Will the Polish Experiences in State Transformation Apply to Present-day Myanmar?
“The unexpected changes in Myanmar have been one of the most interesting recent events in Asia. The ruling junta, in power since 1962, has been notorious for its suppression of ethnic minorities, discrimination of democratic opposition and violation of human rights. After North Korea it was considered the most oppressive regime in Asia.
It was all the more surprising, therefore, that in the summer of 2011, the junta started a gradual process of liberalization. Some political prisoners were released, censorship was softened and talks with the opposition started. As the political ice melted, the West began a cautious re-assessment of the policy of isolation and sanctions. Hilary Clintons’ visit to Myanmar in December 2011 – the first by a US Secretary of State since 1955 – was the most visible. Last week UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, also visited Myanmar, the first by an EU foreign minister.
Observers of the political scene in Myanmar are filled with a mix of hope and fear. Will these changes continue? Will Myanmar become a genuine democracy? Will it be able to reclaim its traditional role as one of Southeast Asia’s leading states? Or are the changes just another ploy of the junta to outplay the opposition and the West?
Why did the junta change course? The reasons are likely of a geopolitical nature. Burma, which has been under Western sanctions since yearly 1990s., tumbled into Chinese open arms (and to a lesser extent , Thailand’s and Singapore’s arms). The result is that Myanmar, little by little, is turning into be something that Bogdan Goralczyk described as a “Chinese protectorate”. It seems that the military regime has found a way out. Thanks to skilful balancing of China’s, India’s, ASEAN’s and Western influences Burma might become – as Thant Myint U pointed it – “the new crossroads of Asia”. If fulfilled, Burma would no longer be a backwater and an isolated and forgotten part of Asia, but might come back to its traditional role as a significant regional power. The first step on this path was to lessen its dependence on China. The junta already made a move in this direction by cancelling the construction of the Chinese supported Myitsone dam, a “Burmese Three Gorges Dam.” . Myanmar’s President, Thein Sein, announced the suspension of this project citing public disquiet, a motive previously unheard of in Myanmar.
What role could the West play? Although often cynical and ready to use double standards, the EU and US cannot just make a sudden U-turn and announce a “reset” with Burma. Public opinion in the West would be outraged. But the West does need to seek possible ways to engage with the authorities in Myanmar.
One experience that might be valuable for both the Burmese regime and opposition could be Poland’s “round table talks” in the late 1980s that ended the communist regime and played a key role in Poland’s successful democratic transformation. The generals are aware of the Polish model and seem to have opted for a something that can be called “a Polish scenario”. As one EU diplomat remarked, what is happening now in Burma can be described as “a half round table”.
Although comparing such different countries as Burma and Poland is always risky there are several similarities. Poland in the 1980s was also ruled by a oppressive military regime which was challenged by a charismatic opposition leader with popular support. Polish People’s Republic as today’s Republic of the Union of Myanmar, was poor and undeveloped, the society tired and suppressed, and the authorities had no legitimate authority. The Polish regime thus started negotiations with the opposition that ended up with the transformation of power, the regaining of independence and – soon – led to changes elsewhere in communist Eastern Europe. Could there be a Burmese “round table”?
For the Burmese generals such a solution would not be bad. The might gain immunity by handing over constitutional power to a civilian government while maintaining an influence in the background. . Aung San Suu Kyi might become prime-minister but her real position would not be better than that of Benazir Bhutto in early 1990s in Pakistan: she would not be able to get out of the generals’ shadow. Moreover, the Western world would acknowledge the new ‘democratic’ government, seeing this case as a proof of the unavoidable process of democratization around the world. This “democratic” illusion would give Myanmar great opportunities: increase the possibilities of political maneuvering and be a perfect answer for the geopolitical threats.
Nevertheless, by starting this game, the junta takes risks. If the generals analyzed the “Polish example” they would learn that the party was outplayed by the opposition during the “round table talks”. The junta might also consider that change would be too damaging to the army’s interests. The extremely complicated ethnic structure of the country, the generals “Burmese chauvinism”, years of “besieged fortress” way of thinking – anyone of these factors could ruin the hope of change.
The opposition, or to be exact, Aung San Suu Kyi herself, by starting the negotiations with the regime also takes a giant risk. She risks destroying her useful and comfortable public image as an uncompromised moral icon.. On the other hand, for the 66-years old leader who spent 18 of the past 20 years under house arrest, this is probably the last chance to return to real power. Being an experienced politician, Suu Kyi must be aware of the fact that the generals might hand over power only on their conditions. So, for her “the Polish option” is tempting, because it gives a chance. She has praised the Polish model, the attitude of General Jaruzelski and Poland’s peaceful transformation of power. The contacts between the NLD and Poland have grown significantly. Two months ago the Polish vice-minister of foreign affairs, Krzysztof Stanowski visited Myanmar. A month ago seven NLD activists went to Poland for training in democracy and human rights issues. The Polish scenario could be a win-win model for all Burmese stakeholders. The basic interests of the previous regime are not touched, the authorities are not prosecuted and they are even acclaimed abroad. Meanwhile a civilian government has an opportunity to transform an imperfect democracy into something more sustainable and with the support of the whole country.