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By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, former CALD Chair

Of the proceedings of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on

Synthesis – Managing Burma’s Political Transitions: The Challenges Ahead

Producing a synthesis of the various interesting and instructive papers we heard today is not an easy task. Understandably, almost all speakers looked at the issue under discussion through the prism of their own experiences, but unfortunately very few made any clear connection between the problems they discussed and those of Burma, which is supposed to be our primary concern.

Nevertheless the issues they raised suggest what I hope will be productive lines of thought. I will look at these in terms of a formula suggested by a former President of Sri Lanka who had to deal with the aftermath, in the early nineties, of not only the ethnic conflict and the settlement brokered by India, but also a Sinhalese youth insurrection that used dissatisfaction with that settlement as a focus to rouse armed opposition to government. His argument was that we must have consultation, compromise and consensus, and I was reminded of this when Cambodia raised the question of the possibility of talking with the devil, and Hong Kong talked about dancing with wolves.

The answer to what might be a conundrum was outlined in the very first presentation we had on Burma, which fleshed out the position put to us by Aung San Suu Kyi when I was privileged to lead the CALD delegation that met her way back in January 2011. Earlier we had been to the NLD headquarters where some of the party elders seemed to suggest that no compromise was possible. But her position was clear, that she was prepared to talk and to aim for consensus, but she would not compromise on basic principles. Compromise I believe is generally a good thing, when it is based on sensitivity to the positions of other individuals. It should not involve abandoning principles, but one should be prepared to be flexible with regard to other people in trying to reach a common understanding.

Dr Aung this morning, in a moving description of the approach taken by his party now, mentioned that they engaged in talks with all parties based on mutual respect. Their aim was long lasting peace and reconciliation, and this clearly required understanding of what the different parties wanted, what they needed, and what they stood for.

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Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at the  Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Transitions to Democracy – Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead
16-19 November 2012, Bangkok, Thailand

The news from many parts of Asia has been full recently of ethnic or rather sectarian conflict. In Thailand and the Philippines, there have been southern insurgencies, with Muslim populations asserting a separate identity from Buddhists and Christians respectively. Indonesia has recently found places of worship being closed by a fundamentalist dispensation in Aceh. In both Bangladhesh and Burma, there have been riots, of Buddhists again Muslims or vice versa. And in Pakistan the struggle between Shias and Sunnis seems to be endless, a phenomenon we see in many countries of West Asia too.

In Sri Lanka we could say we were used to this, as we emerge from a thirty year long civil war, often characterized as being between Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet that would be erroneous, for though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam presented themselves as the champions of the Tamil people, Tamils were amongst their prominent victims. In setting themselves up as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, they destroyed moderate Tamil forces, killing several leading politicians and browbeating others into submission.

But it would also be misleading to claim that there was no ethnic tension in the country. The Tigers became prominent precisely because there was no harmony and no union within Sri Lanka. Since our democracy was based on a British model, we did not have checks and balances built in, as had occurred with the United States, which had to build up a constitution in the context of conflicting claims, from states with different priorities.

Our democracy was majoritarian, which meant that it could be taken possession of by whoever obtained a majority in Parliamentary elections. Since we had the first past the post system, and since most constituencies were what the British would describe as marginals, on several occasions we had massive majorities in Parliament on the basis of small majorities in the popular vote. And so we had measures that were in theory democratic, ie were based on increasing the power of the people, but which took away power from minorities. Thus we had language policies that made employment more difficult for minorities, we had educational policies that made higher education less accessible, and we had land distribution that favoured the majority.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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