Thursday, November 4, 2010
Myanmar's election. Slowly, the army eases its grip
An unfair and un-free poll stirs plenty of cynicism. But a political transition may be starting at last
NO MATTER who you vote for, as a wag once wrote, the government always gets in. Nowhere is such cynicism more apposite than in military-ruled Myanmar, formerly Burma, which goes to the polls on November 7th. The elections are the first to be held since 1990, when the opposition won by a landslide. The regime refused to budge, rounded up its critics and annulled the results. Democracy activists howled at these and other cruelties, and Western governments responded by isolating Myanmar’s dictatorship and imposing sanctions, to little effect.
This election should go more smoothly, from the army’s point of view. The playing field is tilted firmly in favour of the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by the prime minister. The USDP has vastly outspent its opponents, most of them puny upstarts put together at short notice with paltry resources.
Parties had to stump up a $500 deposit for each candidate—a year’s wages in Myanmar—so most parties are contesting just a handful of seats. Of the 37 registered parties, only the USDP has nominated candidates for all 1,157 elected seats. The second-largest contender, the National Unity Party (NUP), is stuffed with old faces from the previous junta. To be on the safe side, an additional 25% of seats in local and national parliaments are reserved for military men.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the 1990 election and presumably had a shot at doing well this time, is not standing in protest at the unfair conditions. Its leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest, as she has been for much of the past two decades, though her current term expires on November 13th. Over 2,100 other political detainees, including NLD members, student activists and Buddhist monks, are rotting in jail. Military censors are busy, as ever, with their red pens. No opposition rallies are allowed. This is the sort of “disciplined democracy” beloved of Myanmar’s generals.
Unsurprisingly, the generals have told diplomats that international poll monitors will not be invited in, and nor will foreign journalists, with the exception of accredited local staff. A national referendum held in 2008 to approve a new constitution was equally opaque. It was also a farce. Villages voted en masse, ballots were prewritten and the results were tallied in secret in Naypyidaw, the gaudy new capital. The outcome was a 93% endorsement of a controversial charter. Some in Myanmar fear a repeat performance, as do many Western leaders.
Nonetheless, on the streets of Yangon, the ramshackle former capital (once called Rangoon), politicians are out hustling for votes and eagerly talking up their chances. Weekly newspapers carry extra pages of election coverage. Teashop gossip and foreign radio broadcasts fill in the gaps. This election will not be an exact rerun of the rigged referendum. Ballots will be tallied at individual polling stations, and candidates can send representatives to watch. Unofficial poll monitors will quietly fan out to check for any obvious hanky-panky. At least in urban areas, the voting may be reasonably free of tampering, though polling stations in the countryside, where most voters live, will be much harder to watch.
There is very little free or fair about this election; but, all the same, it offers a path of sorts to political progress. The opposition will gain a legal footing in parliament and in other institutions. The top brass is finally retiring. Unlike the junta, the USDP is not monolithic, and nor is the NUP. Business interests and political calculations, not blind loyalty to a clique of generals, will begin to guide them. Under the constitution, power will be dispersed. The army may slowly ease its stifling grip, provided it does not feel threatened. Leaders of most of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, a crucial element of any political reconciliation, will be around the table. In elected assemblies in their homelands, they may dominate. But others are still fighting the junta or have been politically stymied, sowing the seeds of future friction (see article).
Entrepreneurs and professionals are among those most eager to see a change of government. Some are standing for election, either under the umbrella of large parties or as independents, and pushing a pragmatic line. “We can’t wait any more,” says Phone Win, a doctor who heads Mingalar Myanmar, an aid group. If elected in his Yangon constituency, he says he will focus on health and education reforms. Other moderates in the opposition camp are pinning their hopes on parliament as a forum to air economic issues. They argue that parties can find common ground in drafting economic laws, which require a simple majority to pass. Such legislation can be a “comfort zone” for military loyalists and their opponents, says Tin Maung Thann, a businessman and co-founder of Myanmar Egress, another NGO.
A spoonful of cooking oil
Many residents of Yangon would simply be happy to get electricity. Even posh residential areas and industrial zones are not spared from power cuts that add to the sense of a blacked-out city cut adrift by an army bunkered down in Naypyidaw. Life is not cheap in Myanmar. A clapped-out 1982 Toyota taxi costs as much as $12,000. A permanent SIM card for a mobile phone fetches over $1,000. The profits on these accrue to the junta and its cronies, part of a distorted economy that, far more than Western sanctions, deters potential investors in Myanmar. A torrent of dubious privatisations carried out earlier this year has put even more assets in the hands of these cronies.
While Western companies stay away, Myanmar’s neighbours are less finicky. The government said recently that it had approved plans for foreign direct investment (FDI) worth $16 billion in the second quarter of 2010. Astonishingly, this is said to equal total FDI pledged in the previous 20 years, though only a small amount was actually spent. Thailand leads the latest wave of investors, followed by China. By far the biggest single investment is going into an offshore gasfield operated by South Korea’s Daewoo International and twin pipelines being built to carry gas and crude oil across Myanmar to southern China, a project awarded to China National Petroleum Corporation.
Myanmar’s overall economy is hard to assess. The government has not published a budget for years. The banking system is dysfunctional. The central bank has only a tenuous hold on monetary policy. Much of the economy is undeclared and untaxed. Official data record double-digit growth, and to suggest otherwise is probably not a clever career move under the present regime. As a Harvard research team wrote in 2009, facts in Myanmar “are negotiated more than they are observed”.
Aid workers say that in reality the nation has been driven deep into penury. One describes a “silent disaster” unfolding in rural areas that were vulnerable even before recent flooding wiped out crops. Agriculture is in a desperate state. The rains came late this year in the Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of a 2008 cyclone that killed over 130,000. But most problems are manmade: villages lack power, roads, threshers and storage for the harvest. Private banks may not lend to farmers, and the government agriculture bank is moribund. Loan sharks and rice merchants are more reliable. But interest rates are sky-high.
The World Food Programme, which has sporadic access to some of the worst areas, estimates that the vast majority of people have to spend over 75% of their income on food. The Harvard study reported that cooking oil was being sold by the spoonful to those who could not afford a larger measure. In Asia only Afghanistan has a higher rate of child mortality. Almost one in ten children in Myanmar do not make it to five.
The 2008 cyclone opened the door a crack to more foreign aid. Humanitarian assistance has since risen modestly; more local aid organisations have sprung up to plug the gaps and help towns and villages respond better. But the political deadlock between Myanmar and its Western critics casts a long shadow over development assistance. America opposes new World Bank lending to Myanmar, which in any case is in arrears on its previous loans.
As with aid, international reactions to Myanmar’s election are likely to be as predictable as the vote itself. Led by China, most governments in Asia will probably hail the vote as a landmark. Western reactions are unlikely to be as positive. Since last year, the Obama administration and the European Union have adopted a policy of engagement, while maintaining sanctions on the regime. Exiled Burmese activists are lobbying Western politicians to deny the legitimacy of both the election and the government that emerges from it. These politicians are inclined to agree.
Kurt Campbell, America’s assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the most senior envoy to visit Myanmar under the new policy, has admitted that he was disappointed with the results. But he told Congress recently that this did not mean engagement had failed. He predicted that the upcoming election might create “new players, new power relationships, new structures”, a view that is shared by plenty of diplomats in Yangon.
Will the Lady turn?
The one dissident who could probably recast this debate is Miss Suu Kyi, the international face of principled resistance to military rule. It is hard to imagine that the election date was not chosen with an eye to her scheduled release, six days after the poll, from her latest term of house arrest. As usual, the regime has dangled her release as a sop to Western opinion. Even if Miss Suu Kyi were set free, however, the generals would be watching closely to see what she does next. So would many ordinary Burmese, whose reverence for “the Lady” is undimmed by her enforced absence.
But Miss Suu Kyi will no longer be the lone voice of political opposition in Myanmar. Elected MPs can rightly stake a claim to speak for their constituents. The junta that Miss Suu Kyi opposes, and insists on talking to, is preparing to dissolve itself. It is not clear that a new government would be obliged to negotiate with Miss Suu Kyi, whose formal position is secretary-general of the NLD, a party that no longer exists. It was disbanded after it opted out of the election, on the advice of its detained leader.
The Lady’s exalted status transcends her party. Whatever happens next, she will remain a potent political force and a magnet for Western governments. Many have long assumed that the road to change in Myanmar led through her lakeside house in Yangon. But the country has altered since her last spell of freedom, and not simply in terms of political participation, says Thant Myint-U, a historian and former UN official. The changes include many more NGOs, foreign and local, the flood of new foreign investment and pressing environmental and economic concerns. “The rise of a new Asia will be all around,” he says.
While the NLD is boycotting the election, a breakaway group is taking part as the National Democratic Force (NDF). This has caused uproar among exiles, for whom compromise is a dirty word, and has further divided the opposition. NDF officials hope Miss Suu Kyi will respect their choice to participate in the election. But she may take the opposite tack, arguing that the entire process is illegitimate. By rejecting the election, she would paint herself into the corner with “the radical element”, says a prominent NDF backer.
If Miss Suu Kyi is one constant in Myanmar’s poisoned politics, the other is Senior General Than Shwe, a former postal worker turned junta leader. Characteristically, he has kept everyone guessing as to his future role. A crowd of ageing generals have been cashiered; some are running for parliament as civilians. This shake-up in the ranks clears the way for younger officers to steer the army; the next commander-in-chief will probably be in his mid-50s. But Than Shwe appears to have retained his position, for now. Some fear that he could seek the presidency and remain as head of state. Under the constitution, the upper and lower houses of parliament will convene to elect a president who will then appoint his own cabinet, who may or may not be MPs. Finally the junta would formally transfer power to a new administration within 90 days of the election. In theory Than Shwe, junta leader, could pass the torch to Than Shwe, president.
A more likely scenario is that the prime minister or others in his cabinet would use their USDP power base to seek the presidency. Than Shwe would then ease into an honorary position either as patron of the ruling party or the army, from where he could pull some strings. Than Shwe understandably fears being hung out to dry, as happened to his predecessor, General Ne Win, who stepped down in 1988 and was later arrested. Than Shwe may look enviously at Singapore, where the former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, holds the post of Minister Mentor, a title created for him.
A formal role may not be necessary; when Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, died in 1997 his only post was chairman of the China Bridge Association.
A government dominated by recycled generals would not be not a clean break after half a century of military rule. But given the steady erosion of virtually every other institution in Myanmar—universities, the civil service, trade unions—no other group was likely to emerge on top. Many think the next election, in 2015, will mark the start of a more dynamic contest both between parties and within the ranks of the ruling parties. The USDP may then be ready to jettison some of the old guard, particularly if they show themselves incapable of managing the economy.
The army is not about to go away. In addition to its 25% block in parliament, it will have far-reaching constitutional powers that place a deliberate check on civilian politicians. The commander appoints the ministers of defence, interior and border affairs and can declare a state of emergency that overrides much of the government apparatus. Army commanders in the provinces will continue to demand the co-operation of local authorities. This is similar to the “dual-function” system of Indonesia under President Suharto until he was ousted in 1998. The army may eventually prefer to follow the path of neighbouring Thailand, reserving the right to intervene, forcibly, in politics if its interests are threatened, but otherwise steering clear of day-to-day affairs.
Such abstractions are remote from the lives of ordinary voters, whose hopes for change are tempered by apathy, self-preservation and cynicism. “If they tell me to vote, I’ll vote,” shrugs a bookshop-owner. Politics, like so much else in Myanmar, is ossified. Parties are long on lofty statements, short on anything resembling a policy, and the opposition spends more time squabbling than devising a common platform. The NLD is urging voters to stay home. The generals seem to be alarmed by the prospect of a low turnout, though the election laws do not require a quorum. A state newspaper warned on November 1st that if too many voters abstain, the government “will have no choice” but to stay in power and prepare for another election, which, it said, “will take a long time.” The Economist
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