Burma: the gen­er­als win again

But for­eign in­flu­ences, new money and a more or less free press are cre­at­ing new dy­nam­ics in the so­ci­ety

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

It’s game, set and match to the Burmese gen­er­als. On Wed­nes­day they fi­nally an­nounced the date of the gen­eral elec­tion that was once seen as the real dawn of democ­racy in Burma: Nov. 8. But the army will emerge as the win­ner once again.

The po­lit­i­cal party that was cre­ated to sup­port the gen­er­als, the Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment Party, will not win a ma­jor­ity of the seats in the new par­lia­ment. In­deed, it may win very few. But serv­ing mil­i­tary of­fi­cers will still have 25 per cent of the seats, in ac­cor­dance with the 2008 con­sti­tu­tion (writ­ten by the mil­i­tary), and that will be enough to pre­serve mil­i­tary rule.

Those mil­i­tary of­fi­cers (who wear their uni­forms in par­lia­ment and vote in a bloc as the army high com­mand de­crees) will con­tinue to dom­i­nate pol­i­tics, be­cause 25 per cent of the votes, ac­cord­ing to that 2008 con­sti­tu­tion, can block any changes to the con­sti­tu­tion.

And if they can’t find or buy enough al­lies in par­lia­ment to muster a ma­jor­ity and pass leg­is­la­tion that the mil­i­tary want, they have a fall-back po­si­tion. The con­sti­tu­tion still al­lows the mil­i­tary to sim­ply sus­pend the gov­ern­ment and take over when­ever they like. Well, when­ever they per­ceive a “se­cu­rity threat”, tech­ni­cally, but sol­diers are usu­ally pretty good at do­ing that.

Two weeks ago the civil­ian par­ties in par­lia­ment tried to change those parts of the con­sti­tu­tion. They also tried to drop the clause that was writ­ten to stop “Burma’s Man­dela”, No­bel Peace Prize win­ner Aung San Suu Kyi, from be­com­ing pres­i­dent. (She has two sons with Bri­tish pass­ports, and the con­sti­tu­tion says that no­body with “for­eign” ties can be pres­i­dent.) The sol­diers just used their 25 per cent block­ing mi­nor­ity to re­ject all the changes.

Aung San Suu Kyi now has un­til Satur­day to de­cide whether she will lead her Na­tional League for Democ­racy into the Novem­ber elec­tions, or boy­cott them as she did in 2010. In prin­ci­ple, it shouldn’t be a tough de­ci­sion. Her party could win by a land­slide – in­deed, it prob­a­bly would – but she still couldn’t be pres­i­dent, and any NLD-led gov­ern­ment would be per­ma­nently un­der threat of re­moval by the gen­er­als if it chal­lenged their priv­i­leges.

When she was asked in a press con­fer­ence last year how the democ­racy pro­ject was far­ing, she gave a one-word an­swer: “Stalled”. And in an in­ter­view in April she put the blame squarely on the coun­tries that used to sup- port her: “I would just like to re­mind you that I have been say­ing since 2012 that a bit of healthy scep­ti­cism would be very, very good, and that too many of our western friends are too op­ti­mistic about the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion process here.”

So the for­eign in­vestors piled in and the econ­omy is be­ing trans­formed, even though the mil­i­tary are re­ally still in charge. But Suu Kyi has made some se­ri­ous er­rors too. She took the gen­er­als’ prom­ises se­ri­ously enough to let her party run in by-elec­tions in 2011, and even took a seat in par­lia­ment her­self. She un­doubt­edly un­der­stood that it was a gam­ble, but un­for­tu­nately it failed.

So now she has no prac­ti­cal al­ter­na­tive to go down the road she chose in 2011: tak­ing part in the Novem­ber elec­tions de­spite all the lim­i­ta­tions on civil­ian power, and work­ing for change within the mil­i­tary-de­signed sys­tem even though she lends it cred­i­bil­ity by her co­op­er­a­tion.

Aung San Suu Kyi used to be a sym­bolic leader of great moral stature; now she is a prag­matic politi­cian who has to get her hands dirty. It can­not feel good, but it was in­evitably go­ing to end up more or less like this if she ever made any progress in her strug­gle to make Burma a demo­cratic coun­try. She HAS made some progress, and the mil­i­tary were in­evitably go­ing to push back. They never thought she was their friend or their ally.

The Burmese army has ruled the coun­try for 50 years, and it has done very well out of it. It has won this round of the strug­gle, but Burma is chang­ing: all the for­eign in­flu­ences com­ing in, all the new money, and a more or less free press are cre­at­ing new dy­nam­ics in the so­ci­ety. Aung San Suu Kyi is still in the game, and the game is not over yet.

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