The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
The Man with the Plan
By YENI NOVEMBER, 2010 - VOL.18, NO.11

As Burma’s first election in 20 years approaches, the country’s dictator, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, is busy putting the finishing touches on his plans to renew his regime’s lease on life under a civilian veneer.

The Nov. 7 election, part of the junta’s “road map to disciplined democracy,” will take the country a step closer to permanent military domination, both by putting into effect a Constitution that guarantees 25 percent of the seats in parliament to military appointees and by excluding or marginalizing any credible democratic opposition. 

Most of the work has been done: The Constitution, more than a decade in the making, was approved in a referendum in 2008, as the country’s most populous region was still reeling from the effects of the worst natural disaster in its recorded history. Even as it was struggling to come to terms with the loss of more than 140,000 lives to Cyclone Nargis, 98 percent of the nation supposedly voted—92 percent in favor of the Constitution—despite very little evidence of a significant turnout at polling stations.

Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. (Photo: MMM/The Irrawaddy)
Pulling off a similar feat in November will, however, be much more difficult than rigging a simple for-or-against referendum. The choices will be more complex, and despite every effort to harass or hamstring opposition parties, there is always the possibility that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will suffer humiliating losses in key urban and predominantly ethnic constituencies, where anti-regime resentment runs deepest.

That is why the junta has spared no effort in mobilizing the state’s resources to ensure that the USDP enjoys substantial support at the polls, including everything from providing cheap loans and paving roads in the name of the USDP to instructing local authorities to intimidate opposition parties and their supporters.

Making all of this possible is the Union Election Commission (EC), a body staffed entirely with Than Shwe loyalists. The EC has not only turned a blind eye to blatant abuses of normal election laws, such as those banning misuse of public property to benefit the government-backed party—it has also come up with laws that make it a serious crime for opposition parties to campaign openly or criticize their opponents.

The EC has also taken a firm stand against allowing international observers into the country on election day, signaling that Than Shwe is not about to let down his guard until a victory for the USDP has been secured. 

But Than Shwe’s most active role in carrying out his well-laid plan to appoint junta-friendly successors has been in traveling throughout the region to ensure that his closest neighbors and allies are on board to accept the outcome of the election, no matter how lacking in legitimacy the entire process has been.

Since his July visit to New Delhi, Than Shwe has toured the friendly capitals of Beijing and Vientiane, engaging in the sort of charm offensive that reveals just how adaptable this normally dour strongman can be when circumstances demand it.

In India, he visited Buddhist holy sites with his wife and signed deals to enhance economic and cultural ties. In China, he took his whole family—and his government-in-waiting—along for the trip, again combining business and pleasure: When he wasn’t meeting Communist Party heavyweights such as Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao, he was shopping in Shanghai or touring Shenzhen to “learn from China’s experiences of reform.”

Laos had fewer attractions, but was able to provide what Than Shwe came for: an endorsement of the election from a fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. That, at least, was what Burma’s state-run press took away from the visit: Laos’ own official English-language newspaper, The Vientiane Times, barely mentioned the Burmese election.

Even in New Delhi and Beijing, Laos support for the election was less than resounding. India, a onetime supporter of Burma’s pro-democracy movement now more intent on acquiring what it can of the country’s resources before China takes them all, struck a neutral note. In a statement, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs thanked the Burmese side “for the detailed briefing [on the election] and emphasized the importance of comprehensively broad-basing the national reconciliation process and democratic changes being introduced in Myanmar [Burma].”

China, for its part, simply told the West to mind its own business. At a press conference on Sept. 7, Chinese spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “We hope the international community can provide constructive help to the upcoming election and refrain from making any negative impact on the domestic political process and regional peace and stability.”

This was good enough for Than Shwe, who knows that all he really needs to get the job done is a free hand to do as he pleases inside Burma without having to worrying too much about negative repercussions beyond its borders. This was why, when visiting Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva attempted to convey other countries’ doubts about the credibility of the election during his trip to Burma on Oct. 11, Than Shwe told him he was “aware of the concerns, but did not want any outside help.”

With this cloud of neutrality now surrounding Burma’s election, Than Shwe can now proceed to declare victory, as long as he maintains his grip on the situation inside the country. He knows now that even in the distant West, he has allies who, while they don’t actually support him, are willing to let him win this one, if only so he’ll go away and make room for a new generation of leaders.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |