One Year Later: Bogus Election Offers Some Hope
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One Year Later: Bogus Election Offers Some Hope

By THE IRRAWADDY Monday, November 7, 2011


One year ago today, Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s former military regime orchestrated a general election that all objective observers agreed was neither free nor fair. Ironically, this sham election and Than Shwe’s concurrent efforts to protect himself and maintain the military’s grip on power created an environment where the small steps toward reform that are taking place today became possible.

The real question is where the country goes from here, because the true test of the sincerity of President Thein Sein and his fellow “reformers” will be whether they institute more meaningful and irreversible reforms that put real political and economic power into the hands of the Burmese people, where it belongs.

But in order to understand the direction that Burma might possibly head in the coming year and beyond—and how that direction might be influenced to ensure that it is a positive one—it is helpful to quickly review where the country currently stands and how it got here.

The November 2010 election was shunned by Burma’s main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and was widely condemned as a farce. The 2008 Constitution handed the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and the election was rigged in almost every conceivable way to make certain that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would dominate the open seats.

In the end, the USDP “won” more than 80 percent of the seats it competed for, and together with the military it placed ex-general and ex-regime prime minister Thein Sein, who was Than Shwe’s hand-picked candidate, in the post of president.

When the smoke from the election had settled and the new government was entirely formed, only Than Shwe and his second in command, Gen Maung Aye, had officially stepped aside—all of the other junta leaders remained in direct positions of power, be it wearing civilian or military garb. For example, the current president, first vice-president, and speakers of both the upper and lower house of Parliament were all leading members of the former regime, as were most members of Thein Sein’s cabinet.

So when Thein Sein gave a series of speeches after being sworn in that signaled the adoption of a reform agenda which included an anti-poverty and anti-corruption campaign, along with a “good governance” agenda, most observers were understandably skeptical and wondered whether any real action would follow the president’s words—after all, the Burmese opposition had heard these words many times before, and nothing had ever happened.

But then some small but positive things did begin to happen. Certain press restrictions were eased, Martyr’s Day and International Day of Democracy ceremonies were allowed, Internet website bans were lifted and Suu Kyi met with a government liaison. These steps were followed by even more significant moves, when Suu Kyi met face-to-face with Thein Sein, the president suspended work on the Myitsone Dam project and a small number of political prisoners were released. More intangibly, but still very importantly, people in Rangoon and some other major cities began to feel less fear about speaking more openly about politics.

The international community has praised these reforms while urging the government leaders to take more meaningful and concrete steps. Several Western government representatives have visited Burma recently, including the US special representative for Burma, Derek Mitchell, who said that his talks with government leaders were constructive, candid and frank.

According to his latest press briefing, Mitchell has been able to raise important issues that the regime in the past had been reluctant at best to discuss, including armed conflicts in the ethnic region and the plight of the conflict’s victims. But Burma’s current leaders need to demonstrate the political will to solve the decades old ethnic conflict and to make a long-lasting peace underpinned by political solutions, rather than putting band-aids on the deep-seated tensions with temporary ceasefires.

Outside of Burma, the US has remained a leading player in shaping Burma policy and actively advocating for change, and high-ranking US officials, including Mitchell, have now held several rounds of talks with Burmese government representatives in Washington and Naypyidaw. The US has maintained its sanctions, but has said that it is ready to “respond in kind” if Burma makes genuine democratic reforms and halts human rights abuses.

Inside of Burma, Suu Kyi—who in the past has been a strident critic of the regime, was personally barred from contesting in the 2010 election and who advised the NLD not to contest—has said she believes that Thein Sein is straightforward and sincere and has sent generally positive signals since their face-to-face meeting.

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Ohn Wrote:
They should appreciate they lose respect by putting importance loudly about the political prisoners which are easily producible (and the prisoners did it consciously and bravely) before the above issues where the innocent people's sufferings and livelihood are involved.

In my way, these are what I meant to convey rather than the existence of people in the army ready to change side if they sense the other side is winning. I have no doubt. Such people join the army in the first place.

Ohn Wrote:
I have no idea about the psychology and politics. But the biggest failing of NLD is not being able to show consistent vision and leadership rather than to collude with the Military or not.

They should have been steadfast in denouncing violence of any sort on anybody all the time consistently as it happens rather than some esoteric philosophical abstract musings. They should be championing the cause of the largest and the most oppressed section of the population, the farmers loudly and consistently. In this example the military has consistently given the appearance of religious piety, fake but effective. They used it only yesterday.

Ohn Wrote:
Thanks for pointing that out, Erik.

I concede that even the army is not monolithic. But some sure are united by collective fear of reprisals for their own theft, cruelty and dishonesty. The new comers, like the students in military universities, of course are united in the desire to reap the benefit of the winning side ignoring the cruelty meted out by their benefactors to their own population.

I am sure when the time changes, there will be people queuing to say how they tried to stop killing the monks, for example. But go around and ask now. You will find nobody trying to stop the inhumane rape and torture of innocent people as it happens every single day. That is unity.

In my comment, I was trying to emphasize that Thein Sein and Tin Aung Myint Oo are simply left hand and right hand of Than Shwe. That's all. They each happen to say the script as they get it and as we have seen, they are doing a swell job.

Erik Wrote:
Ohn wrote: "There are no hard liner or soft liner or any liner except in pseudo-academic imagination. They are all equally cruel torturers and theives and accomplished liers."

That's about the silliest thing you could write. Even in the army there are loads of people who aren't and weren't happy with the regime, but were afraid to say so.

The army isn't a monolithic bloc. And the opposition isn't either (you have hardliners like Win Tin and soft liners like Khin Maung Shwe in the opposition, right?)

If you want to deal with the current situation efficiently you should start by understanding the composition of the regime and why they are doing stuff like they do it. And then respond in such a way that they feel it suits there aims if they give you something...

The opposition would've achieved much more the last twenty years if they operated with the psychology of the generals in mind instead of only focusing on their own demands.

A.M.O Wrote:
Well, when US President Obama was visiting India last year, he accused Gen Than Shwe's regime of stealing an election; and he was right in saying this. So Gen Than Shwe is a thief !

Consequently, Gen Thein Sein's Cabinet of ministers could be dubbed as thieves as they are the ones who had accepted a stolen property- '1990 Election' ! Isn't it ?

Myanmar Patriots Wrote:
To Erik,
We have known all along.

Ohn Wrote:

There are no hard liner or soft liner or any liner except in pseudo-academic imagination. They are all equally cruel torturers and theives and accomplished liers.

Aung San Suu Kyi well do well to remember that Thein Sein was at hand killing the monks before and there are monks currently being killed as we speak, as well as raping and destroying going on incessantly in larger area of the country than ever. How could one heaps praise on these people is beyond understanding.

Ohn Wrote:
This is a thoroughly pathetic lamentation about an invented fantasy for fear of facing the reality.

To start, Thein Sein is NOTHING. He just happens to be there and useful. He is simply the captain of the Titanic. Fortunately for Than Shwe, simply changing the deck chairs on the sinking ship is accruing kudos from the naive and the opportunists.

Than Shwe wants the chair of ASEAN which by the way is totally useless crap anyway and is prepared to throw a few bones and crumbs to the whimping puppies and wannabes. And that has been a runaway success.

Refroming government killing and raping more, stealing the public treasure more, driving more people out of their homes, producing more opium and drugs than ever. True. The list is endless. To call these criminals as reformists would be true only in the parallel universe.

Erik Wrote:
I don't get why you didn't see the reforms coming. When I discussed this whole thing in the summer of 2008 with a senior political friend in Rangoon we both agreed that what would happen was exactly this: finishing of the national convention, allow political parties, let the NLD expel itself, have bogus elections, and then 5 years of reforms to prepare electorally for somewhat freer elections in 2015, with the army (read: Than Shwe) all the while being safe from prosecution.

Another indicator that something was up were the large scale privatizations, which showed that the army expect to lose grip on the economy somewhere in the near future...

So don't act surprised now. You should've told your readers this was going to happen.

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