damaged the regime and undermined its international credibility. Instead, the Uncles spend endless hours discussing their entitlements from the 1990 elections and abstract policy which they are in no position to enact. XXXXXXXXXXXX Additionally, most MPs-elect show little concern for the social and economic plight of most Burmese, and therefore, most Burmese regard them as irrelevant.
The Ethnic Cease-Fire Groups
10. (C) The cease-fire groups remain an important component of Burma’s future political stability and it is noteworthy that none have chosen to support Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. Instead, they have entered dialogue with the regime, at the same time cutting lucrative concession deals for many of groups’ leaders. However, many leaders of the cease-fire groups have told us they would cast their lot with whomever best looked out for their interests. However badly the regime does this, the NLD has repeatedly missed opportunities to reach out to the cease-fire groups to demonstrate that they would. Instead, it has consistently issued statements calling for a dialogue between the NLD and regime first, before the ethnic cease-fire groups are brought into the mix. They have also continually feuded with ethnic MPs-elect on the Committee to Represent the People’s Parliament (CRPP).
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11. (C) It is these long-held ethnic tensions that has kept the cease-fire groups from defecting from their dialogue with the regime to form an alliance with the NLD. Many of Burma’s neighbors, including China, are aware of the tension between the NLD and the ethnic nationalities. The NLD’s continuing alienation of the ethnic minority groups gives credence to the regime’s most effective argument with its neighbors and ASEAN: that the military is the only force capable of guaranteeing stability in Burma.
12. (C) The recent statement Aung San Suu Kyi released through UN Special Envoy Gambari indicated she is aware of this problem and wants to rectify it. The overture she offered to the ethnic nationalities was welcomed by the cease-fire group leaders with whom we spoke. But her party failed to follow up on her initiative and issued only a half-hearted invitation for the ethnic leaders to visit them at NLD headquarters in Rangoon. Once again, they reduced the role of the ethnics to second-class supplicants. The timing of ASSK’s statement was strategic: just before the referendum on a constitution, which many of the cease-fire groups were unhappy with because the regime had failed to include key compromises promised by former PM Khin Nyunt before his ouster. A genuine overture from the NLD offered the best chance yet to split the cease-fire groups from the regime and undermine its credibility with its regional supporters. The Uncles failed to use this opportunity, so the cease-fire groups continue their relationship with the regime.
Where do We Go From Here?
13. (C) Throughout the country, there is still widespread and growing frustration with the regime for its brutal and incompetent rule. Though most Burmese do not believe the NLD will be able to bring about democratic change, at least while ASSK is under house arrest, they have not given up on working for democracy. Instead, they are taking matters into their own hands and creatively working in what space is available to improve the lives of their communities.
14. (C) Like the many community-based organizations (CBOs), religious organizations, and civil society groups that responded to Cyclone Nargis while the international community was shut out, many dissidents and ordinary Burmese are creatively trying to incorporate democratic principles into their civil society programs, including private-tuition schools, environmental programs, health education, and religious organizations. Through this process, change will come about more slowly than most want, but it is a channel that functions where most other options were shut down by the regime after the September 2007 demonstrations. It is also a method that promotes change from the grass roots, teaching community responsibility at the local level, rather than a top-down movement by the urban, intellectual elite. A strong civil society is something we should seek and encourage in Burma. It will make any democratic transition in Burma more likely to succeed.
15. (C) Ending Burma’s isolation will also be integral to any successful long-term change in the country. No matter how democratic transition comes about in Burma, the military will be involved given its vast control over the political and economic structures of the country. We should make an effort to seek out and speak with the more progressive military officers and to those who have access to the senior generals. Their hostility to democratic change is motivated by paranoia and distrust of the West, and a belief that we seek to punish them and obliterate a significant role for them in Burma’s future. If we want to counter this, we should pursue dialogue directly with them rather than through intermediaries who can sometimes garble messages.
16. (C) If we do decide to speak with the generals again, we should do it strategically. Dialogue could be used as a tool to bring the generals into the twenty-first century.
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Discussions could take place on the margins of international fora, exposing them to the outside world and its diplomatic norms, juxtaposing Burma’s backwardness against the modern world, which could cause greater realization among the generals about their country’s lack of development. Careful preparation could be made before such events to make sure Burma’s neighbors send the same messages to the generals during their bilateral meetings. Such unity of message was extremely effective in persuading the regime to open up to international assistance after Cyclone Nargis.
Give a Little, Get a Little
17. (C) While our economic sanctions give us the moral high-ground, they are largely ineffective because they are not comprehensive. Burma’s biggest client states refuse to participate in them. However, the generals despise the sanctions and want them removed because they challenge the regime’s legitimacy. If we really want to see the generals make progress, we need to show them what they will get in return. This means being willing to gradually remove sanctions in exchange for true steps toward dialogue and political change.
18. (C) We should start small and hold them to real action (unlike the sham dialogue they purported to initiate with Aung San Suu Kyi last November). If they do make concrete progress, we should be ready to offer them something. For instance, removing them from Tier 3 on the Trafficking in Persons rankings, or taking them off the Narcotics Majors list, areas where the regime has actually made some progress. This should be a gradual process that would be based only on the condition of concrete results. Large rewards should come only with large compromises, such as lifting the visa ban if they release Aung San Suu Kyi. We may also want to consider putting security guarantees on the table for the most senior generals and their families if we are serious about removing them from the scene. As we move toward the 2010 parliamentary elections, it may be a strategic time to begin talks with them about such an agreement. Allowing international election monitors, lifting laws that restrict free and fair debate, and freeing key political prisoners could be tied to lifting specific sanctions.
19. (C) While talking to the generals may be unpalatable, their firm control over Burma and the weakness of the pro-democracy opposition are a reality we must consider when working to promote change in Burma. The prospect for democratic change in the near future is low, but despite the setbacks after the September demonstrations, there is hope change may eventually come. After many years of waiting for the outside world to help free them from the generals’ despotic rule, many Burmese are finding creative ways to take control of their country through community-based organizations and building the capacity of civil society. Through these organizations, leaders may emerge who will run in the 2010 elections and work for democratic change.
20. (C) We should seek every opportunity to support and increase the capacity of Burma’s nascent civil society by expanding humanitarian assistance inside the country that promotes self-reliance, conflict resolution, and respect for human rights. Such a policy will have the added benefit of expanding our influence and increasing our access throughout the country. Not only will this approach increase our knowledge of the subtle changes occurring inside Burma, but it will strengthen our position and influence inside when change does come, so we can assist the Burmese to reform their political and economic systems in a manner that best promotes U.S. economic and strategic interests. Above all, our Burma policy should be focused on helping those Burmese who are working to bring about democratic change themselves, for that is the only way it can realistically come. VILLAROSA
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