Despite its many promises of reform, Burma’s ruling junta has no intention of giving up political control
For more than a decade, Burma’s military government has convened its constitution-drafting body, the National Convention, in fits and starts that have left the country and outside observers skeptical about its commitment to political reform.
It was in this spirit, at least in theory, that the State Peace and Development Council, the ruling junta, and then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt promoted the so-called “seven-step roadmap to democracy” in 2003.
This seemingly new vision of political reform, however, was just another step by the generals to reinvent their role in the country’s political process—something they’ve done since the current crop of dictators seized control in 1988.
But the process of reinvention raised numerous concerns, including what version of the junta’s facts can be believed. The only point on which the junta has been consistent over the years is that it will always play a central role in defining and controlling the country’s political institutions.
In 1988, Gen Khin Nyunt, then secretary-1 of the SPDC’s predecessor, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, outlined the short-term political role of the military to a group of foreign military attachés in Rangoon. “Elections will be held as soon as law and order have been restored and the Tatmadaw (armed forces) will then hand over state power to the party which wins.”
The 1990 elections saw a landslide victory for the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy. But instead of being allowed to assume power, as Khin Nyunt had promised, NLD candidates were imprisoned and the election results were ignored.
The NLD has been effectively ignored ever since, leading many observers to question whether it has any viable political future. The party’s withdrawal from the National Convention in 1995—amid charges that the proceedings were undemocratic—further distanced the NLD from political developments.
But political developments have clearly been dominated by the military in an effort to protect its power in any future civilian government.
Order 1/90, issued by Khin Nyunt in July 1990, said “…under the present circumstances the representatives elected by the people are those who have the responsibility to draw up the constitution of a future democratic State.”
The order added: “It is hardly necessary to clarify the fact that a political party cannot automatically obtain the three aspects of State power – legislative power, executive power and judicial power – just because a Pyithu Hluttaw (people’s assembly) has come into being.”
Having changed the rules of the game, the junta brutally suppressed the NLD election winners and party members in the months following the order.
Its intentions became even clearer in 1992 when it formed the National Convention Convening Committee, comprising mostly military officers and handpicked government officials and operating under six basic principles—the last of which ensured that the military would occupy a prominent “national political leadership role” in the future.
The following year, the junta created the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a mass pseudo-social organization that has been positioned to become a future military-backed civilian political organization. The group claims more than 20 million members and is led by senior ministers under the supervision of junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
The SPDC is known to have studied Indonesia’s dwifungsi doctrine adopted in 1966, which grants a dual role for the military in politics and defense.