An Appeal to the Keepers of the Keys in Burma’s Drive to Democracy

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 27 July 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s upcoming election must be different, in that unlike the country’s previous two nationwide votes, it must respect the will of the people. Such an outcome, perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, would ultimately benefit all stakeholders, including the ruling party and military establishment.

At stake is the credibility of the succession of generals who have ruled Burma for more than 50 years. Their previous two disingenuous attempts at democratic reform, in 1990 and then in 2010, ended in different but equally disappointing outcomes. In the 25 years since that first vote was annulled, the country has lost much in terms of international reputation and economic clout, the latter already badly bruised by the economic mismanagement of Gen. Ne Win, who seized power in 1962.

Ironically, it is those people brought to power in a 2010 vote widely viewed as fixed who have initiated a series of democratic reforms over the last four years that have seen the country win international plaudits and the lifting of crippling Western economic sanctions. Those leaders, however legitimate their claims to having been chosen by the people may be, are now among the key participants in the next great test of Burma’s reform process.

Fundamentally, three things are necessary to ensure the country’s democratization continues, at a time when many are saying the process has stalled or even backtracked: the electoral hijinks of 2010 must be avoided; the results of a free and fair vote must be honored, in contrast to the annulled 1990 vote; and last but not least, the military must not interfere in the election or its outcome.

Failing to carry out a credible election will deal a major blow to the hopes of millions of people at home and abroad who have for decades wanted to see a Burma ruled by the people, for the people.

The question then becomes, who is responsible for making things different this go-around?

Generally speaking, everyone. From voters to election observers to the media and opposition political parties, as well as those in power, all have a stake in this election—and are accountable for ensuring its success.

To be sure, there are some who are more responsible in this electoral endeavor than others. Namely, the current government, whose political will to see the effort through has been called into question four years after it set reforms in motion; its hand-picked election commission, which will not truly see its impartiality put to the test until November; the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was widely accused of fraud in the 2010 election; and the military, which is constitutionally permitted to seize power if a vaguely defined “state of emergency” should emerge.

If we have to name names from among those institutions (all of whom were members of the former military regime), there are a handful of men with outsized influence over how the electoral process will play out: President Thein Sein, Union Election Commission (UEC) chairman Tin Aye, top leaders of the USDP and again, last but not least, the military’s commander in chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. If these leaders commit to ensuring the election’s credibility, the vote will pass scrutiny.

There should be no excuses. Indeed, the constitutional requirement to elect a new government every five years is one provision of that deeply flawed charter that we can all agree on the need to abide by.

What many are concerned most about is the possibility of the military interfering in the election or ignoring its outcome if opposition parties win a majority. For his part, Min Aung Hlaing told the BBC in a recent interview that he would respect the result.

People will wait and see if he keeps his promise, mindful of a similar pledge made by Snr-Gen Saw Maung, who led the ouster of Ne Win in 1988; ahead of the 1990 vote, the senior general made an official promise to hand over power to whoever won the election.

But something odd happened after the National League for Democracy (NLD) routed the competition in that May poll. Within one year, Saw Maung was forced to retire, reportedly by his deputies Snr-Gen Than Shwe and the powerful Military Intelligence chief Khin Nyunt.

The man who made the promise vanished, and with it any hope of that pledge being honored withered.

On the same day Saw Maung was officially removed from his position as chairman of the junta, his successor Than Shwe’s regime announced that it would hold a national convention to draw up a constitution for the country. The regime came up with an excuse—a lie, quite simply—that the election was not to hand over power to the winner, but rather to draft a constitution for the country.

Though it was 25 years ago, Burmese voters still remember it and will be worried that history may repeat itself in the aftermath of the upcoming election.

Also important will be that Min Aung Hlaing keeps any presidential ambitions he might be harboring in check, given the country’s long history of martial rule. As commander in chief of an institution that is virtually synonymous with repression, the people’s distrust runs deep, and any nominally civilian government with Min Aung Hlaing at the helm would be deemed a serious setback for democratic reforms.

At risk would be the national reconciliation that Burma so desperately needs, as many Burmese have, in the past and still today, regarded the military and especially its leadership as the “enemy.”

To make a play at the presidency, especially in light of the military’s already sizeable constitutionally guaranteed prerogatives, would be an act of sheer greed.

Ultimately that’s a decision that is in the hands of Min Aung Hlaing, or perhaps it rests with ex-supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who is believed to still have influence over leaders of the government, the military and the ruling party.

So far, Min Aung Hlaing has not ruled out the presidency in multiple interviews with the media. It is not difficult to interpret this as indication that he is entertaining the idea.

Meanwhile, for opposition parties, the election should not be viewed as a zero-sum political game. Assuming the election is free and fair, and that opposition parties win a majority, the victors would be wise to avoid adopting an uncompromisingly antagonistic approach to the USDP.

Burma’s political situation is unique, and whoever takes the spoils in November will need to include all stakeholders if the formation of a functional government is to occur. For better or worse, national reconciliation necessarily will involve those who were members of the previous governments responsible for so many of the country’s woes.

But all this, to be clear, is contingent on a few men—Thein Sein, Min Aung Hlaing, Tin Aye and the USDP’s top leadership—accepting the likely prospect that Burma will see shifting power dynamics in the post-election period. They have all vowed to carry out the election to the best of their abilities, and all we can do is hope Burma’s electoral past is not prologue to a disappointing November.