Jury's out on Myanmar's election
6 June 2009
By Swe Win
The ongoing trial and anticipated incarceration of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has revealed the impotency of Myanmar's opposition forces and the inability of the outside world to affect change with the embattled country's ruling military junta.
Even before the trial resumes on June 12 and the international scrutiny eventually begins to fade, the pro-democracy movement must confront the grim challenges to its continued political survival. The international community, led by the European Union, the United States and the United Nations, will also be sent back to the diplomatic drawing board to weigh alternative strategies to somehow engage the xenophobic government. Meanwhile, the suffering of Myanmar's citizens continues.
The next big benchmark for all concerned is the scheduled 2010 national elections - the so-called "road-map to democracy".
While the trial of Suu Kyi has been taking place, the Myanmar regime has not stopped its preparations for the controversial vote. Regional commanders are increasingly making campaign trips to different parts of the country, expounding election rhetoric to locals. The generals have also urged government-aligned businessmen and entrepreneurs to stand in the election. Even the rare regional criticism have had little visible effect.
There are reports that many political groups are waiting for the enactment of an election law expected to come out this year before making their decision on the election. At this point, however, the only confirmed candidate parties are the government's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the government-backed Union of Solidarity and Development Organization (USDO), an allegedly thuggish force used to suppress anti-government activities.
Some within the opposition camp are now claiming that the 2010 election might not happen at all if Suu Kyi is jailed, as is widely expected. "If the junta jail her they might as well forget about 2010 and any semblance of credibility - without her and the NLD [the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy], 2010 is rubbish," said Dr Maung Zarni, a leading activist and founder of the Free Burma Coalition whose efforts led to the withdrawal of the Pepsi company from Myanmar.
According to one analyst, the regime seems prepared to proceed from "show proceedings" to a "show civilian government". A source from Naypyidaw, the new capital, said that the government had already ordered furniture for congress, parliament and the supreme court.
Despite the likelihood of Suu Kyi's extended jail term and the unlikelihood of the regime agreeing to the NLD's preconditions, a senior NLD opposition leader in Myanmar has not ruled out joining the election.
"We cannot be too emotional about her. We still have to wait and see," the leader who requested anonymity told Asia Times Online.
Others anticipate that the forthcoming election laws will strip the NLD of its status as a legal party. For the generals, the NLD's abolishment would burn any tenuous claim the government had to a credible democratic process. For all the criticism of its inefficient leadership, the NLD has served the people as a symbol of hope. In the consciousness of the Myanmar public, the NLD has fought against injustice on their behalf.
This kind of illusory emotional dependence might be why the regime did not completely quash the entire NLD leadership years ago. Instead, the party was allowed to exist as a suppressed and dysfunctional political entity - a group occasionally made a scapegoat by the regime for all the problems facing the country.
As the drumbeat of international condemnation for the government continues, political forces in exile have stepped up calls to punish the regime. These forces - a disparate group of some seven alliances comprising more than 100 parties - are harboring hopes that people inside the country will launch a revolution.
The calls have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Even though such a revolution is not theoretically impossible, another 1988 uprising or Saffron Revolution such as in 2007 would not come about without brave citizens prepared to sacrifice their lives in street battles against machine gun-toting soldiers.
Successive generations have fought against the regime since its 1962 coup against a civilian government. All have been brutally suppressed. As evidenced by the monks-led protests in 2007, it was not the scholars, opposition leaders and campaigners, most of whom sought exile, or political leaders inside the country, most of whose children are studying or working abroad, who took to the streets. Instead, it was disgruntled and mostly uneducated young people who strode forward against the flying bullets.
A majority of young people such as these are from poor families. They anticipate only two things: to join in detonating what former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew called the "time-bomb" of Myanmar's dictatorship; or to leave their homeland to work and study abroad.
It is these young people faced with a defunct education system and an crumbling economy who will determine the future of Myanmar. It is important to understand what they face.
A crisis of education
Each day, throngs of people jostle for passports at the Burmese Immigration Office in Yangon. The sought-after exodus attests to the colossal damage successive military leaders have done to the country. Commuting in overcrowded buses, an average worker makes an equivalent of $30 per month. Sometimes, it is the only source of income for a whole family.
Many high school graduates leave for neighboring countries to work as laborers.
It wasn't always this way. The now-shuttered Rangoon University was once the most prestigious university in Southeast Asia. Now, students in state-run universities newly built in remote parts of Myanmar are not allowed to visit any other department from that where they study. Entrances are protected by iron doors and guarded by university lecturers forced to work as security staff. Any kind of group activity is discouraged.
In the bleak classrooms, students memorize a 20-page history book about the British colonization in English, which they already learned throughout high school in Burmese. According to a 2008 study by Macquarie University, Myanmar spends a mere 1.4% of gross domestic product on health and education, less than half that spent by the next poorest member of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN).
The regime tried its own style of a market economy in the early 1990s, and was successful to some extent from 1995-1997. "The generals think they can follow China's model by enticing people with money and making them forget about politics," said a local resident in Yangon. "The short period of economic prosperity was almost spawning a generation indifferent to politics and distant to the 8888 uprising. They lost that generation in the Saffron Revolution."
With no legal enforcement and rampant corruption, the market economy turned into a failure. The junta is now eviscerating the country's natural resources for its only source of income. Much of an estimated $2.5 billion from the annual gas export is being used to build the new capital, Naypyidaw, according to local reports.
Acts of atonement
The killing of monks in 2007 created a discord in the monastic order, an act considered a great crime to Myanmar's Buddhists. In response, junta chief Senior General Than Shwe has used a bewildering variety of methods to make up for his crimes of karma and sustain his rule. For one thing, commissioning a jade Buddha image resembling his appearance and facial proportions in Shwedagon, the largest pagoda in Myanmar. Also ubiquitous all over the country are Buddha images he and his family donated. Many of those images are strangely housed in glass cases, presumably on astrological advice.
"Glass in Burmese pronunciation is hman meaning 'correct'. So, every time you look at the Buddha image through the glass, you are supposed to have the impression that he [Than Shwe] is correct," said the same local resident who declined to be named.
Despite reports that there are officers within the military establishment who resent Than Shwe's idiosyncrasies and alleged crimes against his own people, it is doubtful many in the military will turn against the system on which they depend. There is a fierce animosity towards military personnel among the Myanmar public.
While the trial of Suu Kyi continues, Myanmar citizens can't but look on in despair. Defiance is shown in small, personal ways: some release balloons, others free fishes and the most daring distribute photos of Suu Kyi.
Towards evenings in Yangon, old people tune in to the Burmese-language broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in an attempt to smother their anger. Many young men march to cafes to watch football, while many girls and women glue themselves to Korean movies nightly broadcast by state-run television.
Under the decades of dictatorship, the citizens of Myanmar have become masters of resilience, even in the most difficult circumstances. As long as the current injustice keeps going on, they will be forced to do so once again.
By Swe Win
Swe Win is a former political prisoner now working as a freelance reporter.
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