By KYAW ZWA MOE
The Irrawaddy News
This year is the 20th anniversary of the democracy movement in Burma. In 1988, a few small student protests against late dictator Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party ignited the flame of democracy which quickly developed into the strongest uprising in Burma’s history.
The flame still burns, and the spirit of democracy—though constantly suppressed—lives on. But to accomplish the task of bringing democracy to Burma, the country needs more than a flame—it needs a wildfire.
Twenty years may not be too long when one talks about changing a country’s political system, but it’s a long time in a person’s life. Many democracy leaders, activists and sympathizers have died, knowing the country was still in the hands of totalitarian dictators.
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi once told me that we should be prepared for a “lifelong struggle” to restore democracy in Burma. Yes, it may take an entire lifetime, especially if the pro-democracy movement fails to unite into an unbeatable political force, one truly strong enough to overwhelm the powerful, ruthless military regime, which is intent on ruling Burma for decades to come.
Over the past 20 years, many committed leaders and activists have joined the struggle, all willing to give everything they had. Their dedication was beyond words: no matter how many times they were imprisoned, they would rejoin the movement when freed. Many thousands of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, have spent most of the past 20 years in the junta’s notorious prisons.
During this time, the movement has lacked the one essential, most important factor: unity. The movement has never been able to gather everyone—leaders and average Burmese people—into one, united political force.
After 1988, when political parties were allowed to form and contest the 1990 elections, more than 200 political parties mushroomed into existence. It was the first indication of a lack of unity in the pro-democracy movement. Even popular political figures such as former premier U Nu, Suu Kyi and former Brig-Gen Aung Gyi couldn’t provide a collective leadership capable of uniting the disparate political groups opposing the regime.
For instance, even the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, formed around three leaders, Aung Gyi, Suu Kyi and Tin Oo. Aung Gyi, who was chairman of the NLD, later broke away to form his own political party. He was followed by others.
However, the people of Burma are smart. They knew there was a danger of diluting their voting power among the various opposition parties. They voted for the NLD, giving it 82 percent of the ballots cast.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of too many political parties and organizations has become a trend in recent decades, not only inside the country but in the exiled community as well, often weakening the overall movement. Many groups are simply names, with no worthwhile activities.
In the activist community, there’s a joke that if two Burmese people meet, they will form three groups. First, each person forms his own group and then they both form a coalition group.
It’s a joke, but it captures a shameful truth. The pro-democracy movement lacks the discipline for unity and power.
Recently, one of Burma’s most respected monks, Dr Ashin Nyanissara, noted the lack of collaboration in Burmese society, saying there have been thousands of pro-democracy groups formed since 1988, but little unity. He’s right.
No matter what obstacles we face in the future, the chief priority for all pro-democracy leaders should be to build a single force capable of uniting the country around one goal: democracy.
When asked what she wanted to say to pro-democracy groups in an interview with The Irrawaddy in 2002, Suu Kyi replied, “I have always wanted to see unity.”
In every struggle, unity can bring success and disunity can bring failure. All Burmese opposition groups must focus on unity. Otherwise, the flame of democracy in Burma will never burst into the wildfire that’s needed to sweep away the military dictatorship.