The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Burma’s Rigged Road Map to Democracy

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.”

On January 9, 1990, less than five months before general elections were held, then-junta chief Snr-Gen Saw Maung said in a speech to government leaders: “We have spoken about the matter of state power. As soon as the election is held, form a government according to law and then take power. An election has to be held to bring forth government—that is our responsibility. But the actual work of forming a legal government after the election is not the duty of the Tatmadaw. We are saying it very clearly and candidly right now.”

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. Under the current version of the draft constitution, Burma’s military has reserved 25 percent of parliamentary seats for candidates appointed by the commander-in-chief of the military.


The USDA was also patterned o­n an Indonesian institution, the Golkar—a purportedly apolitical body formed in 1964 with the backing of senior army officers and now the largest political party in the country.

Burma’s generals have been plagued by strife in the country’s ethnic areas for decades. For a successful transition to a civilian-led government, stronger bonds would need to be forged with the country’s several armed ethnic opposition parties, some of whom have boycotted the National Convention.

In this respect, China has served as a model for the possible creation of autonomous regions for ethnic minorities and the apportioning of administrative rights.

According to o­ne exiled Burmese political analyst with close ties to Chinese officials, Beijing has played a substantial role in nudging Burma to complete its constitution. Lt-Gen Thein Sein, chairman of the convention’s Convening Committee, flew to the Chinese capital in June with a large delegation that stayed o­n after his departure to study China’s constitutional model.

China has granted certain constitutional protections to various ethnic groups living in autonomous regions. The exiled analyst suggests that Burma could adopt a similar model in an effort to end hostilities in ethnic regions.

It is also likely, he says, that Beijing will play a mediating role between Naypyidaw and ethnic rebels living along the China-Burma border.

Burma’s military leaders want to disarm the country’s ethnic ceasefire groups before any future elections, but matters could become further complicated if they attempt to do so without compromise. With a new constitution in place and the promise of elections, the junta could not afford a return to civil war.

The junta claims to have reached peace agreements with 17 ethnic groups, but this official tally does not include numerous armed splinter groups operating along the Thai-Burmese border.

Despite so-called peace agreements, the ceasefire groups do not trust the regime and are unlikely to give up their arms. But it is vital that they form viable political parties and stake a claim to any future elections.

What the future holds for the NLD—and what role it might play in future elections—remains unclear. Some observers suggest that the junta could move to outlaw the party.

But the party’s leader, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to hold substantial political clout and has been a thorn in the side of the regime for almost two decades, despite the fact that she did not even contest the 1990 elections. She was placed under house arrest in 1989.

Her role in any future civilian government in Burma is also a matter of considerable speculation, particularly because of her marriage to a foreign national, British scholar Michael Aris, which, according to the junta, bars her from ever becoming Burma’s head of state.

The National Convention’s draft charter says: “The President of the Union shall be a person who has been residing continuously in the country for at least 20 years up to the time of the election and the President of the Union himself, parents, spouse, children and their spouses shall not owe allegiance to a foreign power, shall not be a subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country. They shall not be persons entitled to the rights and privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign country.”

Despite the junta’s endless rhetoric about a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” it will always have a stake in political institutions as long as the country is forced to play by its rules.

But Suu Kyi and the NLD cannot be entirely counted out. Whatever else they might signify, they are permanent reminders of the results of the last free elections. Than Shwe knows that in order to push through his tainted road map, he must sideline them permanently. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest and cannot effectively lead her party.

SPDC Secretary-1 Lt-Gen Thein Sein in late June reiterated the junta’s promise that power will be handed over to a civilian government after the election of parliamentary representatives and the formation of a parliament and cabinet.

The junta may feel the road ahead is clear. But as long as armed ethnic minorities continue to demand autonomy and a federalized Burma, any hope the junta might have that the road ahead will be free of obstacles would be misplaced.

Adding Up Burma’s Future

By Htet Aung

What’s in a number? A great deal, if you ask Burma’s ruling generals. The announcement that the National Convention would reconvene for its final session o­n July 18 might seem ordinary o­n its face. But simple addition reveals something more. The individual digits 1 and 8 add to 9.

The country’s ruling elites believe the number 9 brings luck and good fortune. In the past, they have scheduled major political or policy announcements for times and days that correspond to the number 9.

The coup that brought the current dictators to power occurred o­n September 18, 1988. Again, the digits 1 and 8 add to 9.The 1990 elections were held o­n May 27. The digits 2 and 7 make 9. The government’s Order 1/90 announcing the drafting of a new constitution was made o­n July 27. Do the math.

Coincidence, some might say. Perhaps, but the number of members in the National Convention’s Convening Committee, Working Committee and Management Committee are 18, 27 and 36, respectively. All digits add to the lucky number 9.

One more, just for good measure. The first session of the National Convention convened o­n January 9, 1993, and exactly 702 delegates were invited.

Many of the generals, particularly the late dictator Gen Ne Win, followed the advice of astrologers and mystical “number crunchers” to divine the fate of the country or to seek personal goals of power or fortune. o­n the advice of his personal astrologer, Ne Win replaced the country’s 25, 35 and 75 kyat banknotes with alternates in the denominations of 45 and 90—to devastating economic effect in 1987. He issued the order to do so in September, the ninth month of the year.

Perhaps junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe believes the number 9 will help legitimize his lust for power in a state constitution; o­nly time will tell how those numbers will add up for the country’s opposition and the international community.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |