Will there ever be light at the end of the tunnel? A Myanmar Commentary by Lahpai Seng Raw

The tunnel that we have had to pass through is a very long one… 70 plus years, and there is still no sign of light that we are nearing the end. The leaders have staunchly blocked the exit. No ordinary civilian can pass through, and those inside the tunnel only get to see glimpses of light through tiny holes now and then. By the time the leaders of our country have agreed and worked out their differences, it will be too late for those of us who have been suffocating inside the darkness for far too long.


Article by

Lahpai Seng Raw

This begs the question: what should we do to get out of that tunnel for better tomorrows?

Covid-19 enabled me to go through many of my notes from way back and one dated 24 February 1990 in Kamphaeng Phet Province, Thailand, strikes me in particular. I was travelling with Duwa La Wom, a prominent Kachin who had been Burmese ambassador to Israel and the Philippines in the 80s. Subsequently, he was one of three peace intermediaries in the 1994 ceasefire agreement between the State Law and Order Restoration Council and Kachin Independence Organisation. On our way to Manerplaw in Karen State, we talked about the upcoming general election in May that the military junta had promised. Today his words have special resonance:

"It is very likely that the NLD could win but by a narrow margin. The army will be reluctant to turn over power to the winners unless they are willing to share power with the army. Since there is no new constitution upon which to base its authority, the new government formed after the election will be an interim government until a constituent assembly is convoked."

La Wom was spot on in his prophecy of what would follow after the elections. The army did not hand over government power, and his remarks are still valid to date. However both he and many of us underestimated the overwhelming support that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy would continue to win in the following decades among the general public. The party won resounding victories in each of the elections in 1990, 2012 (by-elections), 2015 and, most recently, in November 2020. But, throughout these long years, there was one objective that everyone agreed upon: the need for a constitution that all peoples and parties could accept. The question was how this might come about.

For his part, the late KIO Chairman Maran Brang Seng was one person who put all his eggs in the constitution basket. The ceasefire offer by the SLORC government to ethnic armed organisations in the early 1990s – without any prior demand for disarmament – seemed quite reasonable at the time, and a compromise too good to refuse. Under Brang Seng’s leadership, the KIO agreed a ceasefire with the military government against a backdrop of both hope and caution in February 1994. To be part of an ongoing drafting of a constitution that was promised to settle all the underlying grievances among the co-founders of the Union seemed a God-sent opportunity to him. Bamar, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Chin, Mon, Shan and Rakhine: all the peoples of Myanmar could finally take part in resolving the country’s future together.

Unfortunately, as subsequent history showed, the National Convention that developed under the SLORC (later SPDC) government resulted in a political system that has been the source of continuing controversy and disagreement, both in its inception and implementation. Peace and democracy are yet to come to our country, and the 2008 constitution is tightly secured with a three-tier interlocking system that makes it impossible to amend. First, it ensures that 25 per cent of the seats in all legislative bodies are reserved for appointees of the national armed forces: the Tatmadaw. Second, it is stipulated that more than 75 per cent of votes are required to amend it. And third, in addition to control of three ministries, Tatmadaw leaders have remained adamant in their insistence to unilaterally defend and safeguard the constitution as it stands.

A political dilemma thus exists. The only way to unlock this logjam is by having the armed forces vote for change. Would the military do this? What if the promised general elections take place within one year as suggested, but only to be based on the same 2008 constitution? If so, the message to the public cannot be clearer: military leaders have no intention of passing on power to a civilian government without maintaining a large part of it. In essence, under the existing political structures, there would be no change. This is why the political impasse has become so very deep in our country.

For this reason, I had some very different initial thoughts as the military coup set in at dawn on 1 February 2021. What if the 2008 constitution were to be suspended, and a new constituent assembly were to take place? If that were to happen, then there might be grounds to hope that there could be light at the end of the tunnel. Experiences over the past three decades have shown that an unjust system and an unrepresentative status quo cannot be reformed incrementally. In 2021, if the cycles of state failure are to be ended, it is vital that all the peoples are included in the processes for political dialogue and building peace and national reconciliation together.

During the past two weeks, the crisis has deepened even further, and now threats to life and human security have spread in every part of the country. These are realities that ethnic nationality peoples have long had to live with. Such moments of military takeover and political breakdown have occurred several times before. Nevertheless this is not the moment to despair. More than ever, there is a need for fresh-thinking and, although neglected, alternative solutions have always existed. After the events of the past months, the whole world can now see the need for fundamental change.

All of these challenges bring huge responsibilities though. If there is to be any imminent way out of the latest political crisis, lessons must be learned from the past, whether they are positive or negative. Without this, I fear that ethnic nationality peoples will believe we are returning to the pre-1988 era when we considered that the central power holders are the same whatever the political system. In 1988, we were bystanders while we watched a struggle that played out among the ethnic Bamar population in the towns. But then, when pro-democracy students and elected candidates from the 1990 polls took refuge in our lands, strong bonds and solidarity emerged between us. We realised that ours is a common struggle for freedom and we could pledge to converge together for the aspirations of a “genuine” federal union.

Sadly, that feeling of oneness slowly declined after the 2012-by elections. The setback began and reaffirmed our fears that the country will always be in a cycle of a “military state” or “patrimony state” – or a combination of both, and that many among the Bamar-majority population will never realise that their political failures are an innate part in national instability. As long as the central Burmese state is dysfunctional, the rest of the country will be. Who to work with, who to side with have become key questions for us all in every cycle of political crisis and deadlock.

Today many older people are resting their hopes with Generation Z, but they will need to accept that there is presently a significant gap in our struggles for freedom. For those of us “hill tribes” from the “Frontier Areas”, our struggles have always been for full autonomy in internal administration. This was what was agreed at the Panglong conference in February 1947 when answering the call for independence from the British and our leaders agreed to join the new Union. Elections alone cannot deliver this. We need a political system that guarantees the rights of all the peoples of our country.

In the meantime, nationality peoples in the ethnic states and regions must continue with the role that they traditionally play – maintaining good relations with one another and also with those from our immediate neighbouring countries with whom we share family and language affiliations. These are values that must be maintained in a healthy way. If we are not able to do this, we will be buried alive, never able to leave the dark tunnel.

For those that do eventually manage to come out from the tunnel, the light they see will be short-lived unless they understand and appreciate one integral need: ours is a country that is a mosaic of ethnicities and religious beliefs and all the mosaic pieces must enjoy equal freedoms and human rights if we are to move forward in peace, prosperity and stability together. It is time that we see this diversity as strength rather than a weakness, and come together to design a new future together that holds promises and hopes for us all.

Lahpai Seng Raw is a 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation and Airavati. She was also a delegate at the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

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