Friday, March 16, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi takes her case to the nation

Posted By Min Zin

On March 14 Burmese state TV allowed something that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago: it broadcast a speech by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her speech, which wasleaked online a few days earlier, was partly censored by the authorities, who deleted some unflattering references to the still-powerful military.

But even the broadcast version enabled Suu Kyi, who is running along with other members of her party in the much-anticipated parliamentary by-election on April 1, to deliver a powerful message to a national audience. In her speech, she said that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will pursue three priorities should it achieve a presence in parliament: It will work to promote the rule of law, to end the civil war, and to amend the 2008 constitution that grants 25 percent of the seats in parliament to the military without any of its candidates having to stand for election. Aung San Suu Kyi also pledged to support market-oriented economic reform, improvements in education, language rights for ethnic minorities, greater opportunities for young people and women, and freedom of association for labor unions and farmers.

These are all issues that will no doubt resonate with the majority in this ill-fated country. But how is the NLD supposed to achieve them even if it gets all 47 of the seats that it hopes to win in the election?

The current parliament, created after a 2010 election that took place according to rules laid out by the same military regime that has controlled Burma since 1962, is dominated by the generals and their stooges. It's not just that a quarter of the national assembly is reserved for members of the military. About 80 percent of the remaining 498 seats are controlled by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the tame party of the old junta. So it's hard to imagine how Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to deliver on her campaign promises unless the military cooperates.

So why, then, should we care about these elections at all?

First of all, the generals want to show that they're capable of holding free and fair elections, since that's the only way that they'll get the U.S. and the European Union to lift the sanctions they imposed on Burma years ago. For that reason, I'm inclined to think that the election is likely to be conducted in an internationally acceptable manner -- at least on the day of voting, and perhaps with some local exceptions. Although there are some reports of irregularities with voter lists in the run-up to the elections, sources in the government say privately that they wouldn't even mind if the NLD wins half of the contested seats, since that would lend additional legitimacy to the whole process.

But Suu Kyi is aiming for a sweeping victory, treating the by-elections as a referendum of public support for her leadership. Some analysts estimate that the NLD can win up to two-thirds of the available seats.

I believe that the NLD will fare very well in the races held in the main cities, but I'm afraid that the party candidates will run into problems in some rural constituencies. The reasons are simple: intimidation and bribery. The USDP in the countryside has both a strong grassroots organization and a lot of financial power. Farmers and the rural poor are expected not to disappoint local party bosses politically if they want to avoid harassment, and sometimes they even benefit from a bit of microcredit administered by its strongmen. The USDP's local thugs are notorious for their sanctions against opposition supporters. In a recent interview with the Voice of America (Burmese Service), the USDP campaign chief for Rangoon said that his party will seek votes from the public by going door to door in the neighborhoods (and by that he doesn't mean just handing out campaign literature). The rural people who live in remote and scattered communities can expect the ruling party to wield both incentives and punishments to dissuade them from voting for the NLD.

Aung San Suu Kyi is well aware of such techniques. In one of her public speeches, she advised people to pretend to be fearful of the authorities if they are pressured to vote against their will - and then to vote for the NLD.

The NLD can hope for a sweeping victory only if people practice what political scientists call "sincere voting" -- votes from the heart. Let's see if they can get away with it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Reading the tea leaves in Burma

Posted By Min Zin

I recently heard an odd story from a source very close to the government in Burma. The source predicted a serious bout of political instability for the country in June 2012. The cause, he said, will be neither an Arab Spring-style mass uprising nor a resurgence of civil war in the country's borderlands.

The reason, he said, is that the health of Thein Sein, our general-turned-civilian-president, is set to go downhill about then.

I asked the source how he knew this.

"This is what an astrologer has been telling us for the past few months," he replied.


"Yes. It comes from the chief astrologer, the one that the top brass rely on."

I sighed. This is the Burma that I know only too well.

By now it's no secret that Burmese rulers are deeply superstitious, often drawing on the advice of fortunetellers when making important decisions (including economic ones). In early 2011, the former dictator Than Shwe and his entourage (including Thein Sein) dressed in women's longyis(sarong-like garments) as a way of countering the influence of The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, and reversing her karma.

So we shouldn't dismiss this latest prediction with a derisive laugh. The ruling elites take their soothsaying extremely seriously.

So is there any basis for such concerns? All I know is the following:

A person who met the president two weeks ago says that Thein Sein was coughing a lot during the meeting. The president, who suffers from heart disease, received a new pacemaker during his recent visit to Singapore. But the same source says that Thein Sein doesn't feel "comfortable" with it.

In a meeting with a dissident early last month, a cabinet minister who is a close aide of Thein Sein also expressed concern about the latter's health.

However, the president's speech on Thursday, which lasted almost an hour, showed him to be in relatively good shape. He only made a few throat-clearing coughs halfway through, and then again near the end of the speech. (The photo above shows him greeting members of parliament just before it.)

Let's suppose that the astrologer's prediction turns out to be true. Past experience, shaped by Burma's tradition of personalized rule and weak institutions, suggests that we are likely to see the rise of hardliners and an intense power rivalry within the regime. Though Thein Sein has officiallydenied that there are any opponents of reform in the administration, several government insiders have told me and other observers that there are elements within the regime who are not happy with the president's course. Apparently they have even tried to bring the former dictator Than Shwe back into play as a way of foiling or at least slowing down the reform process.

That is why Aung San Suu Kyi recently cautioned that the reforms are not irreversible: "Ultimate power still rests with the army so until we have the army solidly behind the process of democratization we cannot say that we have got to a point where there will be no danger of a U-turn."

If the death of a key player complicates Burma's fragile political transition, a number of scenarios are possible: splits or purges, the emergence of a new autocrat, military intervention, or a popular uprising. Worse still, these scenarios are not mutually exclusive.

As long as reform in Burma is based on personalities rather than institutions, any abrupt change at the top can trigger instability. We probably don't need any astrologers to understand that, though. Reading history ought to be enough.