Monday, September 12, 2011

The Myitsone Dam: A Cause for Unity or an Uprising in the Making?

By MIN ZIN Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Whenever two existential threats—economic deprivation and violation of dignity—merge and hurt society, the people of Burma revolt. Thus the construction of a massive hydro-power dam at Myitsone, where the Maykha and Malikha rivers meet to become the mighty Irrawaddy, mainly to serve China’s energy needs, has spawned a “Save the Irrawaddy” campaign that has become an unprecedented rallying ground for the people of Burma to take contentious action against a new regime.

Within the “civilian” government of President Thein Sein, however, this issue has become a source of division. Ministers and parliamentary leaders have taken conflicting views over how to resolve this crisis. That some moderate members of the regime have publicly called for an overall review of the project in transparent manner is a welcome sign. Unless the regime manages an acceptable resolution to this issue, however, the “Save the Irrawaddy” discourse could gradually grow into something else: an “Irrawaddy Uprising”. This issue is so close to home for the people of Burma because it involves not only national development but also national dignity. More importantly, the public’s rising outrage will put three key policy players—Thein Sein, opposition activist Aung San Suu Kyi and the Chinese government—in a serious political dilemma.

Let’s start with the facts. The project to fragment the Irrawaddy by building dams began in December 2006, and the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between China and Burma on the development, operation and delivery of electricity from the hydro-power project was signed in 2009. Along with Burma’s privately owned, military-backed Asia World Company, China’s state-owned China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) will dam the Irrawaddy at eight locations. The largest of these dams, and the one causing the greatest outcry, is being built just below the confluence. The reservoir area is 766 km, which is bigger than Singapore. Moreover, the Myitsone dam is located less than 100 km from a major tectonic fault line. Experts warn that an earthquake could cause the collapse of the dam, with devastating consequences.

Local Kachin communities have been calling on the Burmese and Chinese governments to stop the dam project since 2007. A few Burman civil society members and writers have also called attention to the deteriorating condition of the Irrawaddy River. However, the mainstream media and the general public remained largely silent on these issues until a confidential Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was leaked to social activists and the media in June-July of 2011.

The EIA report, which was fully funded by CPI and conducted by a team of Burmese and Chinese scientists, was produced in October 2009 but never made public. The report clearly recommends that the Myitsone dam project be abandoned.

“If Myanmar [Burmese] and Chinese sides were really concerned about environmental issues and aimed at sustainable development of the country, there is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Ayeyawady [Irrawaddy] River. Instead, two smaller dams could be built above Myitsone to produce nearly the same amount of electricity,” the reports states. It also notes the lack of a Social Impact Assessment and strongly recommends that one be carried out by competent social scientists before approval of the project.

Aside from the environmental, economic and social damage the construction of the dams is causing, another thorny issue is the fact that the chief beneficiary of the project, both in terms of power consumption and profits from the sale of the generated energy, is China, which will buy up to 90 percent of the electricity and keep some 70 percent of the profits.

When researchers, campaigners and independent media organizations started ringing alarm bells by citing the Chinese-funded EIA report, the issue captured the national imagination and prompted a sense of public urgency to protect the river. Calls to save the Irrawaddy are now expressed through every conceivable medium: articles, cartoons, songs, petitions, public statements, religious sermons and interviews with experts.

In August, the government finally got around to defending the construction of the Myitsone dam in state-run newspapers, claiming that the project would have no negative impact on the flow of the Irrawaddy River or on the lives and livelihoods of local people. However, the private weeklies—most notably the popular Eleven Media journal—and foreign broadcasters pushed back, calling for more transparency regarding the EIA, details of the MoU and dam construction-related information.

The growing consensus among Burmese experts, including some senior advisers to the president, and general public was now clear: the project must be stopped—period.

The watershed moment came when Minister of Electric Power (1) Zaw Min, who claimed that “no one in Myanmar knows and possesses more experience than me concerning hydro-power,” told local media on Sept 11: “Regardless of objections from any sources, the construction of the Myitsone Hydropower Project will not be abolished. … We will never rescind it.”

Zaw Min's remarks triggered public outrage. The influential Eleven Media immediately responded by collecting the views of various leading journalists, public intellectuals and even members of the regime’s Parliament. Highly respected veteran journalist Ludu Sein Win defiantly warned that people would take to the streets to defend the Irrawaddy River if civil and non-confrontational means didn't work. The Internet posting of the report drew hundreds of angry comments from readers within days, and social media and various public actions have further invigorated the momentum of the “Save the Irrawaddy” campaign.

If history is any guide, the “Save the Irrawaddy” discourse will gradually grow into the “Irrawaddy Uprising” because the emergence of this issue coincides with worsening poverty among the majority of the general public, caused by a struggling export sector hit by fluctuating currency exchange rates. In the past, whenever the severe economic deprivation of the general public was compounded by unjust events that violated the dignity of the people—for example, in 1987, when the demonetization of the Burmese currency was coupled with police brutality against students, and again in 2007, when fuel prices were hiked by 500 percent fuel price hike and police assaulted Buddhist monks in Pakokku—the people have revolted against incumbent regimes.

Of course, the uprising in itself will not yield a positive policy outcome. The effective societal pressures could force the policymakers (rarely as a unified entity but mostly likely a winning faction of them) to intervene in the situation and accommodate a mediated outcome.
In the meantime, public pressure is growing, presenting a serious challenge to the Thein Sein administration, as well as to its chief domestic interlocutor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and its key international ally, China.

Over the past few months, Thein Sein has captured the imagination of politically active members of Burmese society, both inside the country and abroad, with his various initiatives, including his meeting with Suu Kyi, efforts to convene poverty alleviation workshops, and an invitation to exiles to return home. However, if he fails to mitigate the rising tide of public anger over the Irrawaddy crisis, this could trump any credit he might receive for his otherwise laudable efforts.

However, there are a number of steps that Thein Sein could take to address the Irrawaddy issue, such as getting the Parliament to enact a much-needed environmental law, suspending the dam project to conduct more independent assessments with the assistance of Mekong River Commission, or choosing the EIA-proposed alternative plan of building two small dams north of Myitsone.

Of course, these measures are not without risk for the Thein Sein regime, which is rife with internal rivalries. However, there is reason to believe that they would enjoy support among at least some in the regime. Minister of Industry (2) Soe Thein, for instance, recently called for a review of the project and suggested exploring the option of building two small dams north of Myitsone, as proposed in the EIA report. However, this would likely anger China, the indispensable patron of the regime for international protection and financial assistance, which has already invested heavily in the project.

In fact, this is where Suu Kyi could play a role. As the democracy darling of the West, Suu Kyi could bring what the regime needs from the international community and ease Thein Sein’s disproportionate reliance on Beijing. By cooperating with Suu Kyi, Thein Sein could win international support and thus gain more leverage in dealing with Beijing, which could be persuaded to accept the need for a transitional Burma to balance between political stability and honoring business contracts of previous regimes, at least in the short term.

However, the Lady herself is in a political dilemma: should she lead the public in calling for a halt to the Myitsone project, or simply follow the people's lead? In August, she weighed in with a letter appealing to both the Burmese and Chinese governments to “reassess the scheme and cooperate to find solutions that would prevent undesirable consequences and thus allay the fears of all who are anxious to protect the Irrawaddy.” But since then, she has not followed up with any concrete program. Perhaps she is facing the same dilemma that her aging party leadership encountered during the Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007: not leading, but just belatedly following after the crowds.

The dilemma for China can be seen at two levels: Yunnan and Beijing. A large part of the public outrage over the Myitsone project is directly related to growing resentment of China’s opportunistic and exploitative foreign policy toward Burma. It is not clear how far Yunnan reports back to Beijing and the latter makes its own effort to gather information about the intensity of such resentment and possible dangerous implications. However, it is ironic that China is not sensitive to the deep-seated feelings of the humiliated people of Burma, despite China herself having suffered untold humiliation at the hands of foreign powers in the early 20th century.

Moreover, growing numbers of people in Burma have come to view the Irrawaddy crisis as a national security issue. If Beijing cares only to nurture patron-client relations with a handful of generals and ex-generals in Naypyidaw to secure its security and economic interests without being sensitive to the deprivation and dignity of the people of Burma, the consequences will be dire for both countries.

However, the good news is that there is a great chance for David to beat Goliath. As I argue elsewhere, although the regime is in control of the country's general political direction, opposition groups hold significant sway over specific issues and arenas in terms of power distribution.

The Irrawaddy issue is a case in point. Opposition groups (not necessarily political ones, but broadly inclusive societal groups) have significant leverage to press for issue-specific change. The Irrawaddy crisis offers the broadest issue-linkages because it can be related to human rights, national security, ethnic conflicts, foreign investment and trade, poverty and sustainable development, environmental issues, and the empowerment of civil society, among many other issues.

Stronger issue-linkages will help broaden societal bases of the movement from diverse backgrounds. It can even draw in military officers and the business community because the issue is framed not in terms of claiming political power from incumbents but in terms of a national cause of rescuing Burma from national humiliation.

This is David’s rule of thumb: to choose to fight strength against weakness, and not strength against strength. If the regime refuses to accommodate the people’s demands, it will be targeted as a Goliath, and the Irrawaddy uprising will ensue. If the regime (or a winning faction of the regime in internal rivalries) takes side with the people to accommodate a mediated outcome, the Irrawaddy crisis will serve as a long-awaited step for restoration of national dignity and unity. It will then be China who ends up playing the role of Goliath. In any case, if the underdogs in Burma play David’s playbook in this specific issue of defending the Irrawaddy, the chance is high that they will be able to strike down Goliath with a slingshot and use their powerful sword to slay the giant.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist living in exile. The opinions expressed in this guest commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Irrawaddy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Burma at a Crossroads (Part II): An Analysis of Societal Resistance

By MIN ZIN Friday, August 12, 2011

It is now more cliché than politically incorrect to quote Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics as “who gets what, when and how?” Still, this serves as a good reminder for those whose political drive is stuck in moral traffic, because it underlines distribution of power as the determining factor in political outcomes. However, the ability to achieve desired outcomes is only one part of the political relevancy of societal resistance. As this author noted before, another factor—legitimacy—plays a crucial role in determining the relevancy of societal resistance in Burma.

A positive outcome will not be achieved on its own no matter how the new regime in Naypyidaw manages to initiate a lengthy and non-linear state-building process. The geographical and functional reach of the Burmese state has been highly constrained by a multitude of societal forces, including democratic opposition groups as well as ethnic insurgencies that have plagued the country for several decades. Despite the fact that Burma is now undergoing a regime-led political transition, societal pressures will play a crucial role in intermediating the outcome. This article will attempt to analyze the role of societal forces in influencing the political transition.

Although the mainstream opposition groups are sidelined in the new political game of the post-2010 regime, the ongoing repressive nature of state-society relations still legitimizes the opposition forces and makes them relevant. However, whether or not the opposition groups are capable of making use of this political capital for the good of the country or even at least for their own survival remains a big question. Let’s start with unpacking the political opportunity structures that are available to the opposition.

There are two key domains emerging out of the post-2010 regime. The first is the parameter set by the 2008 Constitution and its elected government, and the second domain represents what I would call “the principled opposition” or “mainstreamers,” who refuse to play within the political framework set by the regime and yet remain as formidable stakeholders.

In addition to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and direct military representatives in governing bodies, the political parties, including ethnic parties that contested the 2010 election, civil society actors, media, and technocrats, are prime actors in this regime-controlled political parameter. Let’s call them “the insiders,” since they play within the existing game.

Among the mainstreamers, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, clandestine or underground activists, and an assortment of ethnic resistance groups are still major forces to be reckoned with. Observers should analyze what kind of political environment prevails in each of these two domains that provide political opportunity for respective players to advance their goals.

Thanks to the changing structures of state in the post-2010 regime, a relative openness emerges in the first domain, where we see a considerable number of actors from civil society and technocrats, media groups, the legislature and the judiciary attempt to push the limits. The majority of players in this regime-controlled domain appear to recognize that they can’t affect “the exercise of power,” but can play a role in expanding ways of “access to power”. They pursue a process and a strategy that allows them to conduct both embeddedness—being co-opted into the existing political framework—and contestation. Thus far, the domestic media and technocrats are becoming more outspoken in their contestation of the inefficient governance of the post-2010 regime, while elected opposition parties in the legislature rely more on the embeddedness process that focuses on institution-building rather than institutional autonomy, at least in the early years of a new regime. The judiciary remains the most conservative arena in the regime-controlled domain. However, this could be a theater where the opposition could repeatedly test and expose the regime’s claims to “rule of law”.

Meanwhile, actors in all of these arenas—civil society, media, the legislature, and so on—can’t take it for granted that the relative openness in the regime-controlled domain is linear and irreversible. The success depends on their own tactfulness, the result of power rivalries within the new regime, and also the willingness of the principled opposition groups to ally with them or at least refrain from rocking the boat.

The emergence of this new state structures poses a serious challenge to the “mainstreamers” or principled opposition groups, though they still hold sway on public support and Western backing.

The challenge demonstrates a dilemma for the opposition groups: they can't develop a better alternative process, nor are they willing to enter the regime-controlled game. While the rationale of “the insiders” is to induce a political trickle-down transition in Burma by playing within the existing parameters, the vow of “the mainstreamers” is to create trickle-up change by mobilizing the masses.

However, the political opportunity available to the domain of the principled opposition groups is still scanty. Recently, the new government appeared to offer a three-pronged approach to the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which are (1) recognition of the existing regime, (2) talks between government representative Aung Kyi and Suu Kyi , and (3) the latter’s involvement in government poverty alleviation efforts. This three-level approach is in fact a resumption of what United Nations proposed in the wake of the brutal crackdown on the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” in which the UN special envoy on Burma encouraged the junta and Suu Kyi to cooperate on recognition of the regime’s roadmap, meaningful and time-bound talks and a broad-based poverty alleviation commission. The junta’s supremo, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, then scratched the UN’s proposal after a period of using it to diffuse international criticism of the 2007 crackdown.

Although Thein Sein, the president of the new government, might now intend to reemploy such tools of resolution without the UN or any other third party’s involvement, the concession he could make may be nothing more than allowing Suu Kyi to play within the existing game with the provision of some face-saving tickets for the Lady. Unless Suu Kyi manages to pull off a better alternative, she will have to go along with this supply-side-driven transition package.

However, the scenario regarding the ethnic resistance groups such as the ceasefire armies is more complicated. The new regime finds itself ineffective in crushing defiant groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and even smaller splinter groups like the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, thanks to its own weak military capability, the new regime's lack of legitimacy, and the direct geopolitical constraints imposed by neighboring countries.

However, ethnic groups will also not survive on military defense alone. They may eventually be forced by the regime as well as geopolitical pressures to enter political negotiations within the framework of the 2008 Constitution. Depending on the unity or divisiveness among intra- and inter-ethnic groups, the gains they achieve from the new regime will be uneven.

Generally speaking, the principled opposition groups—ethnic as well as urban forces—in Burma are perhaps by default most likely to make news headlines because they constantly bear the brunt of repression and injustice inflicted by the brutal regime. But they are so far losing control of the political trend-lines because of limited political opportunity available to their domain. At the same time, they haven’t been successful in creating their own political opportunity that would allow them to advance a better alternative.

Our analysis thus far demonstrates that the regime possesses overall control over the political trend, while the opposition—both “the insiders” and “the mainstreamers”—hold significant sway over specific issues and arenas in terms of power distribution. In other words, the regime controls a new parameter of politics and also to a large extent contains the domain of “the mainstreamers,” including the capabilities of Suu Kyi and even of major ceasefire groups such as the ethnic Wa. However, “the insiders” (those who play within the regime-controlled game) manage to affect the ways of “access to power” through their embeddedness and contestation of the available parameter. Though the evidence is not yet conclusive, the relative openness and the boundary-spanning efforts of these players in specific arenas such as media, civil society and even the legislature should not be understated.

At the same time, the “mainstreamers” have significant control over some issues, such as the removal of economic sanctions, in addition to substantive public support and Western backing for their dedicated leaders—especially Suu Kyi. However, the lack of coordination between players of two domains has in fact weakened the strength of the “insiders” as well as the “mainstreamers,” and has perhaps given even more leverage to “hardliners” within the new regime in their pursuit of personal or institutional rivalries.

Of course, the possibility of spontaneous public outrage and explosion can’t be ruled out if there is a disruption of the day-to-day survival of ordinary people or a communal conflict, such as anti-Chinese riots.

Whether or not such a scenario is desirable requires more analysis that is beyond the scope of this article.

In summary, the societal forces—“the insiders,” “the mainstreamers” and even the general masses—play a crucial role in intermediating political outcomes. However, if “the insiders”— those who simultaneously embed in and contest the existing game—and “the mainstreamers” or “principled opposition groups”—those who hold sway over substantive public support and Western backing—fail to coordinate in intermediating the regime-led political transition, the people of Burma will have to bear the endless suffering of Sisyphean struggle.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist living in exile.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Burma at a Crossroads: An Analysis of State Structures

By MIN ZIN Monday, July 25, 2011

It has been more than 100 days since President Thein Sein’s new government took office in Burma after a widely criticized “sham” election in November 2010. Many Burma analysts and opposition activists alike have examined the work of a new government by questioning whether the recent changes in Burma demonstrate the beginnings of a process of genuine democratic transition, or whether this is merely “old wine in a new bottle.”

Unfortunately, the question in itself is wrong and misleading. The changes that are likely to take place under the Thein Sein government represent neither democratic transition nor recorked wine.

I have consistently argued since 2008 on the pages of The Irrawaddy that the new constitution and the 2010 elections will not change incompatible goals and relations between military and civilian forces, broadly speaking state-society relations.

As result, the post-2010 regime will not change any salience of the issues including political prisoners, ethnic conflicts, and other rights violations that the country has been facing and which have earned it pariah status. However, I argued that November's 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.

In brief, my argument noted that even after the elections, the state-society relations would remain more or less the same, but the intra-state relations or state structure could be changed. Now we can engage more in nuanced analysis of the part that I presume changing since the real situation on ground has begun unfolding.

First of all, it is remarkable that Snr-Gen Than Shwe managed to establish a pre-mortem succession arrangement by installing potential rivals as his heirs apparent in different institutional settings. Than Shwe put Thein Sein in the presidential seat but checked the move by installing Tin Aung Myint Oo as a vice president. In parliament, he positioned Shwe Mann, who had widely been speculated to become the first president of a hybrid government, as the chair of the Lower House.

Those who were second-tier in the lineup but reputed as hardliners, such as Htay Oo, Aung Thaung and Maung Oo, have been assigned to lead the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the ruling party.

Than Shwe left his commander-in-chief position to Min Aung Hlaing, who is very junior compared with the current leaders of the USDP-led government, but is known as disrespectful of his seniors whenever he has a chance of holding an ascendant position.

In brief, Than Shwe put them in stalemate against one another, and at the same time weakened the overall governance capacity so that these heirs apparent could not unite on the same ground and unsettle his days in retirement. This careful arrangement of inter-institutions and personality rivalries effectively undermines the possible consolidation of a new government’s power.

The generals-turned-civilian leaders, who used to live under the vertical command structure, appear to be clueless that who is now in the driver seat. It is still unclear where the real locus of power in this new arrangement lies. No one so far dares to cross the boundary of others, despite the increasing attempts at jostling and even trespassing.

Second, if governance could be defined in its minimalistic understanding as the tools, strategies and relationships used by governments to help govern, the pivotal focus for analysis would be the state institutions. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the formal as well as the informal strategies and relationships that the new government in Naypyidaw is likely to employ.

In institutional terms, we await to see what office (or who in an initial period) evolves into the dominant mechanism (or figure) to address the challenges of governance—whether it be the administrative body led by Thein Sein who apparently tends to rely on technocrats, or the legislative body led by Shwe Mann, or the USDP led by Htay Oo et al, or even the emergence of a new autocrat, for instance Tin Aung Myint Oo.

As the country is undergoing a political transition, we can’t of course expect democratic check and balance in its state structure formations. One institution, either formal or informal, will turn out to be the dominant instrument in governing the country. Meanwhile, unless there is uncontrollable popular uprising or serious split within the ruling body, the military may remain in the background.

If the generals-turned-civilian leaders in the new government manage to appoint a new military chief every two or four years, it will further preempt another potential military dictator to take root in a military power base. Meanwhile, the most pressing challenge for the current ruling elites is to settle institutional (in some incidents personality) rivalries between different state structures. The observers must carefully detect which institution will come to dominate or all will end up in inefficient impasse—or even fall apart.

Although the inner workings of these institutional and personality rivalries remain a matter of black box, some educated guesses could be made to construct a possible scenario.

Careful analysis of biographical records shows that Thein Sein has always been an administrative person, not a decision-maker. He served as Colonel General Staff (now called Brigadier General of the General Staff at the Ministry of Defense) in 1992, a very powerful position in the army because the Brig-Gen's general staff oversees and coordinates the whole operation of the military establishment.

As an administrative officer, Thein Sein is known as a good listener and reportedly good at facilitating and coordinating policy. But he has never been an effective decision-maker. In his career, Thein Sein only took commander positions when he didn’t have to engage any hard-fought battles. For instance, he was the commanding officer of Infantry Battalion 89 in Chin State in the late 1980s; of Military Operation Command MOC 4 near Rangoon in mid-1990s; and of the newly formed Triangle Regional Military Command in 1996.

This professional record is clearly in contrast with the experience of his closest threat, Tin Aung Myint Oo, who checkmates him in administration. Tin Aung Myint Oo is known as a “fighter” in the army. Tin Aung Myint Oo served a deputy commander of Battalion 11 Infantry of LID 88 headed by Than Shwe in 1981-83, and later on won the Thiha Thura medal in combat against Communist rebels in the 1988.

Tin Aung Myint Oo became commanding officer of No 111 Light Infantry Battalion under LID 33, and of the Tactical Operations Command under the Northern Military Command in 1992. In 1995, he was a brigadier general with the Military Operation Command-1 based in Northern Shan State. Battle-hardened Tin Aung Myint Oo became commander of the Northeast Military Region in Lashio in 1997 before being promoted to Quartermaster General in 2001.

Military insiders observe that Tin Aung Myint Oo is decisive, micro-managing, rude and corrupt. He is a “jungle man, not a gentleman,” says defector ex-Maj Aung Lynn Htut.

Reports coming out of Naypyidaw confirm that the rivalries and tensions within administrative apparatus are worsening over time.

As mentioned above, Than Shwe appeared to design such an administrative set-up in order to preempt unified successors, and consequently it weakens the governance. It is not likely that we will see any political breakthrough—either with the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi or with ethnic resistance groups—under such governance constraints. It seems that a breakthrough will take place only if Suu Kyi and the ethnic ceasefire groups agree to make game-changing concessions such as the former accepting the 2008 constitution, and the latter accepting the junta's Border Guard Force arrangement. However, this scenario is currently unthinkable.

It doesn’t mean that the observers should ignore the intentions of some leading members of the current leadership. President Thein Sein gave a noteworthy inaugural speech, in which he emphasized “good governance,” the fight against corruption, promotion of “democratic practices, not only among parliamentary representatives, but also among the people,” and the rule of law.

Likewise, Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the house at the Pyithu Hluttaw, the Lower House of Burma’s Parliament, gave a jaw-dropping speech to lawmakers, business people and even the media. He repeatedly noted the phrase, “No one is above the law,” and that “people’s power reigns in the parliament as it is formed with the people’s representatives,” invoking clause 228 of the constitution to elevate the role of parliament above the government.

Was it all too good to be true? In fact, the rhetoric of these speeches, which might reflect their genuine intents, are so far nothing more than a process of scoring points to promote their own institutions.

For instance, Maung Oo of the USDP emphasized in his speeches that power has been transferred from the State Peace and Development Council to the USDP, not to parliament, and the USDP will rule the country for at least 50 more years.

The rhetoric, therefore, mainly demonstrates the attempts of each group to consolidate their power bases and institutions.

So long as the struggle over the location of power is unresolved, the policy outcomes remain unstable and reversible (such as the recent decentralization experiment being revoked). Enthusiastic observers should step back and check the facts, instead of taking speeches at face value.

If the new regime’s institutional rivalry and power struggles turn out to be prolonged and result in inefficient governance or a split, the military’s renewed intervention or even a popular revolt should not be ruled out.

However, if the regime manages to entrust an institution (such as the technocrats or parliament or the USDP) to run the show, we will see a consolidation of power. It means that the regime will be able start the real process of much-needed institution-building in Burma.

This institution-building, however, must be understood in the context of state-building rather than democratization. As a result, one visible progress may be seen in more dynamic economic rationality because the rule of law—at least as far as business transactions are concerned—will be introduced.

It may help diversify the sources of the country’s revenue by promoting manufacturing industries, instead of almost total concentration on the natural resource extraction sector.

If stability and confidence in governance grow, an incremental progress in the direction of media and political liberalization may ensue, but the resolution of several critical issues, including the release of leading political prisoners (such as Khun Htun Oo, Min Ko Naing, Zarganar and U Gambira), and the peaceful settlement of ceasefire challenges, will not necessarily be guaranteed.

In summary, the recent changes in Burma do not support the argument that there is “no change at all” nor the optimism that “the beginning of a process of democratization” is dawning.

Recent events demonstrate that the structure of state has changed, and serious institutional rivalry is taking place within the new regime to compete for and seize the locus of power.

If this power struggle is settled successfully, an institution-building process will begin in Burma, and economic rationality will likely reign. If not, we will see one of the following: splits or purges, inefficient government, the emergence of another autocrat, military intervention or a popular uprising. Worse still, these scenarios are not mutually exclusive to one another.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist living in exile.