On the way to Myanmar’s democracy Nirvana

By Malladi Rama Rao

Myanmar Parliament Building

Myanmar goes to polls on November 7 to elect its new law makers and new government, according to the brief announcement carried on the state radio and TV on Friday, Aug 13. The junta describes the one-day ballot as the final step in the roadmap to democracy, which is a very elaborate seven stage plan of Senior General Than Shwe to establish ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ in the country.

How far the forthcoming one-day election will be free and fair is any body’s guess. Political parties are denied breathing time to put their act together for contesting the election. They have been asked to file nominations between Aug 16 and 30. That means they are given just 18 days to complete their home work for contesting the 400-member parliament. Sept. 3 is set as deadline for withdrawal of nominations.

Myanmar politicians cannot claim that they are taken unawares by the Election Commission’s decision. The junta has been talking about elections for a long while, and has gone through several motions which are in effect nothing but clearing the decks for sartorial change by the prime minister and several of his colleagues. In fact, many candidates in the fray will be military officers, who have just doffed off their uniform.

“Every military ruler has a craving for legitimacy, and at some point of time, whether out of own interest or under external pressure, holds elections. Historically, most such elections do not usher in an unadulterated democracy. But quite too often, these regimented elections, which, in some countries saw the GHQ doubling up as the EC and Vote Counting Centre, paved the way over time to a semblance of democracy the world has come to accept. The developments in Myanmar fall into a familiar pattern, though with hope and cynicism in equal measure- hope that ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ is at best a half-way measure; cynicism that the ballot will herald a sartorial change from colourful uniform to three-piece suits with stripes,” says the writer.
This article first appeared on www.poreg.org

This is one reason why the criticism against the forthcoming elections rings hollow. Whatever be its other failings the Than Shwe regime did not hide its plans and planks from public view; these are designed from the word go to keep out Aung San Suu Kyi. She is not only barred from contesting elections but even the ballot is scheduled in such a way that it takes place a week before she ends her latest house arrest. If the arrest has been cited as the reason for her disqualification, the poll date is quarantined from her physical presence during the campaign period. The fact that her late husband was a foreigner (Britisher) also prohibits her from running for elections.

The election held in 1990 saw Aung San Suu Kyi lead her party, National League for Democracy, to victory securing 392 of the 492 seats on offer. But neither she nor her colleagues enjoyed the fruits of the landslide win. And the country remained under military rule. It was because the electoral outcome had effectively ruled out any role for the army in the national affairs.

The voting in the November election will not lead to limitations on the army, which is in the driver’s seat for five decades. The government to be formed will be effectively in the hands of serving and retired military officers.

The constitution adopted in 2008 expressly barred civilians from key ministries like defence, interior affairs and justice. And, created National Defence and Security Council, headed by the commander- in – chief, with powers to overrule the civilian government. The statute makes two other stipulations – one 25 per cent of parliamentary seats go to the military; two there can be no constitutional amendment unless more than 75 per cent of lawmakers give consent. Put mildly, the statute has taken every care to insulate the military from the civilian interference.

So, to crib that the election will not be free and fair is neither here nor there. Nor is the lament voiced by Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma that the junta was moving forward to hold the “sham election.” And the concern of the State Department spokesman, Noel Clay, “We remain concerned about the lack of a level playing field for opposition parties and the oppressive political environment in Burma”.

There is merit, nonetheless, in the criticism that the United States, European Union and the United Nations have failed to exercise “effective pressure” on the junta. Myanmar expatriates living in ASEAN member-states, Australia and the US have welded together as a powerful force. Naturally, they feel badly let down at a crucial time in their country’s history.

Aung Din echoed their mood, when he said, ‘The generals in Burma are now confident that the international community can’t and won’t do anything beyond issuing statements to stop their crimes against humanity and plan to build a permanent military dictatorship in the country’.

The US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell made a two-day visit to Myanmar in May. After his talks in Yangon, he said he was “profoundly disappointed” over the preparations for the election. And added, “What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy”.

From these remarks it is clear that Campbell had some inkling into the preparations for Nov 7 poll. If so, the question is, did he persuade the Junta to follow the universally accepted norms for democracy? Did he offer any incentives and speak of disincentives. The American preferred to be economical in his post-Yangon visit interaction with the media. So, we donot know what had exactly transpired during the visit.

In hindsight, it may be said, though in a very limited sense, that the West had not served the interests of Myanmar people and of democracy by refusing to enter into a dialogue with the junta for a fairly long time. Criticism that the institutions of law are weak and that there are no checks and balances in the country is one thing, and not helping a nation that is steeped in poverty despite nature’s bounty is another.

Whether it is the US, EU or the UN and their various organisations, they all appeared satisfied at least in the initial days with the backing to the pro-democracy campaigners stationed outside the Myanmar borders. By ignoring the people and their plight and steadfastly refusing to enter into a dialogue with the junta, the West has neither served its cause nor of the people of Myanmar.

For Washington or London or Brussels, talking to generals is not a new thing. They have always pampered the leaders in uniform, often at the cost of democratically elected leaders in the neighbourhood all across the globe in countries that appeared as important to serve their geo-political and strategic interests. Obviously, Myanmar did not fit that bill till recently, and hence its junta and people were allowed to fend for themselves.

ASEAN has every reason to shun Myanmar junta. Yet, the ten-nation grouping did not refuse to open the doors to Than Swe and his colleagues. What is more this most successful regional group did not wait to be influenced in its interaction with Myanmar by the actions of China. The west should have taken a cue from ASEAN, which has become a benchmark in regional cooperation. .

It was only last year that the Obama administration initiated a policy of re-engagement with Myanmar after years of trying to isolate the country. A number of visits by high-level American officials followed. But the junta made no concessions that Washington considered as high point on the road to democracy. And the generals’ decision to press ahead with the vote makes this amply clear.

Admittedly, the forthcoming election is a means to legitimize the military power and give it the trappings of civilian rule. Put differently, the election gives democratic gloss to the junta regime. The timing of the election, the short campaign period and the ban on chanting, marching or saying anything at rallies that could tarnish the country’s image (in other words criticism of the government) are nothing less than a calculated political ambush as a Burmese commentator in exile, Win Tin, says.

So much so, should there be a poll boycott, as suggested by Aung San Sui Kyi to her NLD cadres. It will be tempting to endorse her stand but larger interests of democracy and the policy of isolation so resolutely followed by the West offer compelling reasons to welcome the election. Howsoever deeply flawed an election is, it always represents the best chance of bringing about a change even haltingly.

Democracy is never picture perfect, anywhere. There are so many models in vogue today, each with its own trademark flaws. Even, the greatest democracy, the United States doesn’t have a text book perfect election system and vote counting methods, as Al Gore will testify to the discomfort of George Bush junior. The Westminster model is not as hollowed as it is made out to be, going by the scandals that surfaced during Prime Minister Brown’s term.

Any how there is no single model of democracy even in the Asian region – there is the Rajapaksa model, which is one –family rule that relies on the police and bureaucracy rather than the elected lawmakers; there is the Pakistani model which is another name for military dictatorship through the backdoor; the Malaysian model, which defies a straightjacket definition; the Afghanistan model of tribal jirgas that decide the course of social and government interaction’, and above all, the Indian model that is both federal and unitary in character with a three-tier elected democratic institutions in the provinces.

The point is each country has to evolve and adopt a democratic system based on its own core values and learning from others’ experience. From a Zia to Musharraf and from an Ershad to a Mugabwe, every dictator has a craving for legitimacy, and at some point of time, whether out of own interest or under external pressure, holds elections.

Historically, most such elections do not usher in an unadulterated democracy. But quite too often, these regimented elections, which, in some countries saw the General Headquarters doubling up as the proxy Election Commission and Vote Counting Centre, paved the way over time to a semblance of democracy the world has come to accept. The developments in Myanmar fall into a familiar pattern.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s call to NLD to boycott the election deserves to be respected. So is the decision of Democratic Party chairman Thu Wai, who is upset that special branch police were visiting the homes of his cadres for personal information and two photos each. By the same token, the resolve of some colleagues of Aung San Suu Kyi to enter the fray as the National Democratic Force deserves to be treated with respect. Obviously, these leaders believe in the age old dictum that not retreat into a shell, but constant engagement with the rulers is the best way out to reach the cherished goal.

By the last official count, at least 40 parties have registered to join the elections. Only five of them had fought the 1990 general election. Amongst the new parties, the most prominent is the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is the junta’s platform, and, therefore, pampered with state money and special privileges. Most other parties represent ethnic minority groups with local agendas.

It is unclear how many of the country’s marginalized ethnic minorities will take part in the ballot. Myanmar is home to 135 officially recognized minorities, who make up 40 percent of the population of 50 million. Many of these ethnic groups lead what may be loosely called an autonomous existence as adversaries of the government in Yangon. .

The Election Commission has designated one parliamentary constituency for each ethnic minority in each of the seven regions and seven states. Sagaing, Tanintharyi, Bago, Magway, Ayeyawaddy, Yangon and Mandalay are the regions; Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Chin are the states under the new constitution. The election law reads: the region or state parliament will be made up of two representatives from each township in the region or state with each representative elected from each ethnic minority determined by the authorities as having a population which constitutes 0.1 percent and above of the population of the union. The law reserves one-third of the total number of parliamentary seats for the military personnel nominated by the commander-in-chief of the defense services in the region or state parliamentary election.

In March this year, State Peace Development Council, the ruling junta passed a set of five electoral laws, namely Union Election Commission Law, Political Parties Registration Law, People’s Parliament Election Law, Nationalities Parliament Election Law and Region or State Parliament Election Law. As a follow-up, the SPDC formed a 17-member Union Election Commission led by U-Thein-Soe. On its part, the poll body has designated 330 constituencies for the House of Representatives and 12 constituencies for the House of Nationalities in the multi-party mode.

By all accounts, Myanmar is entering an unchartered territory with hope and cynicism in equal measure – hope that ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ an euphemism for ‘controlled’ democracy is at best a half-way measure; cynicism that the ballot will herald a sartorial change with colourful uniform giving place to three-piece suits with stripes.

Both schools have a point as they stand at the threshold of a new dawn. The jury is still out.

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