11 October 2007

South Africa: Recalling the Lessons of Our Own Burmese Days


Johannesburg — AS BURMA's generals seek the wherewithal to feed their burgeoning prison population, South Africans ought perhaps to consider what they might have done to make a difference.

The Mbeki government's vacillation over the Saffron Revolution - as some now call recent events in Burma - has hidden behind the discourse of human rights and a somewhat technical debate around United Nations reform. As guides to building a better world, these pursuits are consistent with the strong undertakings around the future direction of the country's foreign policy, which were made when apartheid ended. But as a response to the press of everyday politics in Burma (and elsewhere, of course) they have been found wanting. The fact of the matter is this: over the past 15 years, SA has done nothing substantial on Burma. This has continued in the face of expectations that SA's own experience - an imprisoned leader, a government guided by the military, international sanctions, to mention only three similarities between apartheid SA and present-day Burma - would compel this country to assist.

Expectation is a poor guide to foreign policy behaviour but the poignancy of the Burmese case lies in another truism -- that liberation politics always lives on hope alone. These lessons were brought home to me almost a decade ago when, at the behest of a Scandinavian government, I visited Thailand to counsel Burmese refugees.

The verb counsel is carefully chosen: the brief was slightly different. It asked that I talk about what Burmese democracy groups could learn from SA's successful transition. Put differently, was SA's experience instructive elsewhere?

In long talks with activists, some exiled, some not, I relived much of the dark trauma of SA in the 1980s -- the torture, the betrayal, the death of loved ones and much more.

But the high hopes that the African National Congress had promised for this country's foreign policy had been largely muted. The cunning insertion of the

19th-century idea of "national interest" into the foreign policy agenda had emptied all high-sounding words of their content. In their place, a new procedural discourse purported to link SA to the "real world" -- this held that the legal clause always carried greater weight than the liberation cause.

As a British commentator jubilantly proclaimed at the time, SA had become just another country. Put into the more accommodating language of

socio-psychology, the new SA had been "domesticated".

It was both difficult and painful to explain this to the Burmese. Their understandings of this country glowed in the hype around the ending of apartheid and were embellished by Nelson Mandela's commanding international standing. Surely, I was repeatedly asked, SA would do something that would both secure the release of Aung San Sui Kyi -- who had been under house arrest for six years -- and get conversations going between her and the junta.

In long days and sometimes even longer nights, the six words "don't build your hopes too much" frequently passed my lips. Again and again, the Burmese who heard them were disbelieving. Sometimes they were bewildered; sometimes plain angry.

My field notes make for painful reading; as, incidentally, does the report I wrote for the sponsors. On my return, I presented a copy of the same document to the Presidency, but never heard another word on the matter.

Eighteen months later, the Scandinavians asked me to return to conduct a workshop. This time I took a colleague -- a lawyer whose energy and interest in the constitution-making process deeply engaged the Burmese exiles. The fruit of this work was widely explored in academic and other writings in Asia and elsewhere.

What does this account say about the role of governments in bringing political change in other countries? Surely the lesson is this: short of invasion, the exercise of leverage

over other governments is difficult, if not impossible. And it is here that South Africans need to remember their own history.

More than anything else, people power sealed apartheid's fate. Just three examples will make this point: the internal ructions of the 1980s; the global anti-apartheid movement and financial sanctions. Without these, whatever others -- particularly in the west -- triumphantly now claim, SA's people might well now be facing a similar crackdown to that which has silenced -- but seemingly not stilled -- the Saffron Revolution.

There is, however, more cause for belief that changes can happen in Burma than there was in 1999. First, the purported call by Aung San Sui Kyi that the people of the world will help to free Burma is a clear signal that the country's real leadership knows that the undomesticated power of people can help change the world.

Second, the fact that Gary Player has been dropped from the Nelson Mandela Invitation Golf Tournament following the outcry over the fact that he designed a golf course in the country he calls Myanmar is patent evidence that South Africans can help free Burma.

Vale is Nelson Mandela Professor of Politics at Rhodes University.

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