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Commentary

Burma’s Democracy: Just What the Generals Ordered

The international community must press the Burmese government to go further in its top-down reform program.


Burma’s recent political and economic reforms have puzzled the world, prompting a question among many: Why did the generals suddenly want to change? Did they fear the Arab Spring would come to the Golden Land? Did they want to renew ties with Western countries because they were tired of relying on China? Or was it possible that the generals finally became aware of everything they had done wrong?

But this line of questioning misses the real mark: The generals did not suddenly want to change. The junta planned for nearly two decades before taking the last stride of handing over power to its own nominally civilian government in 2011.

Their plan had dual aims: firstly to ensure that the generals could continue leading the country, but with a veneer of legitimacy, and secondly, to create a Constitution that would enshrine the military’s key role in politics. The regime said it sought to establish a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” meaning “democracy” guided by the military leadership.

In reality, they did not want to change their course of oppressive rule, but the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations and anti-government protests in the following years compelled them to re-evaluate. In the face of nationwide uprisings, the military junta that staged the coup on Sept. 18, 1988, had no choice but to eventually introduce a multi-party system and market economy. The current reform process initiated by Thein Sein more than three years ago was the junta’s final phase of a series of “changes” driven largely by the 1988 demonstrations.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

The junta, called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), held a historic election on May 27, 1990. For the first time in 30 years, the Burmese people cast their votes in a free and fair election. Ninety-three parties, including the most popular NLD party, contested the election. The NLD’s main opponent was the junta-supported party, the National Unity Party (NUP), a transformation of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) formed by Ne Win, who had ruled the country from 1962 to 1988.

At the time of the election, the NLD’s popular leader Suu Kyi was being held under house arrest, preventing her from running for a seat in the legislature. Almost 100 other parties also put forward candidates, and the junta assumed that with this competition the NLD could not possibly win the majority of seats.

They were wrong. The NLD won a landslide victory, capturing 392 out of 485 contested seats in the People’s Parliament. The NUP secured just 10 seats.

The military regime quickly nullified the astonishing results and imprisoned many politicians from the NLD and other pro-democracy parties who had been elected. At the same time, however, ruling leaders altered their political plans. Snr-Gen Saw Maung, the SLORC chairman at the time, had broken his promise to hand over power to the rightful winner of the polls, and he became a scapegoat to be purged by his deputies, Than Shwe and Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, who was then chief of the notorious Military Intelligence. Than Shwe took the chairman’s place.

In 1993, the junta convened a National Convention to draft a new Constitution, after the 1974 charter had been washed away by the 1988 uprising. The convention was attended by 702 delegates, but only 147 of them were elected parliamentarians or representatives from political parties, including NLD delegates. The rest were hand-picked by the government.

The convention went on for two years, but no Constitution emerged. And four months after Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in July 1995, NLD delegates walked out of the meetings, saying the proceedings had been undemocratic. It was a huge blow for the junta, whose plans to draft a charter were stalled for the next decade. But they did not give in.

The Constitution as a Political Bunker

On the roadmap to disciplined democracy, the Constitution was the most important tool for the junta, serving as a political bunker of sorts.

While the former regime tried to stifle the pro-democracy movement, it resumed the political roadmap that had stalled after the convention boycott in 1995. The junta, renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, reconvened its National Convention in 2004. For the next four years, handpicked delegates drafted a new Constitution. When they had finished, a national referendum was held to approve the charter, at the worst possible time: one week after Cyclone Nargis struck the country in May 2008, killing 138,000 people and displacing many more. In the chaos of the disaster, the government claimed the Constitution had been approved by more than 90 percent of voters.

The referendum was anything but free and fair. If given a choice, most Burmese would not have supported the 2008 Constitution, which is still called the Nargis Constitution by many in the country, because it protects the military leadership from prosecution for past wrongdoings and it gives them a way to continue ruling the country legitimately.

The first page of the first chapter of the Constitution states that one of the country’s consistent objectives is “enabling the Defense Services to be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the state.” Chapter 12 of the charter, which covers the amendment process, says constitutional reform can only take place with support from more than 75 percent of lawmakers in Parliament. That’s basically an impossible task, since another crucial clause reserves 25 percent of seats to military-appointed representatives who are handpicked by the commander-in-chief.

After the undemocratic Constitution was “approved,” Than Shwe’s regime held a general election in 2010. But this time they did not underestimate their opponents. They decided to hold the election one week before Suu Kyi was due to be released from her last stint of house arrest in November, prompting the NLD and some other parties to boycott the polls, and unsurprisingly, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won by landslide. It was widely believed that this voting process was also rigged, like the constitutional referendum two years earlier.

On Nov. 13, 2010, when Suu Kyi walked free, not only Burma, but the world, cheered. But in many ways, it was too late: The Constitution had been endorsed and the USDP had secured a majority of legislative seats, completing the sixth phase of the regime’s seven-step political roadmap. The last step was to hand over power to Thein Sein, who had been chosen by Than Shwe to serve as president, and the transition proceeded smoothly in March 2011.

Ne Win’s revolutionary council took more than a decade after its 1962 coup to install its civilian government, the BSPP, also run by former generals, after approval of the 1974 Constitution. The next regime that took control in 1988 needed 23 years to hand over power to Thein Sein’s administration, again, only after the 2008 Constitution had been endorsed. Over half a century, consecutive regimes in this country have handled their politics the same way.

The Path to Reform

There is no guarantee that the upcoming election will be free and fair. The country’s Union Election Commission, led by Tin Aye, a former lieutenant-general and a protégé of Than Shwe, has close ties with Thein Sein. International observers and voters worry that the election scheduled for 2015 will be rigged again, as it was widely believed to be in 2010. In April this year, Tin Aye promised that the election would be “systematically free and fair,” but he also said, “The military MPs make up 25 percent of Parliament. To be clear, we have them because we don’t want a coup.” Suu Kyi herself reportedly told US Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited the country in August, that the election commission’s lack of independence and credibility would pose a problem.

In March this year, Thein Sein said in a speech to lawmakers that the armed forces would maintain their role in politics, reflecting the Constitution. Regarding constitutional reform, he added, “I would like to urge you to do it softly and gently, depending on the experience, long-sightedness and sincerity of all stakeholders involved.” The next day, Burma’s Armed Forces Day, Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, said constitutional reform must proceed according to Article 436 of Chapter 12 in the Constitution, which gives the military an effective veto over amendments. Suu Kyi’s NLD and other prominent activists have demanded a change to this article as well as other undemocratic clauses. It seems the president and military chief are intent on walking a “Burmese Way to Democracy,” similar to the “Burmese Way to Socialism” that Ne Win’s regime introduced in the 1960s.

Without constitutional change, the new Burma will remain a faux democracy in the hands of old military rulers. Though the country has seen some dramatic changes over the past three years, the Burmese people may well be forced to accept another general-turned-president after the 2015 election. As a result, the economy and wealth of the country will still be monopolized by the military and its cronies, and human rights abuses will likely continue.

A real reform process will require genuine dialogue between the government and the main opposition groups. For that, perhaps we can take a lesson from South Africa after the dismantling of the apartheid in the early 1990s, when former South African President F.W. de Klerk and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela were working together to adopt their country’s first fully democratic constitution. De Klerk said, “First, if you want to break out of the cycle of violence, if you want to lay the foundations for a more prosperous society, if you want to democratize, then the departure point is that leaders must become convinced that fundamental change is necessary.” The international community needs to convince Burma’s leaders—government officials, military generals and members of the ruling party—that if they do not move toward genuine democracy, they will lose what they have gained over the past three years: praise, the renewal of diplomatic ties, and economic opportunities.

On the other hand, the real forces for change will still need to come from local opposition and ethnic groups, as well as civil society and independent media. They have obviously played a key role in the democratization process over the past few decades, and the fight is not over. The international community must pay more attention to the demands and suggestions of these opposition figures, including Suu Kyi, dissidents and ethnic leaders.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of The Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]