Transitions

Why It Makes Sense to Engage with Burma's Military

On September 18, Burma marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the most important military coup in its recent history. When state-owned radio announced that the military had taken over at 4 p.m. on Sept. 18, 1988, I was just 14. My fellow students and I were staging a hunger strike as part of a nonviolent protest to call for the restoration of democracy in Burma.

A dreary rain was falling. A voice on the radio read the coup announcement over and over again, alternating with loud military marching songs. The noise from the radio was agonizing enough. But then we heard a series of gunshots, and when we realized that they were gradually getting closer, older students and community leaders rushed to a nearby intersection to set up roadblocks so that an approaching column of soldiers couldn't reach us and clear out our camp. The younger hunger strikers, including myself, were promptly escorted to a nearby Buddhist monastery that the opposition was using as a refuge from the military crackdown. The junta imposed martial law and a corresponding curfew. General Saw Maung, the man in charge of the coup, once notoriously stated that "martial law means that there's no law in the country."

In the military crackdown that followed, I saw people being shot to death in front of me. Thousands of people, including many of my colleagues, left for the border areas, where ethnic rebel groups helped them form a student army to wage an armed struggle against the junta. After a few months of activism, I went into hiding to avoid arrest. That period ultimately lasted nine years. Eventually I crossed the border into Thailand in 1997. I've worked as a journalist ever since.

That was 25 years ago. In 2011, President Thein Sein (once the top general in the previous junta) took office, and the government he headed soon began signaling a political opening and the possibility of reform. Thein Sein's administration released political prisoners, lifted media censorship, and allowed opposition participation in the country's parliament. Most exiles, including me, were allowed to come back home.

I recently went back to the place where we staged the hunger strike and the monastery where we took refuge. It was a surreal experience. None of the people in my old neighborhood believed that they would ever see me again in this life. They've always assumed that anyone who fled the country and lived in exile would never be able to return. Whenever they see me again, they pinch my hand as if to convince themselves that it's really me. They hope, they tell me, that our horrible past won't ever be repeated. I have the same dream. I don't ever want to relive such a tragic past, not even in memory. And yet I sometimes feel like we're reliving those old days again, right now.

People often ask me if I think the country is sliding back into the dark age of military rule. If someone had asked me that question last year, I would have given a more optimistic answer. But now, I see that Burma and my people are slipping into a state of profound anxiety as communal riots, deepening poverty, ongoing civil strife, and the rivalries of political elites ravage the country. I don't think we can rule out any scenarios. In fact, two senior insiders of the ruling party have told me that another coup could well be a last resort if the nation slides into chaos.

A coup can be carried out legally under the current constitution, and that's the likely outcome if the reforms fundamentally hurt the army's institutional, political, or economic prerogatives. The military's decision to stage a coup, however, would depend not only on domestic politics, but also on the army's geopolitical calculations.

The Burmese military has long been aware of its over-dependence on China for equipment and training as well as political and economic support. Almost all the former and current military officers I've met tell me that the quality of Chinese equipment is terrible. The officers can still remember the days when they received U.S. military assistance, which they preferred. They recall that the United States financed $4.7 million in military sales in the 1980s as well as paid for about 175 Burmese officers to attend U.S. military schools under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) security assistance program. This bilateral defense relationship was abruptly terminated by the United States when the Burmese army seized power in September 1988. That was the end of the "good old days," as one officer lamented.

Since the mid-1990s, the Burmese army has been eager to diversify and reduce its dependence on China. But U.S.-led Western arms embargoes have prevented the military from doing so. Yet the military's willingness to support political reform in Burma has won Washington's support. Now a lot is riding on the possibility of reestablishing military-to-military relations with the Western countries.

The U.S. defense secretary said in 2012 that the United States was open to forging better military ties with Burma. Early this year, the United States allowed Burma to send a team of observers to the Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand. In late August 2013, U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell met with the head of Burma's armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to discuss legal practices in military combat in a "cordial" effort to strengthen defense relations between the two countries. Australia, Britain, and other Western countries are also gradually resuming military ties with Burma.

Though the skeptics are rightly uneasy about the nature and extent of such defense relations, the opportunity to re-engage with Western militaries is an important incentive for the military's continued support of political reform.

In short, any positive political concessions the Burmese military is likely to make regarding constitutional reform and the 2015 elections rest to a significant degree on a mil-to-mil incentive package from the United States. I think that smart, timely action by the United States to reconnect with the Burmese military would be one of the best insurance polices against another military take-over. And that could well save me and my compatriots from reliving that tragic day in September 1988.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

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Libya on the Brink

Deepening political polarization in Libya is hindering the country's democratic transition as different political factions struggle for power and control over the country's fledging institutions.

Over the past two weeks, political tensions between Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya have intensified due to Zeidan's visit to Egypt on Sept. 5. Zeidan held talks with the military-backed government and met with the head of the Egyptian Army, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The timing of the visit was sensitive considering the recent military overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy and his government. The Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing in Libya) was quick to condemn the prime minister's visit to Egypt and his talks with Sisi, especially after the crackdown on the pro-Morsy supporters in Egypt. Libya's grand mufti was more critical of the prime minister and called for the General National Congress to sack the government.

The Brotherhood and the grand mufti both insist their calls for the government's resignation have nothing to do with the prime minister's recent visit to Egypt, but rather with the failure of the government to deliver on its promises and provide the most basic of services to its people. Indeed, the government has failed to improve the security situation, and the country has become plagued with power outages. Most recently, the residents of Tripoli had to endure a week without water. Then there's the continuing oil crisis, which has seen the country's output drop to less than 10 percent of its original capacity.

Upon his return from Egypt, however, Zeidan attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of hindering his government's efforts since the day he assumed office. He also linked the attack of the Muslim Brotherhood on his government to his visit to Egypt. The Brotherhood sees the visit as support for the military-led government that toppled its counterpart in Egypt. Zeidan insists that his visit was aimed at securing Libya's strategic interests in Egypt and that Libya has to keep a good relationship with Egypt regardless of who is in charge.

Zeidan's visit was sudden and unannounced, fueling speculations that the visit was a tactical move by the prime minister to divert public anger over the plague of shortages from his government. In this interpretation, Zeidan aimed to provoke action from the Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood fell into the trap. If that was indeed the intention of Zeidan's visit to Egypt, then he succeeded. Calls for a general strike backed by the mufti and the Brotherhood have failed to gain public support, and the public's anger seems to have focused on the Brotherhood rather than Zeidan and his government.

The federalists in Cyrenaica have also been calling for Zeidan to resign amid allegations of corruption in Libyan oil sale deals. They have also been urging Zeidan and his government to be investigated after the government's threats to use force in order to reopen the oil terminals that are under the federalists' control. Nevertheless, it is ironic to see the federalists and the Islamists (known to be the fiercest of opponents otherwise) presenting similar demands. Ultimately, however, the federalist agenda, based on demands for autonomy for their oil-rich region, are entirely different from those of the Islamists. If the Islamists succeed in dismissing Zeidan's government, it will be difficult for any upcoming government to exercise control over the area controlled by the federalists -- especially if an upcoming government is led or backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The future of Zeidan and his government is increasingly uncertain. The pressure exerted by different political groups in different parts of the country is growing. Yet for the moment Zeidan seems to have consolidated his position and that of his government by managing to foil the Muslim Brotherhood's plans to unseat him by calling for a nationwide strike; the Brotherhood had already failed in a bid to force his resignation with a no-confidence vote in General National Congress. On the other hand, the federalists are planning a pro-federalism rally on Monday in clear defiance of the central authorities in Tripoli, who are still insisting that the oil terminals be reopened.

Zeidan still enjoys the support of the National Forces Alliance, which has said that sacking the government now would only worsen the situation in Libya and lead to more chaos in the country. It would also be hard to see how an agreement could be reached on a new prime minister to lead the government amid the current political polarization. Libya's most prominent friends in the West -- the United States, France, Britain, and Italy -- have iterated their support for Libya and urged Libyans to support Zeidan and his government to resolve the country's oil crisis. There is no doubt that Libya's Western allies can do more to help the country progress by speeding up efforts to help with the security situation and help boost the economy, health, and education sectors by providing know-how and technology. The Libyan government needs all the support it can get to provide even the most basic of services to their citizens during these critical times.

After toppling Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, the pro-revolution camp has fragmented into different groups, each one dominated by its own goals and narrow-minded political interests. These groups have hijacked politics in post-revolution Libya. It is impossible to see how Libya can progress unless someone proves capable of bringing together the different groups for a constructive dialogue to shape the future of the country.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

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