The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
How the Game Was Lost
By ADAM SELENE Thursday, March 1, 2012

Yesterday, The Irrawaddy speculated on the possibility of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi being offered a role in government after the by-elections on April 1 [“Is Suu Kyi Heading for a Cabinet Position?”]. As has been the case for years within opposition and (foreign) activist circles, the political developments described in this piece are measured against democratic ideals and demands that are in themselves just, but, frankly speaking, irrelevant to the decisions that have been made by Burma's army leadership.

The possible ministerial role of the Lady is portrayed by The Irrawaddy as a reward for her political standing by soft liners within the Burmese military. I would argue, however, that such a move could rather be seen as yet another way for the army to use Suu Kyi for its own benefit.
The fact that reforms are currently underway is because the goals of the army partly overlap those of the opposition. Deepening poverty led to unrest in 1988 and 2007. Developing the economy is necessary to prevent further political instability, but can only be achieved by placating the West through democratic reforms. The sanctions have to be removed for Burma to flourish again. This will at the same time result in less dependence on China—another goal of the Tatmadaw. To summarize: the army wants political stability through development, as well as personal security (which is guaranteed by the Constitution) and protection of its economic stakes (which it achieved through the selling off of state property to a handful of business cronies on a large scale in 2010/2011). We don't have to resort to astrologers to realize that this clique of business friends will return the favor.
Before we get to the point of Suu Kyi being offered a cabinet post, let us first take one step back, to the strategic error which ultimately led to the Lady being checkmated.

We all remember the heated debates within the NLD in the run up to the November 2010 elections. The NLD decided not to register and voluntarily left the playing field—a blunder for which it is paying the price now. What would’ve happened if the NLD had instead played along? There are two possible scenarios. In the first, the regime would have found an excuse to kick the NLD out. This would have meant that the the outcome of the elections would not have been acceptable to the West and Asean. In the second scenario, the NLD would have taken part and the regime would have been forced to allow the NLD a larger share of Parliament seats than it allowed the National Democratic Front and the Democratic Party.
But that is not what happened. What happened was that the NLD left through the backdoor.
Suddenly, the party was surprised by a president who started to reform. Continuing to stay on the sidelines posed the very real danger of the NLD withering away or being overtaken by opposition parties who were willing to play ball. This cold realization ultimately forced the party back into the game, under bad conditions. Entering the system again means that the NLD will legitimize the government internationally without getting any real power in return. Even if the party wins all the seats that are up for grabs, it will still only be a very small minority. If the by-elections are free and fair—which the government can easily afford for them to be—the sanctions will be lifted, which means Suu Kyi will lose her main trump card and much of her international influence.

All of this tells me that the NLD keeps looking at the political reality through the lens of its own ideals and demands, instead of trying to understand what motivates the Tatmadaw and to strategically get a step ahead of the opponent.
Now let's get back to the question of a cabinet post for Suu Kyi. Will the army absorb her in government? Sure, if the generals are in their right minds, they will offer her a job at the speed of light. Why? Because it is the easiest way to diffuse the danger and dampen her popularity. If Suu Kyi is allowed to join the ranks of government, she will get a difficult ministry—health or education—while at the same time the military-dominated Parliament will make sure she never gets the budget she needs to really achieve anything. They will make her fail. She will lose much of her aura in this way.

At the same time, President Thein Sein and his colleagues at key ministries will take popular measures that have an impact on the daily lives of many Burmese. Thein Sein has proven himself to be a shrewd politician. He is already jockeying for position with the next elections in mind. In three years time he will have some real progress to show for. And the promise of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi will have faded away after a brief and unproductive stint in government.
Let's face it, Suu Kyi has been outplayed. Like the Romans used to placate the people with bread and games, the army has used Suu Kyi, her influence in the West, and her immense popularity for its own strategic means, while at the same time making the Burmese people happy by projecting the illusion of the Lady being a real player.
I personally hope that the more strategically gifted politicians of the 88 Generation group—notably, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi—who are now waiting in the wings will soon be at the helm of the opposition. It’s about time the former generals get some opponents of their own caliber to play with.

Adam Selene is a journalist based in Bangkok. He has frequently visited Burma for more than 12 years now and has written two books on Burmese affairs. The opinions expressed in this guest commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Irrawaddy.

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