Friday, September 3, 2010

Myanmar - shifting to military democracy?

The Daily Star, September 4th., 2010
M.Serajul Islam

THE military leaders of Myanmar through a brief radio broadcast have announced elections to the parliament on November 7th. Political parties have been given time till the end of the month to submit their list of candidates. Earlier, the military regime had tactfully ensured that Nobel Laureate Aung Saan Suu Kyi was kept out of the contest by extending her house arrest till November 2010. To the regime's satisfaction, the extension led Aung's National Democratic League (NLD) to decide against registering for the elections that resulted in the party being banned. The NLD opted against registering to give the international community the clear message that the next elections would be anything but a new strategy to entrench the power of the military.

In fact, international opinion has concurred with Aung who had led the NLD to a decisive victory in Myanmar's last polls held 20 years ago only to be denied power and kept under house arrest for 14 years since that victory. There are also many other visible signs to suggest that the ruling military is ready for nothing short of continuing with their stranglehold on power, albeit under a civilian facade. First, 166 of the 498 seats would be reserved for the military. Second, ahead of the elections by a well laid out policy a substantial number, including the Premier, resigned from the military to contest the elections. Third, the military has already left no one in doubt that its civilian extension in the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) whose members are all beneficiaries of the military junta and obliged to allow military dominance for their own sake. Thein Sein now leads the USDP to make the linkage more than obvious.

At least 40 political parties have registered to contest the elections of which a breakaway faction of the NLD naming itself the National Democratic Force is one. Most of these parties are small and have regional or limited agenda. The western nations, led by the United States have expressed deep reservations about the polls. As part of President Obama's policy of engagement with regimes such as the one in Myanmar, US Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell visited Myanmar twice in six months, the last one in May this year, the first such senior official to visit Myanmar in 14 years. Then he met Premier Thein Sein and Aang Saan Suu Kyi. He returned deeply disappointed with the country's preparations for the elections. The United Nations has also expressed similar concerns. UN Secretary General Baan Kin Moon has called on the Myanmar military junta to keep its commitments to hold a credible and transparent election for transition from military rule to democracy.

There have also been news, unconfirmed as yet, that the top military leaders of Myanmar General Than Shwe with the next two Generals, Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann of the 12 member State Peace and Development Council have resigned from the military. The resignations that are now inevitable are in anticipation that the next parliament would elect General Than Shwe as the President and the other two Generals as the Vice-President and Premier. If the resignations are true and the three generals hold those anticipated posts, then the military would have a full proof mechanism in place for any civilian government to even dare to challenge the military's dominance. Meanwhile, there has been the biggest reshuffle in the military since General Shwe became the top General more than two decades ago and has held the country by the scruff of the neck ever since. More than 70 senior army officers have been involved in this reshuffle that has been strategically made by General Shwe to assure the military's loyalty once he leaves the military to become the country's President.

Those who are interested in looking for a silver lining in the cloud argue that it would not be correct to dismiss the forthcoming elections straightaway. They further argue that the elections would bring into politics, leaders from the new generation who would be able to motivate the aging military leaders about the need to move gradually towards genuine democracy. They also feel that within the military as new generation of leaders take charge; there would be able to influence the military's mindset in line with changes and realities of the contemporary world. Finally, they also feel that this is the most sincere and realistic offer by the Generals to cede absolute power.

The results of the elections are hardly anyone's concern. The military backed USDP will win the elections convincingly and form the Government. This is why there is seemingly no obstacle being created by the military in the way of freedom of the candidates to move freely in the country, something not usual in Myanmar. The main concern is how those who would be leaving the military's top positions to become the country's top political leaders and parliamentarians share power with the new leadership in the military. General Shwe has just not ruled Myanmar with an iron fist; he also had to tackle conflicts within the army as well. In 2004, he had to sack the Premier. He rose from an ordinary postman to become the most powerful man in his country. He has also reportedly acquired significant wealth together with earning wrath of the silent opposition as well as Myanmar's diverse ethnic groups that his regime has subdued ruthlessly to have an enormous personal stake in the way Myanmar transforms politically. The aging strong man who is 77 and his close colleagues who are not young either, under considerable world pressure for democratic change, thought time to be opportune to share power with civilian groups who have grown rich under their sponsorship and ready to accept the dominance of the military even under future civilian rule. The military is also wary that without some concessions, Myanmar's economy and condition of the people that are in dire straits could lead to new spate of mass uprisings. Despite all the full proof measures to assure continued military dominance, General Shwe and his Generals who are known to be “notoriously superstitious” chose the date of the election by invoking astrology so as to leave nothing to chance!

In effect what would be taking place in Myanmar through the 7th November elections is a transition of the top military leaders to top civilian posts; from pure military dictatorship to military led democracy. In fact, as a civilian President, General Than Shwe has no reason to apprehend in the short run any challenge to his authority from the elected Government. His main and perhaps only apprehension would be how those he would be putting in charge of the military would treat him when he says goodbye to his military uniform for civilian outfit. The history of such transformation has not been good for military dictators where eventually democracy has won. That gives hope that history could repeat itself in Myanmar.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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