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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 23, May 29, 2010

Impasse in Myanmar

Tuesday 1 June 2010, by Sonu Trivedi

Multi-party elections, as announced by the junta, to be held later this year raises hopes for ending the impasse in Myanmar. The pro-democracy activists and ethnic nationalities leaders are now awaiting the elections due this year. The elections, though, might just be a farce as it would adopt the new Constitution as drafted by the National Convention. With the results of the referendum held in May 2008 and 92.4 per cent votes in favour of the Constitution, the military is set to switch uniform for civilian clothes. The regime alleges that it will be preparing for a transition period from military rule to a supposedly civilian administration popularly conceived by the junta as Disciplined Democracy.

The Political Parties Registration Law, enacted by the military junta in March 2010 ahead of the general elections to be held later this year, is aimed at keeping the popular leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, out of the electoral process. The junta has barred anyone convicted of a crime from being a member of a political party. Further, parties that want to register under the new law must expel members who are “not in conformity with the qualification to be members of a party”. This means that Ms Suu Kyi cannot contest the elections, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) must expel her if it is to be eligible to participate in the process. This has posed a dilemma before the NLD whether to participate by expelling Suu Kyi or to completely boycott the elections. The party was, however, disbanded last week for failing to register under the new election law.

The junta has also offered a carrot to the NLD by removing the seals on the regional offices of the party. They want the NLD to contest the elections in order to give the polls some credibility. Henceforth, 300 NLD offices were allowed to reopen. But the junta also wants a very weak NLD with Suu Kyi completely out of the picture. This implies that the proposed verdict would be far from inclusive.

The new Constitution also not only enshrines the junta’s hold on power, but effectively excludes Suu Kyi from office. According to the Constitutional Principle approved by the National Convention, the President should be an indigenous Burmese. The Constitution lays down that the President shall be a person who has stayed in the state continuously for a minimum of 20 years at the time of the election of the State President. Further, either of his parents, spouse, any legitimate child shall not be a loyal subject to any foreign government or a person under the influence of a foreign government or citizen of an alien country. This has disempowered Suu Kyi from contesting the presidential election as her husband was a British national.

Under the Charter, a quarter of seats in both Houses of the new Parliament would be guaranteed for the military—at the national as well as regional levels and State Assemblies, that is, in a newly created 440-member House of Representatives there would be 330 elected civilians and 110 military representatives.

In view of the upcoming elections, leaders of Myanmar’s ruling junta, including Prime Minister General Thein Sein and 22 other Cabinet Ministers, have given up their uniforms and allegedly resigned from their military posts. This means that those who resign from military positions now will not be counted in the military’s quota. These additional seats outside the quota for the military (filled by loyalists out of uniform) will help ensure the military’s power and influence in Parliament.

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The draft Constitution further makes it virtually impossible to amend the clauses because more than three quarters of the members of both the Houses of Parliament need to approve any amendment. Given that the military holds at least one quarter of the seats, their representation will be significantly higher and hold an effective veto. The President, the future head of the state, will also have to be a member of the military. In addition, the Army retains control of the key Ministries, including defense, economy and border affairs.

According to many Myanmar analysts, these processes are likely to be deeply flawed, and seem to be aimed mainly at consolidating military rule behind the facade of a parliamentary government. As the Burmese Way to Socialism under Ne Win was a complete failure, the same is expected from the Military Way to Democracy. Even United Nations Secretary General Ban-ki-moon has also appealed for inclusive elections which are necessary to advance the prospects of stability, democracy and development in the country. According to him, the government must create conditions that give all stakeholders the opportunity to participate freely in elections.

In most liberal democracies political institutions and traditions have taken decades, even centuries, to develop and have achieved high levels of legitimacy and public acceptance. By contrast, a least developed country like Myanmar is still searching for a political form and institutions and processes for democratisation. In Myanmar, throughout the four decades of military rule, though there have been instances of intra-military splits among officer factions, elite infighting between softliners and hardliners, infantry mutinies and soldiers’ desertions, these have operated at a submissive level. In spite of all these, the Burmese military have clung on to political power unrivalled in the world and military rule still endures. Despite several and consistent efforts made by the junta to manoeuvre the multi-party general elections in 1990, the NLD under Aung San Suu Kyi won 392 of the 485 seats in the Assembly. But, to date the SLORC has refused to relinquish power to the duly elected NLD Government. The military junta’s second major ‘shake-up’ since 1988 took place in 1997 when the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) was replaced by the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council). Despite name change, democratic reforms and adoption of a National Convention and drafting of a new Consti-tution, political impasse continues in Myanmar.

In the wake of the 2007 uprising by the monks and the subsequent crackdown by the junta, the brutality of the regime has exposed the veil of political legitimacy. It has attracted vehement condemnation from all across the region and the world. With most of the soldiers practising Buddhism, they seem to be disillusioned. The government appears to be having a much harder time controlling the security forces. So this could provide a potential spark. Major splits may likely appear in the near future as frustration has also grown among the civil servants over the new administrative capital, Naypidaw, which has been very hard on their families.

In the context of many developing countries, state elites have promoted business elites forging a top-down managerial relation. In this context, Myanmar’s political record clearly demonstrates how it is possible for the state elites to transform into business elites, thus seizing the commanding heights of the economy themselves. Through a variety of joint ventures, the state elites have doubled as business elites. In this way, they have operated a backward economy, but with a stable form of authoritarianism. In spite of the serious efforts made by the pro-democracy supporters, ethnic nationalities and demonstrations by student activists and Buddhist clergy, the regime appears to have not succumbed to the demands of the liberating forces and till date democracy appears to be illusionary in the political dynamics of military rule in Myanmar.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Zakir Hussain College, University of Delhi.

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