The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Escaping the Traps of the Past
By MIN ZIN NOVEMBER, 2010 - VOL.18, NO.11

Although Burma’s upcoming Nov. 7 election will not resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis or provide much-needed reforms, one should not be blind to the fact that the election will have consequences—whether negative or positive. Political actors who either participate in or boycott the election will bear the aftershocks of this event. Political players will not be able to write their political plans on a blank slate. Instead, they have to work with what is at hand.

The 2010 election will contribute to changes in the format of governance—the transformation of the one-dimensional military junta into a hybrid form of government that includes both political and military elements. Regardless of who pulls the strings, this could lead to either a serious internal split or the utter inefficiency of the ruling body.

Leadership of the NDF, including chairman Khin Maung Swe. (Photo: MMM/The Irrawaddy)
A recent major reshuffle within the Burmese military reportedly included the appointment of the future commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief, although the top two generals who have long occupied these positions—Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, respectively—have retained their military titles. Interestingly, the junta’s third- and fourth-ranking generals, Gen Shwe Mann and Lt-Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo, both quit their military positions and adopted civilian titles, according to state media reports.

If this reshuffle indicates that Than Shwe has made a pre-mortem succession arrangement by installing an heir apparent and investing him with considerable power to manage the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, the opposition and its advocates should celebrate this development as good news for two reasons.

First, this transition is an inter-generational succession, unlike the intra-generational shift from Saw Maung to Than Shwe in 1992. For the departing Than Shwe to continue to control the political role of the Tatmadaw and call the shots for key policy decisions, he needs to create a formal position for himself and leave the army chief position to a successor who is not only loyal but also weak.

Temporarily, at least, this could mean a disruption of personalized power among the military top brass—something that the opposition could seize upon as an opportunity to reformulate a new and positive dynamic of civil-military relations. It is particularly significant that this will occur within the context of a transition from military to hybrid rule. Unlike one-party rule and the closed socialist economy under former dictator Ne Win, the new hybrid political arrangement and market economy will make it difficult for the departing leaders to control the military completely, especially when the role of Than Shwe fades away due to a decline in his health or other causes.

Second, if Than Shwe is confident enough to assume the role of president in the aftermath of the election and dedicates more of his energies to overseeing the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), it will give the military a chance to gradually detach itself from past wrongdoings and renew the integrity of the institution.

We have seen attempts by the military to break with the past before. For instance, as retired Lt-Gen Chit Swe revealed in his memoir, some senior officers who took part in the 1988 coup wanted to dissociate themselves from the failures of the defunct Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), noting that the massive popular uprising of that year was directed at ruling socialist party politicians, not the army.

Thus the military’s claims to a distinct corporate identity could allow it to distance itself even from soldiers-turned-politicians if the new government faces a crisis of legitimacy. If the Tatmadaw was able to part ways from the ruling party following the socialist era, when all soldiers were technically party members, it can certainly assume a distinct role from the USDP, which is set to become as ideologically vacuous and deeply hated as the BSPP.

Such a change in the Tatmadaw’s power dynamic in the post-election period could open the way for a new civil-military relationship. Thus the election could prove consequential for the opposition, particularly the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

In this context, it is important to note that although the NLD decision not to contest the election was probably the right one, the party was wrong not to diversify its pro-democracy struggle and avoid an internal split by setting up or at least allowing a proxy party to exist. Unfortunately, without Suu Kyi, the other NLD leaders seem incapable of articulating or implementing any political program or strategy. They often seem narrowly focused on party survival, merely biding their time until Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest without having any further agenda.

With Suu Kyi at the helm, the party appears to have some direction, but it is still prone to poor political timing. Since rising to prominence as the leader of the democratic opposition, Suu Kyi has made a number of unfortunate judgment calls that have had lasting consequences.

These include her direct confrontation with former dictator Ne Win in 1989, at a time when he still wielded considerable power behind the scenes; her premature public disclaimer that she was not making any secret deals with the regime soon after holding talks with Than Shwe in 1994; her announcement of plans to boycott the National Convention less than two months after a visit by then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1995, raising the regime’s suspicions of a conspiracy and hindering future trust-building efforts and possible negotiations; and her decision in 2003 to travel at night through hostile areas, including Depayin, despite warnings of possible violent attacks. Although Suu Kyi and her party are certainly not responsible for the regime’s subsequent actions on these occasions, these examples of past missteps do serve to illustrate the lack of strategic thinking on the part of the NLD and its leader.

Despite its history of misjudgments and recent forcible disbandment, however, the NLD remains a potent force in Burmese politics. For its part, the junta seems content to contain the party’s influence ahead of the election, while the NLD itself also appears to be in a holding pattern, waiting for Suu Kyi’s release, which is scheduled to take place less than a week after the election.

Thus both sides are strangely in synch, for the most part avoiding open confrontation while no doubt anticipating a future showdown.

Again, however, this approach betrays the NLD’s weakness at formulating plans of action that are likely to lead to real results. In this case, the price of losing sight of the potential for marginal gains, including additional opportunities to reach out to the public, recruit new members and mobilize resources, could be even greater than in the past.

By failing to offer an alternative to the regime’s relentless drive to legitimize itself under the guise of elections, the party risks losing its moral authority as the leading light of the democracy movement, without which it has precious little in the way of political capital. Although two decades of absolute military rule have been far from kind to the NLD, there’s no reason to believe that the messy post-election political scene, which will likely be fraught with political violence, corruption and political alliances between crooks, cronies and accused war criminals, will be any kinder. By taking a “purity-seeking” stance, the party could find itself in the wilderness of permanent opposition status for many more years to come.

Of course, the NLD is not alone in facing some hard choices at this juncture in Burmese history. The parties that have opted to contest the election are also going to have to navigate their way carefully around the many pitfalls that still await them. The ethnic parties are in a particularly precarious situation, as their efforts to win a place at the table come amid a deteriorating security situation that threatens to throw Burma back to the bad old days of life before the multitude of cease-fire agreements that have been in place for most of the past two decades. Even if these deals hold and the ethnic parties win a few seats in parliament, elected leaders will be hard-pressed to improve the lot of their constituents in an environment where military-owned businesses, junta cronies, foreign investors and ethnic drug lords and elites plunder natural resources without regard for the long-term needs of ordinary citizens.

The international community will also have to decide where it stands on the outcome of the election. At the moment, it looks like most countries will simply fall back on their established positions, with perhaps some softening of the stances of a few longstanding Western critics of the regime. Unless all countries concerned are somehow able to reach a consensus on where Burma should be heading after the election, however, continuing division will stand in the way of the sort of decisive action that will be needed to move things forward.

The Burmese political scene, in short, may be similar to a living museum, in which military domination, a hybrid parliamentary “talking shop,” thuggish political violence, kleptocracy, contained Balkanization, gulags and committed struggle by principled dissidents will exist and operate in multiple levels of conflict. Under such circumstances, the possibility of a collapse of Burma’s polity due to implosion or explosion can’t be ruled out. Of course, it is not desirable, as the country will descend into a bloodbath and anarchy.

Ultimately, however, Burma’s future direction will remain, in the near term at least, largely in the hands of its current rulers. But if the generals believe that a USDP “victory” will give them a mandate to stifle real change indefinitely, they are seriously mistaken. Just as the past cannot be erased, the future is also not to be denied. And the future belongs to those who learn from their mistakes and adapt accordingly—not those who consider themselves permanently entitled to dictate the fate of an entire nation. 

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist living in exile.

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