Although Burma’s upcoming Nov. 7 election will not resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis or provide much-needed reforms, one should not be blind to the fact that the election will have consequences—whether negative or positive. Political actors who either participate in or boycott the election will bear the aftershocks of this event. Political players will not be able to write their political plans on a blank slate. Instead, they have to work with what is at hand.
The 2010 election will contribute to changes in the format of governance—the transformation of the one-dimensional military junta into a hybrid form of government that includes both political and military elements. Regardless of who pulls the strings, this could lead to either a serious internal split or the utter inefficiency of the ruling body.
Leadership of the NDF, including chairman Khin Maung Swe. (Photo: MMM/The Irrawaddy)
A recent major reshuffle within the Burmese military reportedly included the appointment of the future commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief, although the top two generals who have long occupied these positions—Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, respectively—have retained their military titles. Interestingly, the junta’s third- and fourth-ranking generals, Gen Shwe Mann and Lt-Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo, both quit their military positions and adopted civilian titles, according to state media reports.
If this reshuffle indicates that Than Shwe has made a pre-mortem succession arrangement by installing an heir apparent and investing him with considerable power to manage the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, the opposition and its advocates should celebrate this development as good news for two reasons.
First, this transition is an inter-generational succession, unlike the intra-generational shift from Saw Maung to Than Shwe in 1992. For the departing Than Shwe to continue to control the political role of the Tatmadaw and call the shots for key policy decisions, he needs to create a formal position for himself and leave the army chief position to a successor who is not only loyal but also weak.
Temporarily, at least, this could mean a disruption of personalized power among the military top brass—something that the opposition could seize upon as an opportunity to reformulate a new and positive dynamic of civil-military relations. It is particularly significant that this will occur within the context of a transition from military to hybrid rule. Unlike one-party rule and the closed socialist economy under former dictator Ne Win, the new hybrid political arrangement and market economy will make it difficult for the departing leaders to control the military completely, especially when the role of Than Shwe fades away due to a decline in his health or other causes.
Second, if Than Shwe is confident enough to assume the role of president in the aftermath of the election and dedicates more of his energies to overseeing the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), it will give the military a chance to gradually detach itself from past wrongdoings and renew the integrity of the institution.
We have seen attempts by the military to break with the past before. For instance, as retired Lt-Gen Chit Swe revealed in his memoir, some senior officers who took part in the 1988 coup wanted to dissociate themselves from the failures of the defunct Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), noting that the massive popular uprising of that year was directed at ruling socialist party politicians, not the army.
Thus the military’s claims to a distinct corporate identity could allow it to distance itself even from soldiers-turned-politicians if the new government faces a crisis of legitimacy. If the Tatmadaw was able to part ways from the ruling party following the socialist era, when all soldiers were technically party members, it can certainly assume a distinct role from the USDP, which is set to become as ideologically vacuous and deeply hated as the BSPP.
Such a change in the Tatmadaw’s power dynamic in the post-election period could open the way for a new civil-military relationship. Thus the election could prove consequential for the opposition, particularly the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
In this context, it is important to note that although the NLD decision not to contest the election was probably the right one, the party was wrong not to diversify its pro-democracy struggle and avoid an internal split by setting up or at least allowing a proxy party to exist. Unfortunately, without Suu Kyi, the other NLD leaders seem incapable of articulating or implementing any political program or strategy. They often seem narrowly focused on party survival, merely biding their time until Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest without having any further agenda.
With Suu Kyi at the helm, the party appears to have some direction, but it is still prone to poor political timing. Since rising to prominence as the leader of the democratic opposition, Suu Kyi has made a number of unfortunate judgment calls that have had lasting consequences.
These include her direct confrontation with former dictator Ne Win in 1989, at a time when he still wielded considerable power behind the scenes; her premature public disclaimer that she was not making any secret deals with the regime soon after holding talks with Than Shwe in 1994; her announcement of plans to boycott the National Convention less than two months after a visit by then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1995, raising the regime’s suspicions of a conspiracy and hindering future trust-building efforts and possible negotiations; and her decision in 2003 to travel at night through hostile areas, including Depayin, despite warnings of possible violent attacks. Although Suu Kyi and her party are certainly not responsible for the regime’s subsequent actions on these occasions, these examples of past missteps do serve to illustrate the lack of strategic thinking on the part of the NLD and its leader.
Despite its history of misjudgments and recent forcible disbandment, however, the NLD remains a potent force in Burmese politics. For its part, the junta seems content to contain the party’s influence ahead of the election, while the NLD itself also appears to be in a holding pattern, waiting for Suu Kyi’s release, which is scheduled to take place less than a week after the election.
Thus both sides are strangely in synch, for the most part avoiding open confrontation while no doubt anticipating a future showdown.
Again, however, this approach betrays the NLD’s weakness at formulating plans of action that are likely to lead to real results. In this case, the price of losing sight of the potential for marginal gains, including additional opportunities to reach out to the public, recruit new members and mobilize resources, could be even greater than in the past.
By failing to offer an alternative to the regime’s relentless drive to legitimize itself under the guise of elections, the party risks losing its moral authority as the leading light of the democracy movement, without which it has precious little in the way of political capital. Although two decades of absolute military rule have been far from kind to the NLD, there’s no reason to believe that the messy post-election political scene, which will likely be fraught with political violence, corruption and political alliances between crooks, cronies and accused war criminals, will be any kinder. By taking a “purity-seeking” stance, the party could find itself in the wilderness of permanent opposition status for many more years to come.
Of course, the NLD is not alone in facing some hard choices at this juncture in Burmese history. The parties that have opted to contest the election are also going to have to navigate their way carefully around the many pitfalls that still await them. The ethnic parties are in a particularly precarious situation, as their efforts to win a place at the table come amid a deteriorating security situation that threatens to throw Burma back to the bad old days of life before the multitude of cease-fire agreements that have been in place for most of the past two decades. Even if these deals hold and the ethnic parties win a few seats in parliament, elected leaders will be hard-pressed to improve the lot of their constituents in an environment where military-owned businesses, junta cronies, foreign investors and ethnic drug lords and elites plunder natural resources without regard for the long-term needs of ordinary citizens.
The international community will also have to decide where it stands on the outcome of the election. At the moment, it looks like most countries will simply fall back on their established positions, with perhaps some softening of the stances of a few longstanding Western critics of the regime. Unless all countries concerned are somehow able to reach a consensus on where Burma should be heading after the election, however, continuing division will stand in the way of the sort of decisive action that will be needed to move things forward.
The Burmese political scene, in short, may be similar to a living museum, in which military domination, a hybrid parliamentary “talking shop,” thuggish political violence, kleptocracy, contained Balkanization, gulags and committed struggle by principled dissidents will exist and operate in multiple levels of conflict.
Under such circumstances, the possibility of a collapse of Burma’s polity due to implosion or explosion can’t be ruled out. Of course, it is not desirable, as the country will descend into a bloodbath and anarchy.
Ultimately, however, Burma’s future direction will remain, in the near term at least, largely in the hands of its current rulers. But if the generals believe that a USDP “victory” will give them a mandate to stifle real change indefinitely, they are seriously mistaken. Just as the past cannot be erased, the future is also not to be denied. And the future belongs to those who learn from their mistakes and adapt accordingly—not those who consider themselves permanently entitled to dictate the fate of an entire nation.
The opposition in Burma should be measured both in terms of the public support it draws and its ability to achieve both its intermediate and ultimate goals
Since Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, the country has been fraught with a spectrum of contentious politics ranging from armed insurgencies to nonviolent movements against the state. The current political environment, however, marks the first time in Burmese history that the opposition is faced with the challenge of remaining relevant. And if they are going to remain relevant, the question is how? There are two basic factors in determining the relevancy of an opposition group. The first is public support, or legitimacy. The second is the ability to achieve desired outcomes.
In Burma’s contentious political environment, repression and the resulting grievances have inspired public action—and provided legitimacy to the opposition—whenever state interference with people’s everyday routines has been compounded by brutal and unjust events.
For example, the demonetization combined with police brutality against students in 1987, and the 500 percent fuel price hike combined with police brutality against Buddhist monks in 2007, each sparked political conflict and nonviolent movements that the public deemed legitimate. The endurance, commitment, courage and sacrifices of the activists strengthened the legitimacy of those movements in the public’s eyes, and the opposition was considered highly relevant despite the fact that activists could not operate in an open political system and faced a military government with a propensity for repression.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile.
Therefore, because in the past the Burmese regime created a political environment that compelled the public to support opposition movements, in examining whether opposition groups will remain relevant following the 2010 elections, it is important to consider whether the repressive nature of the state will continue.
The new Constitution and the 2010 election will not transform the incompatible goals of the military elite and the opposition, and therefore will not change their inherently conflicting relationship. In addition, the new, post-election government has little prospect of solving the issues facing the country, including human rights violations, corruption and economic mismanagement, all of which are associated with the military’s unchecked power, interests and behavior.
One change that will take place is the transformation of the one-dimensional military junta into a hybrid form of government—political and military. The new format, which the regime clearly intends to manipulate to maintain its grip on power, could ironically be viewed as a prospect for political realignment and therefore embolden the general public to rally behind the opposition groups.
But regardless of whether this takes place, the ongoing repressive nature of state-society relations will again legitimize the opposition groups and make them relevant by continuing to allow the opposition to rally the public against the military-backed hybrid regime.
However, as social scientist Doug McAdam says, “Movements may be largely born of environmental opportunities, but their fate is heavily shaped by their own actions.” In other words, actions lead to outcomes, and in addition to its ability to achieve its ultimate goals, the opposition’s actions and its ability to achieve intermediate goals will in large part determine whether it remains relevant.
Achieving Desired Outcomes
The prevailing general impression is that since 1988 the opposition groups have failed to accomplish their professed goals. Following its decision not to re-register the party, the National League for Democracy even officially apologized to the public for its failed policies in the struggle for democracy. However, sweeping statements about the opposition’s relevance based on its inability to achieve its ultimate desired outcome should not be made without evaluating factors such as resilience, leverage and endgame strategy.
Resilience consists of more than psychological qualities such as endurance, commitment and courage, all of which the opposition groups demonstrate admirably. Resilience is also about the strength of a movement’s repertoire (forms of struggles) and mobilizing structure.
Since 1988, the dominant forms of struggle employed by the opposition groups have been political parties (mainly the NLD), underground/clandestine movements, civil society organizations, armed insurgencies and international advocacy movements.
Due to the cease-fire agreements between the junta and the ethnic resistance groups since 1989, the armed insurgencies have mostly been contained. However, international advocacy movements have been strong thanks to the political-moral strength of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the increasingly large Burmese diaspora communities around the world.
Student protest in Rangoon during the 1988 mass uprising.(Photo: THE IRRAWADDY)
One key opposition weakness might be the movement’s unwillingness or incapacity to diversify its repertoire, or forms of struggle. For instance, the NLD leadership, instead of allowing (or even encouraging) those who would like to set up a political party to contest the 2010 election, tended to vilify the moderates within the group. It seems that the leadership was not strategic enough to be aware of the advantages the whole movement could gain by sanctioning different forms of struggle. In this case, their tendency to put all of their eggs in one basket has led to a strategic blunder that could have long-term consequences for the opposition.
Another element of Burmese opposition resilience is its mobilizing structure, which is in many cases hierarchical. However, whenever Suu Kyi was free, she traveled to provinces where she empowered and inspired local and grass-roots party members to mobilize. In fact, she sparked initiatives of civil society by encouraging youth and women leaders to set up volunteer groups on wide-ranging issues such as assisting HIV/AIDS patients and providing legal protection for child soldiers and the victims of forced labor.
In addition, when Min Ko Naing and other 88 generation student leaders were released from prison in 2004-05, they broadened the opposition’s civil society practice within its nonviolent repertoire by reaching out to Buddhist monks, human rights advocates, lawyers, journalists, local NGOs, intellectuals, writers, the artistic community and others to strengthen the informal connective tissue of the movement. Before the activists had sufficient time to organize, however, the 2007 protests broke out. Though their initiatives contributed to the emergence of the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, their lack of leverage allowed the regime to crush the movement in a violent crackdown.
Although leverage is not the ultimate outcome sought by the opposition, improved leverage is, like resilience, a positive outcome that can be a stepping stone to achieve the desired endgame of regime change or even a negotiated outcome.
Since 1988, Burma’s activists have relied to a large degree on marches, protest demonstrations and public statements making political demands or requests. As social scientist Kurt Schock notes, these methods may be effective in mobilizing members of the aggrieved population and the support of third parties, and thereby obtaining legitimacy, but they are less effective in directly undermining state power to achieve desired outcomes unless used in tandem with methods of non-cooperation.
This lack of tactical innovation by the opposition has been compounded by the fact that the social groups most prominent in the movement—students and Buddhist monks—while providing maximum symbolic value, provide weaker leverage than workers or peasants because the state is less dependent on students and monks to maintain its power and survive. Thus far, no organization has emerged in Burma that is capable of effectively forging ties between students, monks, workers and peasants.
The opposition should also take into account the crucial role a third party can play in improving opposition leverage. For example, China’s current diplomatic support and political protection of the junta in the international arena, as well as its economic and military support, are one of the most challenging constraints on the opposition movement.
However, China is increasingly aware of the risks of a purely opportunist policy toward Burma, and if the opposition movement manages to sustain its resilience and improve its leverage by broadening its active support base, China might be persuaded to change its unconditional support for the military regime and actively advocate the goal of national reconciliation in Burma, thereby exponentially increasing the opposition’s leverage.
Media access also plays a crucial role in strengthening the leverage of the opposition groups. Although Burma’s domestic media is subject to severe news blackouts and censorship, the people of Burma listen to foreign short-wave radio stations, upon which they rely heavily for information.
In the run-up to the 1988 uprising, the Burmese-language radio services of the BBC and VOA played a critical role, virtually coordinating public protests by disseminating information about the riot police’s brutality against students and the country’s economic crisis. In the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the protesters had the advantage of significantly increased media access and information technology, and thereby managed to broaden the protests. When the regime cracked down on the Buddhist monk-led protests, the pictures and video footage of the marching and killing were sent to the outside world via the Internet, increasing the protesters’ leverage both at the time and for the future.
In contrast, one way in which opposition activists lose leverage is by focusing too much on their own political demands—such as the transfer of power to the NLD due to its victory in the 1990 election—or on political dialogue that is not perceived to be directly related to the people’s daily struggle for survival. When the opposition becomes self-centered, leverage is diminished because the public becomes indifferent to politics and leaves the activists on their own to achieve their personal political demands.
One of the crucial reasons the 8-8-88 mass uprising failed was that the opposition did not provide the strategic leadership necessary to achieve the endgame of regime change. When the street protests reached their peak in late August through September 18, government mechanisms collapsed. However, the opposition leaders did not unify and either create or seize the opportunity for regime change or negotiated transition in the power vacuum.
Burma’s opposition leadership has always been enthusiastic when it comes to mobilizing mass movements, but has failed to capitalize and achieve the intended results when protests have reached their crescendo. In other words, the opposition always tries hard to achieve the means (instigating a mass movement) as if that is the end in itself.
While public pressure alone can challenge the status quo, whether a public movement leads to a genuine political transition depends on whether the opposition employs an effective endgame strategy. Of course, mass movements will remain the sine qua non for Burma’s opposition so long as the intransigent regime refuses to initiate inclusive political reform.
In summary, the question of relevancy for Burmese opposition groups must be viewed from two perspectives: their legitimacy and the outcome of their effort. At this time, it appears that while the opposition groups will remain relevant in terms of public support and legitimacy, they will have to improve their performance with respect to their ability to maintain resilience, obtain leverage and formulate effective endgame strategies.
This will require opposition groups to diversify their repertoire, adopt tactical innovations, persuade influential third parties to support their cause, broaden their social base and balance between a principle-based and an interest-based approach. If able to do so, they will not only increase the likelihood of accomplishing their goals, they will increase their relevance far beyond their current moral legitimacy.
Hindsight might not be merciful, but it helps break the cycle of repeating the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Moreover, it helps in the process of exiting the mindset of nostalgia and entering the forward-looking strategic realm, which is exactly what the generation that lead Burma’s 1988 popular movement must do to make themselves relevant in the country’s current political landscape.
Writing about the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 19th century that “the most perilous moment for bad government is when it seeks to mend its ways.” As evidenced by the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, his theory still proves correct two-hundred years later.
Today in Burma, Snr-Gen Than Shwe's military junta is superficially purporting to mend its ways by calling an election. Is this a potentially perilous moment for his regime? Or is it just another sign of resilient tyranny?
Burmese history instructs that the perceived prospect of an opening in the country's closed political system, or of a political realignment, emboldens the public to rally behind opposition movements and against the regime.
For example, in 1988, Ne Win’s unexpected resignation, and his support of a change from one-party rule to a multiparty system, greatly boosted the public’s expectation and confidence that meaningful reform could occur and helped the opposition groups rally public support behind their causes.
But the political environment surrounding the 2010 elections may not provide a similar strategic opening for opposition groups to expand their political space. This time around, Than Shwe has taken every possible measure to send a clear signal to the people of Burma that there will be no real change in power after the 2010 elections, and the public should not entertain any false hopes.
For one thing, Than Shwe is revealing his election plan step-by-step, including the yet-to-be-announced election date, in order to show both that he is in complete control of the pace of the campaign and that the election will not be a momentous event.
In addition, the 2008 constitution, the 2010 election laws, recent Election Commission directives and the press censorship board’s increased restrictions on election coverage by local journals have confirmed that the elections are not an opportunity for regime transition, let alone change. Instead, they are a sly attempt to achieve regime durability.
But election cheerleaders, including some diplomats, foreign experts, think-tank groups and, of course, domestic apologists, keep screaming that the 2010 elections could bring some form of political liberalization, and for that reason both the opposition parties and the general public should participate.
Their arguments follow three related lines of discourse: “The election is the only game in town”; “Something is better than nothing”; and “National League for Democracy (NLD) members are not the only democrats in Burma.”
The question we must ask with respect to each argument is: Will participation in the election for this reason lead to genuine political transition and economic development, or will it help provide the semblance of legitimacy the junta craves?
The Election is the only Game in Town
Wrong. To begin with, it cannot be claimed that the election is the only game in town when most of the main opposition parties have chosen not to participate. Even if the 2010 elections, and the new government based on the 2008 Constitution, were the only game in town, they would not provide the path to meaningful reform in Burma because they would not bring about the required state-building effort, a process in which all key parties—democratic opposition groups as well as ethnic resistance groups—rally together and make their voices heard.
The NLD, who won the 1990 election by a landslide, decided not to renew its party registration under the regime’s “unjust election laws” and not to contest the elections. In addition, no less than ten ethnic ceasefire groups refused to disarm and join the elections.
Several of these ceasefire groups held a meeting in May at the headquarters of the United Wa State Army near the China-Burma border, during which the groups reportedly agreed, for their own reasons, to support the NLD’s decision not to compete in the election—saying that an election under the 2008 Constitution would offer no guarantee of ethnic rights in Burma.
As the intractable conflicts between the regime and the NLD and the armed ethnic groups linger on, the center of political gravity will not likely shift toward the regime’s election game plan. Especially given the fact that, according to several media reports, public interest in the 2010 election is very low.
If history serves as a guide, the 2010 elections could be compared to Burma's 1920s dyarchy elections, organized by the British colonial rulers in an unsuccessful attempt to pacify the country’s nationalistic surge. The opposition parties did not deem this election the only game in town, and some boycotted the polls. When the pro-independence conflicts continued following the election, the boycott did not cost its advocates, who had held their moral high ground.
A contrasting historical example is the 1947 election, which differed significantly from the dyarchy elections because two key players—the British colonizers and the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) led by Aung San—reached a prior agreement to hold the elections as a power-sharing step toward independence.
Under these circumstances, although the 1947 election may not have been the only game in town, it was a mainstream political game. Therefore, parties such as the Red-flag Communist Party of Burma, the Karen National Union and U Saw’s Myochit (Patriotic) Party that boycotted the election suffered the cost of being sidelined from mainstream politics.
Burma's history, therefore, appears to instruct that a consensus between key opposing players on the process and goal of transition is a prerequisite to making an election credible and its outcome legitimate. Only then will polls deescalate conflicts. And only then will they be “the only game in town.”
There is certainly no such consensus in 2010, nor does one appear to be on the horizon.
In an article that appeared in The Irrawaddy online in early 2008 (The 2010 Election Challenges ), this author argued that 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 regime's imposition of the one-sided 2008 Constitution and the unfair process being played out for the upcoming 2010 elections will not likely minimize the cost of conflict for the military. The most visible costs will be the continuation of international isolation and further damage to the country's economy.
The opposition—democratic forces as well as ethnic groups—will continue to fight for the goal of national reconciliation and ethnic autonomy, but they understand that they are likely to find themselves ineffective within the new government's institutional procedures that favor the military's domination.
Therefore, the opposition groups will have to pursue alternative courses of action following the election, including public mobilization, international advocacy and possibly even renewal of guerrilla warfare in the borderlands. And the generals will use the same method of coercion against the people even after the 2010 election, so the existing grievances and public hostility towards the military will be compounded and antagonistic civil-military relations will continue.
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. Such reform could happen only if the status-quo is challenged by public pressure from the outside and a negotiated settlement is reached with the military.
Thus, the NLD was right when it argued that the regime's proposed election is not the only game in town, and was right not to re-register and contest an election governed by unfair and unjust election laws that bar more than 2,000 political prisoners from the electoral process, including NLD party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
However, although the election is clearly not the only game in town, it is one front being fought in the opposition's overall battle for democracy and human rights. Thus, as this author argued in The Irrawaddy more than one year ago (Burma’s Opposition Must Wage Proxy Fight ), the NLD was wrong in its unwillingness or incapacity to diversify its pro-democracy struggles and avoid a split within the party by setting up or at least allowing a proxy party to exist.
In this respect, the NLD itself could learn a lesson from the history of Burma's independence struggle.
In 1936, the radical group Dobama Asiayone (We Burman Association) formed the Komin Kochi (Our King, Our People) party as its proxy to contest that year's elections with the aim of fighting against the existing order from within parliament as well as from without. Although Komin Kochin won only three seats in the election, their formation of a proxy attempt demonstrates that even the most radical opposition elements realize that it is worthwhile to diversify one’s struggle, especially when it helps to hold an opposition party together.
But the NLD leadership, instead of allowing (or even encouraging) those who would like to set up a political party to contest the 2010 elections, vilified the moderates within the group and caused the split.
It seems that the NLD leadership is not strategic enough to be aware of the advantages the whole movement could gain by franchising the forms of its struggle, rather than centralizing them. Their tendency to put all of their eggs in one basket led to a strategic blunder that could have long-term consequences for the opposition.
Broadly speaking, however, it would not be fair to assume such a policy decision was solely the outcome of the NLD leadership’s independent choice. In Burma's political environment, responses are shaped not only by past repression and grievances, but also by political culture, and this illiberal environment strengthens value-loaded or principle-centric cultural norms that lead to inflexible decision making.
In addition, it should be cautioned that even if the NLD leaders were strategically savvy enough to diversify the forms of their struggle, positive results would not be guaranteed.
For instance, it is widely believed that Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)’s attempts to diversify their struggles by forming proxy Kachin parties such as the Kachin State Progressive Party, the Northern Shan State Progressive Party and the United Democracy Party (Kachin State), have thus far been unsuccessful because the regime’s election commission has delayed the approval of these parties.
A proxy party even informally blessed by the NLD leadership may have met the same fate. However, it should not have stopped the NLD from making a worthwhile attempt at strategic franchising, at least to avoid the split.
Something is better than nothing
That depends on how the election cheerleaders define “something.”
It is understandable that people living in the pluralistic Western world get excited when they hear the word “election.” However, the junta's election will not unleash a torrent of political changes and are not a panacea that will heal past wounds. They are a ploy to prolong and legalize the military regime's rule indefinitely.
The 2010 elections will, however, contribute to changes in the format of governance. The military regime has extensive experience with dictatorial, one-party rule, but the governing format following the election will be a new experiment for them. The new government will be a hybrid with two power centers—military and political. Regardless of who pulls the strings, this could lead to either a serious internal split or miserable inefficiency of the ruling body.
In other words, there will be tensions between the regime's desire for military supremacy and the new political procedures required by the hybrid parliamentary system. Will this be a crack in their power base that the opposition can take advantage of?
Although some advocates argue that the new hybrid system is in itself a trend towards liberalization, the nature of the power rivalry within the post-2010 ruling party will not necessarily lead to a new opening for the opposition groups in the short run, or democratization in the long run.
Even if it does eventually lead to democratic reforms, the question is how long will this process take? It may be too long to have any strategic relevance for opposition movements operating within the country and abroad, and for the long-suffering people of Burma.
Since the new Constitution has placed the military atop an untouchable altar, the tragic conditions that have led to extreme poverty, forced relocation, forced labor, child soldiers, political prisoners, internally displaced persons, refugees flooding into neighboring countries, rape and other human rights violations—all of which are associated with the military's unchecked power, interests and behavior—will remain unresolved.
The 2010 elections will not even bring meaningful economic reforms, because the military and its cronies will continue to disrupt and distort the country's market economy, such as it is.
And since the elected parliament’s legislative power will be restricted and because it will not be able to oversee the military or the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), no civilian mechanisms will be available to redress the continued corruption and economic mismanagement.
In addition, unless the military concedes the ceasefire status quo in ethnic areas, or makes some accommodations in its forced disarmament strategy, after the election the prospect of negotiated political resolution with major ethnic ceasefire groups will remain bleak, and therefore the risk of renewed civil war, or widespread guerrilla warfare, cannot be ruled out.
So what exactly is the “something” that is better than nothing that the election cheerleaders envision resulting from the election?
It seems obvious that these advocates (especially foreign observers) apply the O’Donnell/Schmitter textbook approach to Burma without understanding or considering Burmese history and political culture.
They claim that it is pragmatic to promote the theory that elections—no matter how flawed—have a slippery slope tendency toward democratization and therefore could be a path to change and liberalization. Then they mock the committed activists inside Burma as an irrelevant force.
But the cheerleaders’ overstatement of the election’s significance in the Burmese context, and their optimistic, linear view of liberalization and follow-up democratization, is theoretically simplistic and does not conform to Burmese history.
The pro-election advocates who believe that just getting a foot in the door is an important step should pay heed to Aleksandr Gelman’s warning that: “Liberalization is an unclenched fist, but the hand is the same and at any moment it could be clenched again into a fist.”
NLD members are not the only democrats in Burma
This is True. Not every democrat in Burma is or was an NLD member. And the emergence of political parties, no matter how limited the political space they have to operate, is something to encourage because it may lead to political competition.
But it does not necessarily follow that every new party that is not directly aligned with the regime represents the public interest and will positively influence the direction and power structure of the country.
In fact, advocating this position is tricky, because it is basically an extension of the “third force” argument.
The “third force” refers to an array of groups who claim to steer a neutral path between the NLD and the regime. Most of these groups, however, lean more toward the positions of the junta in their outspoken anti-sanction views and open support for the 2010 elections.
When the election laws were published, many old faces resurfaced and resumed their political activities. Excluding the junta-backed USDP party and its cronies-turned-candidates, most of the newly formed political parties under regime’s election laws are being founded by former activists, NLD splinters and small ethnic groups.
Any attempt at lumping them together and promoting them as the new opposition, however, is at best premature optimism and at worst an ill-conceived attempt to undermine the role of committed activists from the NLD, the Shan National League for Democracy, the 88 Generation Students and the monks.
Unlike these groups, who have long struggled for democracy and human rights in Burma, the so-called “new players” do not speak out against injustices suffered by the citizens at the hands of junta, let alone represent and fight for the rights of the general public.
It is not the “emerging new players” who are struggling to combat forced relocation, forced labor, child soldiers or HIV/AIDS on the ground level. And it is not the third force parties who are calling for national reconciliation as a necessary goal for the country’s future direction. It is still the NLD and their supporters who are at the forefront in representing and fighting for the public.
In fact, third force advocates, both domestic and abroad, snipe at the NLD's grassroots struggles, claiming they are confrontational, failed stances. This is nothing more than elitist arrogance.
Moreover, the emergence of civilian players will not necessarily promote a liberal environment and values such as tolerance under the new hybrid system.
The most intimate example from Burmese history is that of the pre-war politicians, with whom the British shared power from the 1920s through the 1930s. It was U Saw, the native Burmese civilian premier, who called upon the British Governor in the early 1940s to take repressive actions against “extreme politicians” in order to avoid disorder, and later ended up assassinating Aung San and his cabinet members in 1947.
Paul Collier was dead right when he claimed that democratic politics as often practiced in the countries of “the bottom billion” (i.e. hybrid systems that allow elections with repression) tends to attract candidates with criminal records.
And those who promote the option of emerging third force players without stating clearly what it means to be a democrat confuse the moral clarity of people’s struggle against dictatorship.
Than Shwe's 3G Democracy
The debate about whether participation in the upcoming election is a legitimate means to accomplishing opposition goals is both healthy and necessary, but it should not be forgotten that while pro-democracy, human rights and ethnic rights advocates are arguing among themselves, Than Shwe is not wasting any time fueling his “disciplined-flourishing democracy” with the 3 Gs of of Guns, Goons and Gas.
From killing his own citizens when it suits his purposes to the pursuit of nuclear weapons that threaten neighboring countries; from the thugs of the Union Solidarity and Development Association and Swan Arr Shin to the ex-military candidates of the newly formed USDP; and from selling off the hydrocarbon and other natural resources of his country to promote his personal interests, Than Shwe is determined to utilize all means necessary to prove de Tocqueville’s theory wrong in 21st century Burma and hold onto power.
No matter if the regime is clenching or unclenching its fist, the dictator-in-chief is making sure that it is his hand at work. Some may see participation in the elections as an opportunity to sever that hand. But more likely they are simply playing into it, and they risk being crushed when the fist clenches once more.
In the aftermath of Burma's 2007 "Saffron Revolution" and the military's subsequent crackdown, China has been increasingly pressured to assume a larger role in helping to resolve Burma's crisis.
A gathering cloud of myth however, has formed with regard to Beijing's policy on Burma, indicating that China has limited sway with the military junta’s generals and that Burmese activists and their advocates in the West overestimated China's influence on the generals.
This view is simply wrong or, at worst, Chinese propaganda. Of course China has more power and influence on the generals than any other country. The question is whether the Chinese Communist government wants to use its leverage to facilitate change in Burma. It does not mean that China is the patron that pulls the strings, and the self-isolated, delusive Burmese regime is its puppet.
The generals are highly aware of China's overwhelming strategic weight over Burma and appear eager to diversify and reduce its dependence on China since the mid-1990s. The junta may manage to reduce its military and economic over-reliance on China, but China's political and diplomatic protection remains indispensable to the regime's survival. Moreover, China's influence over the ethnic cease-fire groups in northeastern Burma that borders China's southwestern province could complicate relations between two countries.
If Beijing chose an uncooperative policy toward Burma in the latter's handling of its ethnic groups, the regime's state-building effort would face a serious hurdle. Therefore, the regime has no choice (no matter whether its intentions indicate otherwise) but to rely on China for political and diplomatic protection and cooperation. In other words, Burma's dependency on China is the consequence––by default––of the junta's struggle for survival rather than its stated intentions, such as nationalism and Sinophobia.
Therefore, China has leverage not only in terms of its provision of carrots, but also in terms of the sticks it can wield to hurt the regime. But China has not used its stick to poke the generals toward change at least for two reasons: first, China does not want Western-style democratization on its southern flank; and second, Beijing does not want to be seen as a "threat" to its neighbors.
Although China wants to see economic reform taking place in Burma, China has almost no sympathy for Burma's democratic crusade and its advocates; Beijing considers them too close to the West. China does not have confidence in the opposition's capacity to maintain stability in the divisive nation. And more importantly, China has also gained unrivaled economic advantages by supporting the pariah regime.
The second reason for not using its leverage is related to China's geopolitical strategy that aims to undermine the feasibility and desirability of a US policy of containment mainly by forging solid working relations with its smaller neighbors and other major powers.
While China continued its program of economic and military modernization through the 1990s, it wants to minimize the risk that others, most notably the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean), will view China as an unacceptably dangerous threat which must be parried or perhaps even forestalled.
If China continued to meddle in Burma's affairs in the 1990s the way it backed Burmese communist insurgents in the late 1960s and 1970s, it would stir grave concerns in Asean. China would be viewed as a bully.
These concerns would coincide with the current South China Sea dispute between China and some Asean members over territorial claims and resources. China's leaders have decided to follow Deng Xiaoping's cryptic instruction: "Hide our capacities and bide our time, but also get some things done." (tao guang yang hui you suo zuo hui). China has adopted an opportunistic foreign policy of maintaining relations with any government that would remain friendly to China and serve China's security and economic interests, irrespective of that government's propensity for reform.
However, this policy of self-serving pragmatism appears to be more and more untenable for at least two reasons. First, it puts China in a difficult dilemma whenever the Burmese regime faces serious vulnerability in domestic power shifts. For instance, Beijing found itself in policy confusion when the opposition National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the 1990 multi-party elections.
During the Buddhist monk-led protests in 2007, China similarly faced an uneasy situation.
Since former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who China viewed as "Burma's Musharraf," was purged in 2004, China has felt itself losing its grip on the regime's power establishment and has become increasingly frustrated with Snr-Gen Than Shwe's manipulative foreign policy.
In the wake of Khin Nyunt's fall from grace, Than Shwe visited India and agreed to the latter's bid for a UN Security Council seat. He later backtracked on that policy. The junta chief also reached out to Russia and North Korea, another gesture that irritated the Chinese. To top it off, Burma recently chose to buy a fleet of Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, despite China's offer to sell its latest J-10 and FC-1 fighters at a bargain price.
While Beijing's communist bureaucrats may be able to remain indifferent to the casualties of Burma's "Saffron Revolution," they cannot underestimate the high stakes resulting from the Burmese army's attacks on ethnic cease-fire groups along its border. The Burmese junta's recent military offensive against the Han-blooded Kokang resulted in a massive influx of refugees into China.
Indeed, the policy of "contained Balkanization" in Burma could lead to a resumption of localized armed conflicts between certain ethnic cease-fire groups and the Burmese army. Since the most volatile areas are around the Sino-Burmese border, where formidable Wa and Kachin ethnic armies are based, China is likely to face increased instability in its southwest and consequential disruptions of its economic and strategic interests.
The risk is imminent and urgent because the regime has set 2010 as an election year and has to impose a deadline on cease-fire groups joining the Burmese army's Border Guard Forces.
The military's abusive dealings with the pro-democracy opposition and ethnic groups have also drawn China into the international spotlight; its opportunistic foreign policy toward Burma has been challenged in the international arena.
This is the second reason why the policy is increasingly unsustainable. Burma has become a source of embarrassment for the Chinese leadership who would prefer to avoid being constantly associated with the brutal dictators in neighboring Burma.
According to Chinese sources, after the “Saffron Revolution” erupted in September 2007, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao contacted US President George W. Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown by phone to discuss the situation and which measures to take. China eventually agreed to the issuance of a UNSC Presidential Statement in October 2007, and its usage of the expression "strongly deplores the use of violence against peaceful demonstrations in Myanmar." China facilitated UN Envoy for Burma Ibrahim Gambari's first visit to Rangoon. In short, China's new role in the international system obliges the country to reexamine its purely opportunistic foreign policy.
While low-key foreign policy does not influence the events taking place a few kilometers across China's border, such as the junta's attack on the Kokang, Beijing has resolved to review its foreign policy. Sources confirm that China has now set up a "Fact-finding Commission" on last year's Kokang conflict and its impact on China.
If Beijing manages to facilitate a genuine reconciliation in Burma, it will serve China's interest.
Some may argue that there are two disincentives for China to modify its current policy. First, the junta may retaliate by disrupting economic cooperation with China (for instance, the gas pipeline deal). The second factor would be with respect to Washington's new policy toward the junta.
The first option would be suicidal for Than Shwe since his regime can't afford the return of a late 1960s scenario in Sino-Burmese relations. And the second factor is a grave concern among China's policy elites.
Dr. Jian Junbo from the influential Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, warned in his Asia Times' article in 2009 that "the US should recognize the fact that China is an important actor in Southeast Asia when it plans its engagement policy in Myanmar, and the US would face great difficulty if it tried to exclude China from its new Myanmar policy."
It is unlikely Asean will object to China's initiative for change in Burma, since the grouping has been disillusioned with its constructive engagement policy to tame the junta, while the relationship between Asean and China has been increasingly strengthened since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
Sen. Jim Webb's "China's threat" view and "containment approach" worry the Chinese.
In fact, Webb's alarmist view that states that China's increasing economic and political influence in Burma could further "a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region" has fallen neatly into the manipulative hands of Than Shwe; he now wants to use his US card to scare the Chinese.
If the highest level leaders of US and Asean make it clear to China that they will coordinate with Beijing to facilitate change in Burma, aiming for minimalist goals which do not radically upset the interests of Naypyidaw and Beijing, China would likely take on the role of working toward national reconciliation in Burma (in more concrete terms, the removal of Than Shwe if the latter resisted.)
If this goal cannot be achieved with persuasion, China may use sticks such as abstention in UNSC or support the status quo (i.e. encouraging ethnic cease-fire groups to resist the Burmese army) as the best fallback policy option. To that end, the US must make the first move: to liaise with China. It will perhaps best serve a common interest and workable task for both countries to refresh the tension-ridden Sino-US relationship which has spiked over the recent sale of US arms to Taiwan, friction over trade, the Dalai Lama and allegations of cyber-spying.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.