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.
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.