THE 2010 ELECTION CHALLENGES
Instead of enforcing an inclusive political resolution, the international community appears set on urging the Burmese generals to conduct a 'credible and inclusive election' in 2010. If so, it would be a moral misery and strategic blunder
July 27, 2008 - Burma's conflict is moving into a new phase of intractability. In other words, the conflict will become institutionalised in 2010.
The military has unilaterally set the rules of the new game with the ratification of its constitution and is preparing to hold elections in 2010 as part of its seven-step "road map". But the new constitution will not bring about much-needed state-building, a process in which all parties rally together and make their voices heard.
Instead of entering into the state-building process, Burma ranked 12th out of 177 states in order of their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration in the 2008 "failed state" index, presented by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace. In the 2007 index, Burma was designated 14th in failed state rankings. The country is crumbling.
"I can't really see anything happening that will be positive for the country's better future at this stage," said David Steinberg, a Burma expert from Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
The incompatible goals of the military elite and the opposition, including ethnic minorities, will not be transformed by the new constitution and the 2010 election.
The opposition will continue to fight for the goal of national reconciliation, but is likely to find itself ineffective within the new institutional procedures that favour the military's exclusive domination. As a result, the opposition will have to pursue an alternative course of action - such as public mobilisation and international advocacy.
On the other hand, since the military continues to impose its one-sided goal of exclusive domination with the new constitution and elections, it cannot expect to minimise the cost of conflict. The most visible costs of this approach will be the continuation of international isolation and further damage to the country's economy.
"We do not accept the junta's unilateral solution," said Aung Din, a former political prisoner and executive director of the US Campaign for Burma. "Until and unless there is a negotiated political settlement, made by the military, the National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic representatives together, the US-led western sanctions against the junta will not be lifted."
Sein Htay, a Burmese economist in exile, goes further, saying: "No matter whether there are western economic sanctions or not, the regime's policy failure and mismanagement will damage the prospect of development and public welfare. The country's economy will continue to worsen after 2010."
The threat of renewed public uprisings will still be present, since the military's intentions do not facilitate a reconciliation of interests. More repression will result, increasing existing grievances and public hostility towards the military.
"As the generals will use the same methods of coercion against the people even after 2010, the existing public anger that reached an unprecedented high level during the crackdown against monk-led protests last year and the regime's negligence of cyclone relief in May will be compounded," said Win Min, a researcher in civil-military relations in Burma. "Antagonistic civil-military relations will continue."
Military remains enshrined
Apart from being unable to transform incompatible goals and relations, the new, post-2010 regime will not change any salience of the issues that the country has been facing and which have earned it pariah status.
According to the military's new constitution, a military chief will independently administer military affairs, including recruitment and expansion of troops, promotions, troop deployment, budget, military-owned businesses, purchase and manufacture of weapons, etc.
Consequently, the issues of child soldiers, forced relocations, forced labour, landmines, internal displaced person, the flow of refugees to neighbouring countries, rape and other rights violations - all of which are associated with the military's unchecked interests and behaviour - will continue unresolved, especially in ethnic areas such as the eastern areas of Burma.
Since the elected parliament's legislative power will be restricted, and because it will not be able to oversee the military, no civilian mechanisms will be available to redress the military's excesses. Military personnel accused of crimes will be tried by a court-martial appointed by the head of the armed forces, the Tatmadaw - effectively allowing the military to continue its violations with impunity.
The 2010 elections could, however, contribute to leadership changes, at least on a nominal level during the initial stage. Two power centres will be created - military and government. Aside from the 25 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for the military, and its power to appoint the three most important cabinet ministers (Defence, Home and Border Area Affairs) in the Cabinet, the generals are determined to fill the remaining government portfolios and parliamentary seats with members of the military sponsored civilian thuggish movement, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).
The election is sure to be marked by vote rigging, intimidation and bullying attacks orchestrated by the USDA and its affiliates against opposing candidates. Given the record of USDA violence against Suu Kyi's entourage in 2003 and opposition activists in subsequent years, the world will witness an election model of goon-squad democracy - comparable to the travesty of recent elections in Zimbabwe.
The new post-election power arrangement will nonetheless create conflict between two power centres over the command structure and personal interests. Even now, various reports confirm that there is serious animosity and tension between military personnel and USDA members regarding the latter's interference with the military's administrative mandate and other issues of self-interest.
Given the military's lack of experience of sharing power, it will be harder for the generals to accept being outshone by the USDA.
"Many officers in the military hate the USDA and believe it will go down when Than Shwe goes," said a source close to the military establishment.
The government's operation with two centres of power - no matter who pull the strings - could lead to either a serious internal split or miserable inefficiency of the ruling body.
Some advocates expect it will take an evolutionary shift toward liberalisation. They believe the military's constitution, although flawed, can give reform options to a new generation of military officers. They suggest "using the generals' flawed model of democracy as a starting point from which to pursue a more acceptable long-term solution."
However, the nature of the power rivalry within a post-2010 regime will not necessarily lead to a new opening and democratisation in the long run. Even if it does so, the question is: how long is the long run? It may be too long to have any strategic relevancy for the opposition movement, within the country as well as abroad.
In fact, political transition is not likely to take place within the framework of a military-imposed constitution. Even amendments made to the constitution in the hope of gradual reform will not be possible within military-dominated parliamentary debate and a new power arrangement. It could happen only if the status-quo is challenged by public pressure and a negotiated settlement is reached with the military. Otherwise, the post-2010 prospect remains bleak.
The UN-led international community, therefore, must double its efforts to push for an inclusive political resolution in Burma before 2010, mediating for meaningful political dialogue among all key stake holders by using coercive diplomacy, rather than pleading to the regime to conduct elections that are just "credible and inclusive."
The international community must be fully aware that the result of the election will be in accordance with the military's constitution. Otherwise, it will make the same major mistake committed by EU leaders at their July 19 summit in Brussels when they called on the military junta "to ensure that the elections announced for 2010 will be prepared and conducted in a way that contributes to a credible and fully participative transition to democracy." Without considering contextual and consequential dangers, the EU leaders just pushed for the 2010 election and perhaps felt they were serving the cause of Burmese democracy. Moral misery and strategic blunder!
UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who is planning to return to Burma soon, should be especially cautioned not to lend legitimacy to the regime's constitution and elections in 2010. The UN, which once supported the junta's seven-step "roadmap" as a potential for an inclusive transition, must now say clearly that the map is no longer relevant since it has failed to incorporate key stakeholders. In brief, the UN-led international community should not give up its attempt to enforce an inclusive political resolution in Burma before 2010.
Min Zin is a freelance journalist.