By Travis Tan
If a top-ten list of 2007 buzz-phrases were to be compiled, somewhere between “rising costs” and “enbloc fever” you would find “military junta” and “pro-democracy movements”.
Thus, with our vocabulary extended and our eyes fixated on developments over the past year, this article explores the two most prominent and captivating pro-democracy movements of 2007; through the eyes of their disparate principle drivers.
This cursory exploration of contrasting styles of resistance, unveils some unexpected parallels with the current state of oppositional politics in Singapore. This leaves us to wonder: does Singapore have our own Aung San Suu Kyis and Benazir Bhuttos?
Daughters of Destiny
Pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, carries the hopes of Burmese people squarely on her narrow shoulders. The petite leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is hardly a symbol of fire-brand resistance and opposition.
The daughter of assassinated de facto Prime Minister General Aung San (1947) came to prominence following the quelled nationwide democracy uprising.
After spending 28 years outside of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon in 1988 to care for her ailing mother. Embroiled in a midst of a popular uprising, and inspired by non-violent campaigns of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi organized rallies and traveled around the country, calling for peaceful democratic reforms and free elections.
In the 1990 snap general election held after the institution of marital law in 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD clinched 82% of the popular vote despite the detention of herself and party members; a result we all know was not recognized by the ruling regime. Since then, arbitrary imprisonment and forced house arrests has shrouded her unfulfilled tenure as chosen leader.
Standing on the opposite end of the same boat is Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. The twice elected Pakistani prime minister has enjoyed her own tumultuous time in the political sphere.
Following the dismissal and execution of her prime minister father in 1979, Bhutto intensified her vocal denunciations of the military regime and landed herself in solitary confinement after months of being in and out of house arrest for organizing political rallies against coup leader General Zia.
Returning from exile in Britain in 1986, Bhutto organized mass protests and civil disobedience campaigns to call for elections and became the first women Prime Minister in Pakistan (1988). She was subsequently dismissed under charges of incompetence and corruption (1990) and was deported to the city of Karachi in 1992 before returning to office in 1993. In 1996, she was dismissed for the second time under similar charges; charges to this day her supporters claim were politically motivated.
A Tale of Two Regimes
As highlighted above, two of the world’s most recognized female politicians share uncannily similar histories and present realities. Recent triggers of their prominent return to the fore of domestic and international politics seemed timed like a Hollywood movie. And every good movie needs a villain!
In an attempt to cool mounting International pressure for their handling of peaceful marches by protesting monks in September, Burma’s Junta caved and allowed a visit by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to observe the situation and to meet Ms. Suu Kyi. Similar olive branches were subsequently offered in the form of meeting between Aung and three of her party members which was mediated by an appointed military liaison officer.
Approximately 3000 kilometers away, another military regime is coming under intensified domestic pressure for the firing of the nation’s top judge, the arrests of thousands of opposition politicians and lawyers, and wavering promises over election dates. President Musharraf was thus cornered into brokering a powersharing deal with Bhutto and granted her amnesty for her corruption charges; paving the way for her triumphant return.
Symbols of resistance on different practical paths
While the restoration of democracy runs in the veins of the two, it is interesting to note how each displays contrasting styles of engagement with their respective foes.
Bhutto had little intention of making a quiet return to Pakistani politics. When asked to delay her return to Karachi after being granted corruption amnesty by President Musharraf, a defiant Bhutto waved off warnings of assassination attempts by Islamic militants on her person and went ahead with her plans; to explosive effect.
Seizing upon growing frustrations on the ground, Bhutto announced her decision to end powersharing talks and organized a rally against the imposed emergency rule (an attempt ostensibly by Musharaf to rein in Islamic Extremists). After being released from house arrest (a knee-jerk reaction to prevent the rally) Bhutto announces her rejection of the caretaker government, renewed her call for Musharraf’s resignation as Army Chief, and threatened to boycott the polls.
Unlike the confrontational stance adopted by Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi had recently announced that she was willing to co-operate with the government to work towards national reconciliation. While still holding out for national healing (a first step being the release of political prisoners), Aung stressed the need for constructive and time-bound dialogue.
How the rest of their stories will play out is anyone’s guess and many plot twists remain. For Aung, dialogue can only be constructive granted both parties are genuine and come to the table as equals.
For Bhutto, she should beware the bite of a cornered dog as men in power guard that power jealously. Further, tyrannical and uncooperative regimes can only be overthrown by sustained and escalating popular uprisings; a throw back to the French Revolution when we are left to ask how much blood is enough. As often the case, only time will tell.
Do We Have Our Own Aung San Suu Kyis and Bhuttos?
There are many similarities between Pakistan, Burma and Singapore. Some are more superficial while others more telling. All three for instance are former British colonies and have had turbulent roads to independence. And to varying degrees, all three have:
- ruling regimes criticized for being undemocratic and autocratic
- judiciaries that are not independent of executive powers
- constrained civil societies
- intolerant environment for opposition parties
- state controlled/regulated media
With this in mind, my mind drifted to our own oppositional counterpoints in Singapore. Allow your imagination to stretch for a moment and perhaps you will see what I saw: similarities between the engagement strategies of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Workers’ Party (WP), and vice versa for Benazir Bhutto and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).
Much like the stance adopted by Aung San Suu Kyi, the present configuration of the WP prefers a less confrontational approach to oppositional politics.
Party Secretary-General Low Thia Kiang spelled that out clearly by declaring that the opposition should be a watchdog rather than a “mad dog” opposing for opposition sake.
To this, critics would throw the dreaded "PAP co-option" at them - selling out their values to gain political mileage by feeding off the scraps left on the table. Proponents on the other hand would hail their ability to slowly chip away at the defenses of the ruling party through policy debate and mild-mannered criticisms.
On the other end of the same boat, the SDP led by Chee Soon Juan prefers an approach underscored by active and persistent civil disobedience. Recent confrontations with police officers at high profile events and the deliberate flouting of assembly and public speaking laws naturally come to mind. Supporters and detractors are aplenty when it comes to "Chee tactics". Patriot or Traitor? Hero or Villain? Skilled Strategist or Raving Mad Man?
Do we have our very own Aung San Suu Kyis and Bhutto? I sure think so (metaphorically of course). Which tactic of resistance is your cup or tea ... or coffee?
About the writer: Travis is a fellow blogger at Unfortunately Singapore. He describes himself as an average Singaporean and "a typically unfortunate Singaporean struggling to grasp why we have this inherent urge to continually establish ourselves as unique, as different, as important."