Farce follows tragedy in Myanmar
By Bertil Lintner
BANGKOK - If Karl Marx was right that history repeats itself first as tragedy
and then as farce, Myanmar may have just entered the farcical phase of its
long-running military rule. The first general election held in over 20 years
last November and announcement that a new elected National Assembly will be
convened on January 31 have not excited many ordinary Myanmar citizens, but
have led to wild speculation among foreign pundits about what it all means for
the country's political future.
Many seem to have forgotten that a similar "transition" to "civilian rule"
occurred in 1974, following a rigged referendum on a new constitution in 1973.
The then ruling junta, the Revolutionary Council, gave way to the
military-controlled Burma Socialist
Program Party, which formed a government made up of retired army officers. The
transition in retrospect was a tragedy as it solidified the one-party system
that Myanmar, then known as Burma, already had in place and precipitated
economic decline in what was previously one of Southeast Asia's most prosperous
The 1974 constitution guaranteed the military's grip on power and made its
original 1962 military putsch legal. That military-dominated political
arrangement lasted until a nationwide uprising for democracy erupted in 1988,
which the military crushed through lethal force and in the aftermath
reintroduced direct military rule through the State Law and Order Restoration
Council (SLORC) junta. The SLORC later changed the country's name from Burma to
Myanmar and rebranded itself as the State Peace and Development Council in
Now under a new constitution that was adopted after a similarly
well-orchestrated referendum in 2008, more than one political party is
officially allowed in Myanmar. But the dominance of the military's new Union
Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) proxy, which swept over 80% of the
seats in last November's rigged polls, is complete. The new charter also
reserves 25% of the National Assembly's seats for the military.
The military is nonetheless taking no chances. On the campaign trail and after
the election, candidates and MPs elect have had their freedom of speech
severely restricted. Any speech deemed by authorities as a threat to "national
security, the unity of the country and the constitution" threaten to land the
speaker in prison for up to two years.
In late December, the state-run daily New Light of Myanmar newspaper spelled
out the military's intentions more clearly: the opposition should stop calling
for "national reconciliation" and instead support the government to achieve
"national reconsolidation". "Indirect and direct approaches designed to control
the ruling government will never come to fruition," the paper stated.
Despite these restrictions, some foreign analysts are holding out hope for
democratic change. Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand,
suggested farcically in his newsletter that "the elections, flawed as they are,
could provide a catalyst." For exactly what, however, the former envoy did not
Priscilla Clapp, a senior American analyst and former Yangon-based US diplomat,
seems convinced that an army reshuffle a few months before the election, in
which more than 70 senior and many more junior officers retired to have the
constitutional right to "contest" the polls will pave the way for a new,
presumably more reform-minded, generation of army officers. And with new
"civilians" in government, she suggests, change is in the air.
Whether military officers were in or out of uniform made no difference in 1974
- and is even less likely to do so today considering the military's ironclad
grip on power. Nor will a few muted opposition voices in the National Assembly
be of any democratic significance. In the old, pre-1988 National Assembly, the
official media routinely reported that delegates always "discussed in support
of proposals" submitted by the real military rulers of the country.
If any of the handful of non-USDP assemblymen dare to challenge military
orders, the authorities have constitutional means to deal with such dissent,
including through legal military takeovers. In case of a "national emergency",
clause 413 of the new charter gives the president the right to hand executive
as well as judicial power to the commander-in-chief of the defense services,
who "may exercise the said powers and duties himself or empower on any suitable
military authority" to do the job for him.
The new National Assembly will consist of an Upper House with 168 elected seats
and 56 reserved for the military, and a Lower House with 330 elected and 110
military seats. With solid majorities of 129 seats in the Upper House and 259
in the Lower House that the USDP achieved through the rigged November
elections, plus the 25% of seats reserved for the military, the new system will
ensure in a new legal way the continuation of the old military-ruled order.
Myanmar's partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have
hailed the election as progress and called on Western nations, including the
US, to drop their economic and financial sanctions. At an ASEAN meeting on the
Indonesian island of Lombok on January 17, the host country's foreign minister
Marty Natalegawa described the elections as "conducive and transparent" and
said that the 10-member bloc would like to see "the immediate or early removal
or easing of sanctions that have been applied against Myanmar by some
Many ASEAN countries have vested economic interests in Myanmar and through
economic engagement policies have over the years undermined the West's
Meanwhile, there is little indication that Myanmar's military leadership is in
much of a democratic mood. At a passing out parade at the Defense Services
Technological Academy on December 17, military chief General Than Shwe told the
graduates that "you can confront anything and win if you avoid the opponents'
strong points, exploit their shortcomings and strike at their weaknesses."
The military rank and file has clearly taken that advice to heart. The
opposition's strong point is pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was
detained and barred from participating in the election and released a week
after the polls. The weakness of the opposition was its lack of unity: Suu
Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, split in half over whether or
not it should take part in the election.
Those who favored participation probably now regret it; the new National
Democratic Front, set up by former NLD members, won a paltry 16 seats in both
houses. Predictably, NDF candidates competed on an unequal playing field.
According to several eyewitness reports in several constituencies in Yangon and
elsewhere, where a candidate other than the one from the USDP appeared to be
winning, boxes of "advance votes" were brought in to prevent such a result. In
other places where the USDP seemed to be faring poorly, the vote counting was
conducted in secret.
Opinion is also divided in countries traditionally critical of Myanmar's
rights-abusing regime. In the US, Virginia Senator Jim Webb, once one of
Myanmar's staunchest critics, has flip-flopped to become a staunch advocate of
lifting sanctions and engaging the regime. In the European Union, several
countries are already doing business with Myanmar despite the sanctions. In its
December 14 edition, The Myanmar Times quoted Myint Soe from the Union of
Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry as saying: "Among the
European nations, Germany is one of our largest trading partners, even
considering the sanctions." And sanctions do not cover pre-existing investments
in the lucrative oil and gas industry, where France's Total is a major
Voices are now being heard in other EU countries, especially among their
Bangkok-based envoys, advocating for engagement with the regime based on
perceptions that decades of sanctions have failed to achieve democratic change.
This argument, or course, fails to take into account that other countries'
engagement policies have similarly failed to achieve positive political change.
ASEAN has long engaged Myanmar through trade and investment initiatives.
However, in a confidential US diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks in
December, Singapore's senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew described Myanmar's
generals as "stupid" and "difficult to deal with". Dealing with the regime, Lee
said, was like "talking to dead people" - a damning assessment of ASEAN's
"constructive engagement" policy from one of the region's most business-minded
Viewed in this light, Myanmar's initial tragedy of 1974 has turned into the
farce of 2010. In effect, the old repressive one-party system has been
reintroduced in everything but name. As the new rules guarantee, a few
opposition voices will make little difference under the new military dominated
dispensation. Even authoritarian-run China and North Korea are formally
multi-party states under the leadership of their de facto ruling communists -
China has eight parties other than the dominant Communist Party while North
Korea allows for three. Such comparisons are more apt than hopeful speculation
that Myanmar's elections and new parliament represent genuine democratic
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review and the author of several books on Myanmar. He is currently a writer
with Asia Pacific Media Services.