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Commentary

A New Burma in Old Hands

Burma is a country reborn, but without constitutional change it will achieve only a faux democracy controlled by former military rulers.


Today Burma is a country reborn, transitioning to a new system of governance after about half a century of military rule, but it remains in old hands.

We are marching toward democracy, but in a rather unusual way—let’s call it the Burmese way to democracy. Many Burmese remember the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” introduced in the 1960s by then-dictator Gen Ne Win, who pioneered the first military coup in 1962 and ruled for 26 years with his authoritarian regime.

Under his vision, the country went from one of the region’s most prosperous nations to one of its poorest. When the people took to the streets to protest against the human rights abuses and chronic mismanagement that had crippled the economy, he allowed his military subordinates to assume power, and they crushed the pro-democracy movement. The new junta ruled the country for the next 23 years, until early 2011, when another government, the current administration which is widely known as “nominally civilian,” stepped up to the plate.

It is true that Thein Sein is no longer a general, but he was one of the highest ranking members of the former junta, and his allegiances have not changed. Along with most of his cabinet members, the majority of parliamentary members and the leaders of the armed forces, he is part of a third generation of dictatorship in Burma.

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]

Collectively, Thein Sein and other old masters from the former junta, including ex-supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe, are calling the shots from Naypyidaw, the administrative capital. They designed the roadmap to reform years ago, saying they wanted to achieve a “disciplined democracy.” With this in mind, they held unfair elections in 2010 and pushed through a military-drafted Constitution that continues to be seen as an undemocratic sham. Three years into Thein Sein’s administration, the Burmese people are enjoying more liberties, but the same rhetoric is being used, and disciplined democracy remains the main goal of all leading members of government, as well as lawmakers representing the military and the ruling party.

“We want to have real, disciplined democracy. This is the first time I’ve told the public,” Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, recently told the public in Arakan State, as quoted by Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service. “We really want to become a democratic country. We want to have similar [system of governance] as other countries that have enjoyed peaceful and stable development. We are working to attain it.”

Disciplined democracy is not the kind of democracy that activists had in mind as they fought against dictatorship for so many decades. That is why the real pro-democracy forces in the country, including ethnic minority groups and opposition parties, are desperate to change the 2008 Constitution, or to completely rewrite it. But the president and his men do not seem interested in following through.

In mid-December, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi expressed her frustration, threatening to boycott the 2015 election unless the charter is changed. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is a lawmaker with her eyes on the presidency, but the Constitution makes her ineligible because her late husband and children are foreign citizens.

“There is a lot at risk in joining the elections. If we join the elections, we will have no dignity in the eyes of the people. That’s why I urge you not to join these elections unless the Constitution is amended,” the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party told thousands of supporters at a rally in Pegu Division.

Suu Kyi has the influence in Burma to shake up the current political situation if she wants. If she chooses not to contest the upcoming election, the reform process initiated by Thein Sein will face its biggest challenge yet: The international community will put pressure on the administration to change the Constitution.

Changes to the main undemocratic sections of the charter will be necessary if we want to see an election in 2015 that is more free and fair than the election in 2010, which the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won by a landslide, ushering in a so-called nominally civilian government that was neither by nor for the people.

Without constitutional change, the new Burma will remain a faux democracy in the hands of old military rulers.