Friday, April 30, 2010

In Burma, a Political Change Like All the Others Before It

Who can argue if I say that Burma is politically stable? I say that half jokingly whenever someone asks about Burma’s politics. Indeed, it’s not incorrect.

Look at its neighbor, Thailand, which is politically and economically several decades ahead of Burma. Political turmoil of different colors — the Red Shirts, the Yellow Shirts, the multi-colored shirts—is sweeping over Thailand and destabilizing the country. It looks like a simmering civil war. The Burmese generals would call it “anarchy.”

Burma is seen as a Banana Republic, but, after 1988, you seldom see coups and volatile political situations — everything goes along in accord with the generals’ will: their rule, their laws and their orders.

The generals have never allowed antigovernment protests to go on for weeks or months, to close airports or shopping centers, to build enough momentum to destabilize “the peace and order.”

As an example, look at the 2007 monk-led demonstrations. Within a week or so, the ruling military regime had shot, beat up and arrested hundreds of monks and citizens, including journalists. The protest was quickly over; “tranquility” was restored.

Look at Burma’s modern history. The country has been ruled by one government since 1962. Today’s government is “the great grandson” of the military regime which staged the 1962 coup led by Gen Ne Win. Since then, there have been six governments, really in name only:

Ne Win called his regime the Revolutionary Council and in 1974, it was transformed into the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” officially called the Burma Socialist Program Party. The socialist regime was toppled by the 1988 people uprising, Ne Win handed over power to former Brig-Gen Sein Lwin who was known as the “Butcher” for his brutal suppression of successive student-led demonstrations since 1962. He ruled the country only for 17 days. The power then went to Dr Maung Maung, the only civilian president, who was loyal to Ne Win. He lasted only a few weeks. In September 1988, the current regime assumed (not really a coup) power under the name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council. In 1997, the regime was renamed the State Peace and Development Council.

That’s a lot of different names, but in essence it’s just a string of like-minded military generals in charge of the government.

How about Burma’s future, especially after the upcoming election?

There are hints. In Parliament, 25 percent of the seats will be given to military appointees by the junta, according to the 2008 constitution. To block real democracy in Parliament, there are the recent electoral laws and regulations, which are designed to keep political parties under tight control.

That’s why the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, unanimously decided not to register the party to contest the election. One positive consequence for the generals is that they don’t have to worry that the NLD will sweep the elections like in 1990.

The NLD decision by detained pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was a blow to the credibility of the junta’s election, but beyond triggering international criticism it won’t have much impact on Burma’s politics.

Let’s look at another authoritarian state, Sudan. The United States recognized the recent election victory by the party of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The United States said it would engage with the new government even though the electoral process was not judged to be free or fair.

State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley said this week, “It did not, broadly speaking, meet international standards,” but “I think we recognize that the election is a very important step.”

Maybe the United States sees a flawed election as better than no election. If so, how about its stand on Burma and its statements regarding the junta’s election — calling for it to be inclusive, free and fair and for the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners prior to the election?

We all know those demands will not be met. And like in the Sudan, will Burma’s election be recognized, no matter how rigged or corrupt? Even without Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party participating along with the other main ethnic opposition parties, the election winners are likely to be recognized by the United States and other Western countries.

So, Burma’s future government will be No. 7, which — again — will be a child of all the military governments formed since 1962. The newest government is expected to be a puppet of the current regime. The number will probably be the biggest change.
By Kyaw Zwa Moe managing editor of The Irrawaddy magazine.

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