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Saturday, July 13, 2024

‘Burmese Lessons’ for Sri Lanka

”If there is any direct lesson for Sri Lanka from Burma, it is not to emulate the past but the present and hopefully a better future. There were negative speculations in the country when the Sri Lanka President made his first visit after the war victory to Burma! There were two visits to Gadhafi’s Libya, one before and one after
by Dr. Laksiri Fernando

 Myanmar pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi talks with a Myanmar lawmaker as she attends a regular session of Myanmar Lower House at parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, May 2, 2012. Suu Kyi was sworn in to Myanmar’s military-backed parliament Wednesday, taking public office for the first time since launching her struggle against authoritarian rule nearly a quarter century ago. (AP)

I am here not talking about Karen Connelly’s popular love story by the name of Burmese Lessons, but rather Aung San Suu Kyi’s entry into Parliament yesterday as the leader of the opposition in Myanmar (or Burma) with 42 other members who were elected early April in a by-election from the National League for Democracy (NLD). There is no doubt that this is also a ‘love story.’

Suu Kyi came to Burma from London in 1988 just to see her ailing mother but by that time the country had exploded into a democracy uprising after 25 years of military rule. She ‘fell in love’ with that movement and since then she has been consistently persuing democracy for the country with passion and compassion.

Her NLD won a landslide victory in 1990 elections winning 80 per cent of the seats in Parliament but the military junta refused to hand over power. For her passion for democracy, she refused to leave the country, leaving her family behind in London, and since then she was under house arrest until last year except for few periods.

Immediate issue after winning the last by-election in April was whether the NLD members could ‘swear to respect’ the military drafted constitution. The NLD and Suu Kyi have pledged to fight to change the constitution. Among other things, this constitution preserves 25 per cent of seats for the military in 664-member Parliament.

The issue prevented her party entering Parliament for a whole month but finally she convinced her supporters to use discretion and tact and not to lose the opportunity just because of a ‘verbal oath’ to the constitution. She and the party are determined to change the constitution and bring full democracy to the country.

Her love for democracy is full of passion as well as compassion. She said “our purpose is not to oust anybody from Parliament, but the country needs representatives who are elected and responsible to the people.”
Burma and Sri Lanka

There are so many similarities and significant contrasts between Sri Lanka and Burma. Both are largely long standing Buddhist countries and the Buddhism is Theravada. Both were Asian kingdoms before colonisation; and comparable agricultural societies based on rice cultivation gave a similar rhythm and pattern to social life. There were ancient relations between the two.

Sri Lanka and Burma were British colonies; the former having Portuguese and Dutch influences before. In this sense, Sri Lanka is more colonised than Burma. The modern era of both countries were marked by the emergence of a Western educated elite, nationalism – divisive as well as united, significant left movements and fluctuating archaic sentiments which at times yearn to go back to the past than the future.

Both countries achieved independence one year apart with sample democracies. At the beginning, all the main elements appeared to work well with multiparty system, free and fair elections, rule of law and constitutionalism, so on and so forth.

But Burma crumbled earlier in 1962 with army generals led by Ne Win taking power and discarding democracy, claiming Western and not suitable to the country. The real reason behind the takeover was the reluctance of the military to accommodate the minorities within a democratic system. While both countries were multiethnic societies, Burma was more complicated than Sri Lanka with seven major ethnic communities and nearly fifty other sub-groups. A military coup with a different objective in Sri Lanka in the same year did not succeed. The leaders were previously privileged religious minorities.

Burma was a ‘hermit nation’ since then. In 1974, a new constitution was introduced to pursue ‘a Burmese way to socialism’ with totalitarian type mass party organizations. Everything was state controlled, with massive build up of a military. The economy was sluggish and that is how employment was given to the rural youth. Foreign relations were brought to a minimum.

The state ideology declared that ‘all development is internal’ with a mythical ‘correlation between man and his environment.’ This was a ‘Jathika Chinthana’ par excellence which in fact found many admirers in Sri Lanka. The experiment was an utter failure by late 1980s with catastrophic socio economic consequences.

There has been one admirable quality among many Burmese leaders in the past and present, unlike in Sri Lanka. They were modest enough to admit failures. Ne Win himself declared that ‘Burmese socialism’ was a failure and stepped down in 1988. That led to continuous social upheavals asking for democracy.

That movement was largely led by the students. That was both the strength and the weakness. That was the first wave; the present is the second wave.

Second Wave

Burma was again ruled by a military junta called ‘State Law and Order Restoration Council’ (SLORC) since 1990. Instead of socialism, now it pursued capitalism. What it confronted, however, was the rejection and sanctions from the capitalist West. Instead it thought China might be its saviour.

Chinese capitalism however was different. It was partly like a ‘Robber Baron.’ As an emerging economy, China was very careful about its own benefits.

Burma now was not ready to live in isolation. It wanted ASEAN. To be with ASEAN it had to change. Burma also wanted the West, grudgingly though. Most importantly, the democracy movement in the country could not be suppressed easily. ‘The Lady’ was stubborn. Her followers also were ready to make sacrifices. Thousands were ready to be in prison. All throughout, the democracy movement was supported by the minority rebel movements.

Ethnic rebellions are a major component in Burma’s political equation. It has always been the case. Longest insurgencies in the world are in Burma. But no insurgency evolved into ruthless terrorism like in Sri Lanka. They were mostly defensive struggles although mixed up with narcotic and other illicit trades.

They have been headaches for the military throughout. There are ‘liberation armies’ for almost all the ethnic groups: Karen, Kachin, Chin, Shan etc. When one is down the other is up. It is almost impossible to govern the peripheries of Burma. This was the case since British times and even before. There are thousands and thousands of internally displaced people in the country due to the ethnic conflict. No one calls the ethnic conflict a myth like in Sri Lanka!

In 2008, Burma brought a new constitution. But it was an anticlimax. Burma wanted to give the military a ‘dual role’ formerly under the constitution like in Indonesia or Thailand in the past. But it was the past and not the present or the future. Even the military generals were clueless what to do in the chambers. The ‘red shirt’ movement in Thailand in 2009 also was a grim reminder of a possible resurrection of a democracy movement. The regime also had to take the UN and Western criticisms seriously. There were resolutions in the UNHRC as well.

A purpose of the new constitution was to set up some ‘form of democracy.’ When the ball started rolling it was difficult to stop. When President Thein Sein took office in March 2011 he realised some of the mistakes of the past. He was like Ne Win at the end. He admitted some mistakes but not all.

He slowly started freeing political prisoners and sought peace deals with ethnic armies. He made some economic changes as well. One was to dismantle the exchange rate. Burma is a more complicated economy than Sri Lanka. The population is also more than three times of Sri Lanka. Thein Sein also met Aung San Suu Kyi and made arrangements for her to participate in the still incipient parliamentary process. That was the opening for the Burmese lessons.

There are still unknowns. Whether the overtures are completely reliable or the reforms are sustainable, are some of these unknowns. Some would still like to keep their fingers crossed. Nevertheless, the progress or changes appear irreversible at least in the long run. Burma or the Burmese cannot survive any longer without proper democracy.

Burmese Lessons

The Burmese lessons are not only for Sri Lanka but for any country. ‘Authoritarianism’ is over or fast disappearing. But in Sri Lanka, still there are those who admire its ideology that can be called the ‘Burmese Way.’ An imitation of this ideology can be labelled the ‘Sri Lankan Way.’ But most dangerous is the propensity to follow or emulate the authoritarian example of the past Burma.

There is no question that all countries should have ‘their own way’ but not as an ‘antithesis’ but as a ‘synthesis’ of all human experiences giving priority to national interests.

There are several reasons why Burma started its present ‘New Way.’ There was a considerable frustration that the country could not move forward under authoritarianism. The frustration came within the military itself. Thein Sein himself is a former military man. Most importantly, the aspirations and the resolve of the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi could not be silenced.

Burma also felt the crunch of the sanctions by the West. Because of the Western sanctions, while per capita foreign aid, for example, for Cambodia was over $ 50, Burma received only around $5 per person.

Although China was an important investment avenue for Burma in certain sectors, it is not an aid-giver. There were increasing feelings that China was exploiting Burma’s natural resources. Thein Sein halted several China-backed projects for this reason. It was strongly felt that a more balanced approach is necessary to manoeuvrer between China and the West, if at all Burma is to benefit from both sides. It was a wise foreign policy turn.

Burma also had a similar bitter experience in the past. Suu Kyi’s father Aung San and his ‘Thirty Comrades’ supported Japan during the Second World War against the British, because Japan was an Asian power. But when the Japanese came to Burma, they were more brutal than the British. Thereafter, Aung San had to invite the British to get rid of the Japanese. Only thereafter, that Burma managed to negotiate its independence from the British.

It might be the case that the West is today lifting their sanctions against Burma because of Burma’s foreign policy shift. That is not enough, unless Burma makes firm moves to democratise the country and resolve the ethnic imbroglio. Burma has a firm democratic past between 1947 and 1962. Even thereafter, the aspirations have not died down.


If there is any direct lesson for Sri Lanka from Burma, it is not to emulate the past but the present and hopefully a better future. There were negative speculations in the country when the Sri Lanka President made his first visit after the war victory to Burma! There were two visits to Gadhafi’s Libya, one before and one after. Let us hope that whatever the temptations, given a mammoth army, that Sri Lanka will not emulate Burma’s past or its 2008 constitution.

If Sri Lanka has to emulate any lesson from Burma, it should be the lesson of Aung San, U Nu and Aung San Suu Kyi and not anyone else from the authoritarian or the military camp.

Laksiri Fernando is the Author of “Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.



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