Jan 27, 2013

Myanmar - Is this the beginning of Burma’s Truth and Reconciliation process?

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Burma has enjoyed more than 20 months of near euphoria and cautious hope as it emerges from 50 years of military dictatorship.

Two days after arriving in the country on November 27 last year, I was surprised to witness a shockwave sweep through the nation—the fiery crackdown on the Latpadaung copper mine demonstrators was in full force.

The way the current government handled this crisis reminded me of a similar Truth and Reconciliation process that was led by Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. That movement began the transition to end apartheid and took them on their journey toward democracy in the 1990s.

In Africa, the process began after the first true democratic elections. Here, in Burma it also seems to have happened after the first democratic election of 2010—though that was regarded as a sham election. Whatever it may have been, the media and the public has been more or less cautious in its criticism and judgment of the severe police crackdown on November 29 and the plight of the monks who participated.

Aung San Suu Kyi must be credited for setting the tone and rational judgments in her public addresses on the issue; and, for her willingness to lead the government-installed commission. Her handling of the crisis shows that she has grown into her role as a lawmaker in a mature and capable way. The demonstrators' trust in her has played a large role in calming them and preventing an emotional escalation.

The government must also be credited for forming a fact-finding state commission led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since the crackdown, independent media has been cautious not to incite more violence. At the same time, they have encouraged the government to come clean about the incident and explain to the public about the extractive investments made by the past military regime.

This incredible process means that the people are voicing their opinions openly on the streets, in tea shops and market places without a shadow of fear over their heads. But the media and the population wants the real truth behind the violence and an admission of the excessive force used upon the peaceful demonstrators.

There is a general consensus that the situation should not deteriorate further and revert to the old military style handling. So far, the police who handled the demonstrators have come out and confessed to the local Sangha leader and asked for spiritual advice. This is a welcome first step towards the process of Truth and Justice, which can be likened to the Truth and Justice process in South Africa.

In a recent admission by the Minister for Religious Affairs, he acknowledged the mistake of the heavy handed handling of the crisis to the Supreme Sangha Council—this may not be the final contrition that the population is looking for, but at least it is a consolation that the government realizes its wrongful way of dealing with peaceful demonstrations.

What the President will say to the nation on this topic will show whether he can sustain the enormous credibility and trust as the main architect of the reforms that he has already carried out for the nation.

All he has to do as the titular head of a democratically aspiring nation is to take responsibility for the debacle.

Now the stark difference in this crisis is that Rangoon is chock full of monks and people demonstrating. I did not see a single soldier out in the streets nor tanks surrounding the city while I was there. This is in contrast to crises of the past and may be the most crucial test of the present military-backed government in its intention to democratize the nation.

Burma is trying to heal from a half century of pain, lack of human rights, countless deaths and injuries throughout the military rule and terrible poverty suffered by millions. If this is the beginning of the healing process, it should be maintained at all costs by the government and the media, the pundits, the MPs, the villagers of Latpadaung, environmental and monk activists, and the general public.

One hopes that a spontaneous and true Burmese way to Truth and Justice, as in South Africa, is unfolding with a fair resolution to the question of the copper mines; although this will be extremely difficult.

Recently, Thitagu Sayadaw requested that the mass demonstrations stop until the fact-finding commission announces a result. Perhaps the Venerable Sayadaw will take on Truth and Reconciliation program in Burma like Bishop Desmond Tutu did in South Africa. 

Lastly, there is a wonderful example for the present situation in the admission of Minister Soe Thein a few days before the crisis when he expressed contrition of the past wrongs. It is a pity that the news of his admission appeared in only one journal—the mine crisis seems to have overshadowed his brave action.  One can say he is a brave warrior of a different genre: a warrior of the heart, but not of might.  

He may have started an incredible process of self-examination by reforming himself like de Klerk of South Africa did in his address after South Africa gained full democracy.

Myat Thu Pan

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