Burma’s military regime has learned to speak election double-speak, framing the upcoming ‘selection by the generals’ as ‘democratic elections’. But there are few takers among the Burmese people, other than vocal election cheerleaders and regime apologists. And it is the country’s aging despot, ‘Senior’ General Than Shwe, who is said to be directly managing the military’s attempted transition from direct rule to indirect rule with a civilian mask. The general is holding the cards close to his chest, at times leaving his subordinates and deputies in the dark while he markets his moves as the final step in the Roadmap to Democracy.
The neighbours, meanwhile, from ASEAN as well as China and India, cannot wait for the end of the ‘election’ episode – currently slated to take place on 7 November – so that they can deflect international criticism over their cosy ties with the only true military dictatorship in South or Southeast Asia. For their part, most global Burma experts (at the Brookings Institution, for instance, and the International Crisis Group) have been harping on the need to seize the opportunity of the purported changing of the guard in Naypyidaw to nudge the next generation of military officers towards economic reforms – which, they argue, will bring about political liberalisation. However, the living evidence of post-Maoist China stands in the way of validating such a half-baked ‘development-democracy’ theory.
Still, the opposition within Burma is also not completely united. Much to the dismay of Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other leading dissidents, some European Union governments (for instance, Germany) are supporting a small group of NLD renegades with no public following, who are treating the election as ‘the only game in town’, to borrow the pragmatic words of David Lipman, EU ambassador in Bangkok. Clearly Suu Kyi and her several thousand colleagues behind bars, as well as thousands more in exile, do not share such pragmatic resignation.
Watering the poison ivy
If the unfettered market is the raison d’être of the post-USSR world, then what is referred to as ‘civil society’ has become a key political instrument, policy objective and funding programme. This highly contested academic construct – manufactured in 18th-century feudal Germany – suddenly found itself in vogue, especially among policymakers, journalists and clever interns in Western capitals. In place of genuine political solidarity with the several thousand Burmese dissidents behind bars and the public at large, these Western election cheerleaders have offered both podiums and per diems for bogus ‘civil society’ activists who are not at all representative of the public sentiment.
Germany’s Friedrick-Ebert Stiftung (FES) is one such EU-based entity. Despite its declared aim of supporting ‘global justice’ (and it being named after that country’s first democratically elected president), this influential political foundation keeps tight relations with the regime’s external propaganda wing, such as the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, and supports controversial local NGOs such as Myanmar Egress. NLD leader U Tin Oo has aptly described this relationship as ‘a broker between the regime’s cronies and the National Democratic Force’, made up of pro-election NLD renegades. Recently, FES organised a public forum in Berlin with two of Burma’s most vociferous pro-election voices, Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner cum NGO worker, and Nay Win Maung, the head of Myanmar Egress, purportedly to promote Burmese civil society’s diverse voices. The duo was joined by Andreas List, the EU official in charge of the Burma portfolio, who holds strong pro-election views. For many observers, this seemed to run counter to the FES mission of promoting pluralistic voices from and on Burma.
This prompted 83-year-old U Tin Oo, the NLD cofounder and senior colleague of Suu Kyi, to officially write to List, registering his party’s ‘grave’ concerns about EU officials amplifying these unrepresentative voices. In fact, the manufacturing of elitist ‘civil society voices’ has been in the work for some years. Several European entities – such as the European Commission, Britain’s Department of International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Netherlands’s Oxfam Novib, and Action Aid, to name just a few – have played paymasters in the creation and promotion of a small but influential pool of ‘civil-society actors’. In so doing, they have primed their native proxies for the marketisation of the Burmese economy and the NGO-isation of local politics, at the expense of the opposition in particular and the public in general.
In many a closed-door Burma policy discussions that this writer has attended in London, Bangkok, Washington and Brussels over the past several years, self-styled ‘nation-builders’ and their Western ‘donors’ have promoted a deeply troublesome perspective. Incredibly, they say that it is the 2000 Burmese dissidents in captivity, including Suu Kyi, and their supporters in exile, who constitute the real obstacle in Burma’s economic development. This is their message to sympathetic audiences, including representatives from Western governments, UN officials and think tanks, as well as representatives of the multilateral financial institutions. In some instances, deviating sharply from the firm pro-democracy stance of their own governments’ official policies, Burma-based diplomats have privately trashed jailed dissidents and their ‘incapacity to bring pragmatic and practical changes’, even while their governments at home are loudly condemning Burma’s regime for its alleged crimes against humanity.
In general, the Burmese people are dismayed by the outsiders’ embrace of such false logic as the idea that a flawed election is better than no election. In so doing, this embrace is taking in local elites – such as Khin Zaw Win and Nay Win Maung – who have learned to speak the language of ‘civil society’, while viewing themselves as a cut above the rest of Burma. U Aye Thar Aung, the prominent elderly Arakanese political leader, has characterised the current strain of misguided external support for the pro-election NGO elite as ‘watering the poison ivy’. Nonetheless, today a mantra of ‘get ready to exploit the post-election landscape’ fills much of the faddish policy discourse from Washington and Bangkok to Brussels and Berlin – a significant shift from the earlier spin, from the same quarters, that the election itself was the train for the opposition to hijack.
However, the greatest paradox in advancing civil society as the main game-changer in Burma is the fact that it makes no place for the proverbial masses. This is so, even while the Burmese public itself has refused to buy into the paternalistic view that economic prosperity, political freedoms and ethnic equality can be delivered by ‘Made in EU’ civil society.
Going ‘as planned’
The bulk of the Burmese opposition is not caving in to the regime’s two-decade-long campaign of cooptation and annihilation; nor does the Burmese public expect much from the post-election ‘structural changes’. Despite international media speculation playing up the unwarranted optimism of real structural changes in post-election Burma, the majority of the population has adopted ‘indifference’ to the upcoming polls, something even Khin Maung Swe of the pro-election NDF, has publicly acknowledged. This popular indifference might be an act of political reciprocity on the part of the public, which knows that the regime has been pursuing a policy of complete neglect towards public welfare. This is the case not just in normal times (for instance, the complete absence of state-provided social safety nets and social services) but also in the face of national emergency, as in the immediate aftermath of the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis.
Why should the Burmese electorate care about the upcoming election, after the regime has permitted none of the publicly respected dissidents to participate? Every dissident whom the generals perceive as a threat to their widely unpopular rule of 22 years remains locked up in the country or has been pushed into exile. Thus, that gives a count of 2000-plus potential candidates who are not part of the election – individuals with valuable professional background, years of experience building political organisations, and genuine popular support and following, and from diverse multiethnic and religious backgrounds.
Just as the regime is telling the neighbours and the world at large that election preparations are going ahead as planned, its Union Election Commission has been gagging candidates on important policy issues, and dissolved (ie, banned) ten established political parties, including the NLD. In addition, since the regime has realised that candidates from its Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) cannot win in ethnic minority communities such as Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and Shan states, it has cancelled holding elections in some 200 villages, declaring that in these constituencies ‘free and fair election could not be held’ due to security concerns. This latest move is a win-win situation for the generals, since it has now paved the way for declaring these ‘black areas’, a vast conflict zone where local populations will be subject to ‘shoot-to-kill’ policies. At the same time, the Election Commission has refused to register 14 ethnic Kachin politicians, as they fear these could enjoy strong local support as well as the backing of the Kachin Independence Army, a ceasefire group that has refused to capitulate to the regime’s pressure to place its troops under the latter’s central command.
The regime also set the registration fee per candidate at USD 500, an incredibly high sum in a country where annual per capita income is roughly USD 200, and the result has been predictable. Even the NDF (the largest new pro-democracy party, made up of NLD renegades) and the Democracy Party (Myanmar), spearheaded by the three well-known daughters of former prime ministers from the long-bygone civilian parliamentary era, can only field a combined total of some 200 candidates, out of around 1000 available slots. By contrast, the regime’s USDP and the pro-regime National Unity Party (NUP), made up of ex-military personnel who served under the country’s first dictator, General Ne Win, are both contesting in practically all constituencies.
During the previous election, held in 1990, the Burmese generals had imposed equally draconian election laws, and dozens of parties, including the NLD, took part. Originally convinced that the popular opposition was too fractured to beat the pro-regime military-filled NUP, the generals were stunned by the NLD’s landslide victory, winning 82 percent of all parliamentary seats and 60 percent of the popular vote. This has since been put down to tactical voting by the voters, many of whom registered with different parties but ultimately voted overwhelmingly for the NLD.
This time, the generals are taking no such chances. The regime might even disqualify the NLD renegade party, the NDF, which is currently fielding the third-largest number of candidates, at 161. It is an open secret that the NDF has received political support and, allegedly, funding from foreign sources such as EU governments and foundations through proxy NGOs such as Egress – both of which are barred under the Burmese Constitution of 2008.
Any student of democratic transitions knows that elections are a necessary ingredient in all emerging democratic or semi-democratic political systems. But in and of itself, an election amounts to nothing, especially when the larger context remains oppressive. In light of Burma’s exceedingly repressive political context, even the proponents of the logic that flawed elections are better than no election would be hard-pressed to find a silver lining in the gathering dark clouds of the upcoming polls.
Today, one central criticism against the principled opposition to the polls is that Burma’s ‘people power’ revolts have been resounding failures, with every wave of mass opposition since 1962 having been met only with bullets and bayonets. But what the proponents of this view conveniently overlook is the fact that successful mass revolts, from Marcos’s Philippines to Suharto’s Indonesia, were aided by external events. In the Philippines, for instance, this was the withdrawal of US support for Marcos; in Indonesia, the collapse of Asian financial markets decisively loosened Suharto’s grip. In fact, no colonial rule or fascist occupation in history has ended without serious external impetus, while international solidarity has also been a crucial factor in successful revolutions. However, the Burmese people have been left to themselves in fighting the regime, with the international community paying lip service – even though a person of the stature of Suu Kyi is at the centre of the people’s existential fight against the generals. On the other hand, blaming the victims – and dissidents alike – as is currently happening in the Burma context, without being prepared to offer concrete support, adds insult to injury.
To the individuals and institutions, local and global, who are currently advocating the ‘generals’ election’, the uncertainties inherent in the post-election structures and institutions are preferable to the certainty of the continued political stalemate between the opposition and the ruling military. The Burmese have been through this before. On the 12th anniversary of the Revolutionary Council rule of Gen Ne Win, in 1974, the Burmese electorates were offered a new constitution, which the ruling generals at the time said was approved by 91 percent of all eligible voters; thereafter, elections were held within a one-party socialist system. Overnight, the public was presented with a nominal division of power, a people’s parliament, a council of state, a council of inspectors, a people’s court and a broad-based mass party, all headed by ‘civilianised’ generals. Fast-forward to 1988, and these structures and institutions collapsed like a house of cards in the midst of a series of countrywide popular revolts.
Historical amnesia might be a trademark for some peoples, but the Burmese are a historically conscious lot. They know the changes now on offer are cosmetic, particularly the generations of Burmese who survived the first period of military rule with a civilian mask. They even have a saying, ‘We have been dead once, and we know the cost of a coffin,’ meaning, We don’t intend to commit our own political suicide and play with death. Europe, which lived through Fascist and Nazi occupations only 60 years ago, has already largely forgotten the most vital lesson from its own history: that no tyrannical power concedes without a fight.
What the Burmese public – and 2000 jailed dissidents – need from Western governments and other institutions today is for the latter to stop acting as if foreign offices in Europe, policy wonks in Washington or the global humanitarian industry know what is best for the people of Burma. They need to stop parroting the generals’ election double-speak. And if they are unprepared to offer real solidarity for Burma’s decades-long struggle against home-grown tyrants, in uniform or in mufti, the least they can do is follow a new mantra: Do no harm to the Burmese opposition in particular, and the public in general.