Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cracks in the Castle Wall

Op-ed, The Irrawaddy, SEPTEMBER, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.6

Cracks in the Castle Wall


Loopholes in the new Burmese constitution could be exploited by opposition groups to win influence after next year’s election

In politics, a direct, frontal attack is rarely wise; co-opting the opponent’s game plan for one’s own purposes is a more powerful ploy. Opponents of Burma’s military junta should bear this in mind as they consider their strategy for dealing with next year’s election.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism. A longer version of this article is available
Most mainstream opposition groups, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) and major ethnic ceasefire groups, have announced that they will not take part in the 2010 election unless the constitution is revised and the political process is made more inclusive. They say they can’t accept the constitution as it stands because it denies fundamental ethnic rights and allows the military to seize power again “if there arises a state of emergency.”

A closer examination of the junta’s constitution reveals, however, that it is not the impregnable fortress that it at first appears to be. There are a number of weaknesses in the castle battlements that opposition groups can exploit if they are prepared to take a multi-pronged approach.

The first vulnerability lies in the fact that after the 2010 election, there will be two power centers, the military and the government, which will inevitably be at loggerheads over the command structure and personal interests. No matter who pulls the strings, this new power arrangement will lead to either a serious internal split or the inefficiency of the ruling body.

Another Achilles’ heel is the constitution’s de facto demotion of regional military commanders. Although the constitution enshrines ultimate power in the commander in chief of the military, it fails to provide similar authority to regional commanders in their localities. As key pillars in the military regime’s power structure, the regional commanders are like warlords in their domains. However, under the new constitution, they are under the control of the chief ministers of the regions or states, who in many cases may be civilians. This could result in a situation where regional commanders oppose not only local power arrangements but also Naypyidaw’s control.

The third loophole in the constitution is that if non-military parties sweep to victory or win a clear majority of the 75 percent of seats not reserved for the military, a non-military candidate could become president. Failing this, non-military parties could gain control of the legislative agenda, giving them influence over everything from defense and foreign affairs to the economic and social sectors. Thus Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who leads the ruling junta, appears to be determined to fill the remaining parliamentary seats with members of a military-backed political party based upon the membership of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass organization formed by the junta in September 1993.

Snr-Gen Than Shwe votes in the referundum election on the new constitution.
However, this leads to the fourth problem facing the regime. As a political party, the USDA’s existing nationwide organizational structure (and its thuggish reputation, which could be used to intimidate voters) would give it a great advantage in the 2010 election. The problem is that the new constitution bars parliamentary candidates from receiving any support directly or indirectly from the state. As the USDA currently enjoys such advantages, it would run afoul of the regime’s own constitution if it sought to field candidates in the election.

Therefore, if the military wants to create a new political party or parties, it must ensure that they do not bear any resemblance to the USDA in terms of name recognition, resources or intimidating power.

Perhaps these concerns are the reason the regime keeps delaying the promulgation of the electoral law, which was reportedly ready to be published early this year: Than Shwe wants more time to secure his bet for more power. Meanwhile, however, the credibility of the election and the legitimacy of the new power arrangement it is intended to put in place have already been hurt by the likely non-participation of the NLD and the refusal of several ethnic ceasefire groups to disarm or participate.

In fact, the opposition could create leverage by remaining outside the regime’s election process while opening a new proxy front within the regime’s game plan. Even if opposition groups don’t take part in the election using their current organizational identities, they could set up proxy political parties to participate in the 2010 election. Through these proxy parties, the opposition could attempt to maximize civilian control of the post-election parliament.

At the same time, opposition groups such as the NLD, the New Mon State Party and others must stand strong in opposing the “illegitimate” constitution and election and continue their fight for genuine reconciliation. Just because they loathe the undemocratic constitution, the opposition should not consider total disengagement from mainstream politics. The opposition must be savvy in combining both inside-out and outside-in strategies to usher in political change.

In fact, the formation of proxy parties and participation in the 2010 election will help prevent a split within the opposition groups. Otherwise, policy disagreements between moderates and radical activists within the NLD as well as individual ethnic groups might lead to open splits when the election law comes out and the junta plays more rounds of divide and rule. Proxy tactics could also help bring new recruits to the opposition movement.
However, no one should harbor any illusion that the presence of opposition proxy parties in the 2010 election will spark a magical power shift to civilian control. That will happen only if there is sufficient public pressure to challenge the military-dominated status quo, forcing the military to negotiate with the opposition, which would then be in a position to push for a genuine transition to democratic rule.

Another factor that could determine the success or failure of the approach outlined here is the ability of non-military MPs to maintain a sense of common purpose. There is a danger that parochial interests will blind non-military MPs to broader issues, or that self-interest will lead them to compromise their reform agenda. Non-military MPs would not necessarily form a monolithic bloc or be unanimous in their approach to the military’s domination. Vote rigging and intimidation in the election could further undermine the chances of a genuine opposition presence in the parliament.

That said, however, the contradictions embedded in the constitution will provide unprecedented opportunities for those who seek to break the military’s hold on power. If a moderate military leadership emerges in a post-Than Shwe era, those proxy MPs and ministers who are in the mainstream can work with them for gradual reform. In the event of mass demonstrations on the streets, proxy parties will be well-placed to play a role.

The opposition should be creative in opening a new proxy front as part of a multi-pronged strategy to exploit the cracks in the junta’s fortress.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.