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Asean Affairs  10 November 2010

Burma: Election opens Pandora’s Box

Myint Shwe

By  Myint Shwe
AseanAffairs     10 November 2010

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, as von Clausewitz said, Burma stands to be a good candidate for this after an internationally condemned election.

“Civil war will resume after it”, writes a friend of mine in the GTalk chat box the night before election. His fear is shared by many in Rangoon, including politicians who stood in the election. Pessimism may or may not be proved but life after the election will not be the same as before for this Southeast Asian nation where a plethora of problems have been pending until this election is over.

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Burma possesses many characteristics of a failed state. One highly visible manifestation is the existence of numerous rival ethnic minority armies vis-à-vis the central government manned by majority Bamars or Burmese. The new Constitution of 2008 should have been the solution for the core problems of the country. Rather, it has become part of the problem. Talks about revising the new constitution among Burmese politicians were common even before the draft was put to the referendum.

Accordingly Burma watchers worldwide viewed the election more as the beginning of the next round of mess than the end of the military era.

The constitution has a phrase which says, “Tamadaw (military) share a leading role in national politics,” which means it can intervene in civilian affairs but not vice versa. The nation’s new Assembly will accept two kinds of legislators. The civilian half (three quarters of the total seats) is elected. The military half (one quarter of seats) are officers to be sent directly by the Defense Chief of Staff who holds the status of Vice President ex officio. Also he will choose his successor.

It is highly likely that the regime nurtured Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which has won most of the seats, will ally with the military representatives, to dominate the legislature and push its candidate to the presidency.

Technically, the president is to be chosen by voting in the Assembly out of three candidates who can be anyone, each proposed by three contingents of the assembly: the popular, the ethnic and the military. Though he is not to be chosen directly by popular votes yet the president is the real top executive with power configurations mimicking that of the U.S president. He can invite any individual, elected or nonelected, to form the cabinet.

There is no candidate of U Thant or Aung San Suu Kyi’s stature available from among civilians to represent Burma on the international stage. Half a century of military dictatorship has cut the potentiality of acorns becoming oaks. The woman who is the darling of the West is disqualified by the constitution.

Western democracies will be reluctant to roll out the red carpet for a Burmese president who is an ex-junta member and produced by an election they have rejected. Andrew Heyn, the British Ambassador to Burma, said the new government will be just “old wine in a new bottle.”

Thus to elect a President acceptable to all segments of the country especially non-Burmese minorities could be the first problem of the immediate post-election months. There are a few new generation military officers who have modern educations and are more liberal minded. But nobody can read the mind of the notoriously unpredictable junta supremo, Than Shwe. It remains to be seen whether he can find a Burmese equivalent of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Thanks to mammoth foreign direct investment from neighbors – China, Thailand, Singapore - the economy at the macro level is starting a takeoff. But life of the common people remains bleak. Not much of the “trickle down effect” is seen yet. “Rangoon looks like one big slum,” remarked a Malaysian businessman who has recently visited it.

Oppressive laws, absolute poverty, mass unemployment, polarized rich poor gap, government corruption, lack of opportunity and decaying public morality are inflicting the population. Problems which brought down the Socialist government in 1988 are still reigning.

Lifting of economic sanctions could be linked to the re-accommodation of pro Western elements back into mainstream politics, most importantly Suu Kyi who is expected to be released next week. However, in final analysis, all these issues are matters of secondary importance when compared to what all the Burmese refer to as, “national reconciliation.”

The long civil war remains to be concluded once and for all. Between 1989 and 1995, the Government signed ceasefire deals with 15 ethnic rebel groups. Among the largest are the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kachin Independence Organization, (KIO).

The UWSA is believed to have 20000 under arms whereas the Kachins have 4000. Ceasefire groups are allowed to keep their arms, parts of their territory and commercial interests. However, the civil war has been - to quote a Swedish journalist who is close to them, only frozen. Since the Border Guard Force project began to incorporate them into the national defence system many have gone back to belligerency.

Burma’s pacification constitutes more than a domestic problem. The two largest ceasefire groups, the UWSA and the KIO, have been cooperating with Naga rebels of Northeastern India for a long time. According to Indian sources, China’s decommissioned models of AK 47 and M15 assault rifles are reproduced and shipped to India’s Northeast through Burma’s rebel territories.

Naga guerrillas have dozens of base camps on the Burmese side of the border occasionally taking military trainings from Kachins. The USWA plants are producing weapons for sales, hiring retired Chinese army technicians with blueprints discarded by the PLA. The ceasefire groups deny government missions permission to enter their territory to investigate. Production of small arms as well as narcotics in the rebel territories are well known to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as well as Chinese, Indian and Thai governments.

Some independent Indian researchers even claimed that arm dealers have a clearing house in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and weapons are supplied to Islamic terrorists farther west. Successive Indian governments are coordinating with the Burmese government at least to curb it but without much success due to the deadlock faced by the latter.

Lately, the junta government has evacuated civil servants, schools teachers and healthcare staffs from rebel controlled areas. News about the government’s increasing air capability and ground movements as well as fresh recruitments on the rebel side have caused locals to be alarmed. However, preparations for war so far remain only maneuvers. Both sides seem to be calculating the overall costs of war, economic as well as political.

“As long as the government troops do not start the shooting, there won’t be war. We do not want it happen, not at all,” says Col. James Landau, a senior official at KIA foreign office in Bangkok. This can be the same with the UWSA.

Many believe the junta is just waiting for the arrival of new government to seek a mandate to eliminate the armed defiance with full force. This is a plausible concern. But if it is to happen, it should happen only after another effort to solve it politically is exhausted.

Given that two thirds of the parties that stood in the election are ethnically formed and no less than a third of national level seats (200-250) are expected to be won by them, the new legislature should be the most legitimate place to decide the matter. The Shan National Democratic Party (SNDP) from Shan State which envelopes the Wa autonomous region is poised to win fairly and be influential on minority affairs.

Then, if prayers are answered, Aung San Suu Kyi is coming out on Saturday, at a time when people are still excited by the regime’s controlled mobilization for election purpose. But mild excitement may grow bigger as stories of vote riggings by the regime’s own party, the USDP, keep being reported.

On the other hand, increased freedoms and tolerance on the side of the regime will be taken for granted by the general public under a perception that they deserve such decency now. There has still been no official information about the size of the turnout. Political parties reported a 60 percent turnout in Rangoon but reporters covering the election said that many of the polling places they visited appeared empty.

The new public mood also coincides with Suu Kyi’s release date which can complicate the fluid situation farther. The regime has brought in a previously marginalized political force, i.e., the ‘Third Forces’ parties that stood in the election. Many of them felt the regime has bought them up too cheaply. At balance, it amounts to adding up one more political element to contain besides Suu Kyi and ethnic minorities. If Suu Kyi can soften her stance and work with the given situation, the shape and trend of new power relations and the new dynamics, what will happen is anyone’s guess.

The 90 days before the first session of the legislature begins is critically important. The election in theory is the first step of controlled liberalization. Even if the whole of junta’s political transition process namely, Road map to Democracy, is nothing but continued selling of “old wine in a new bottle” as critics charge, the new bottle should be, at least, attractive enough.

Myint Shwe is a freelance journalist and a long time Burma Watcher, formerly a political prisoner under Gen. Ne Win's socialist regime. He now based in Toronto, A York University Alumnus, M.A (Political Science)

Paul A. Ebeling, Jnr

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