Thugocracy = Burma’s (future) disciplined democracy

The following is a good article from The Economist on Burma’s completion of its first step on its Roadmap to Democracy:

A charter for thugocracy
Sep 6th 2007 | BANGKOK

The curtain falls on a long-running farce, with Myanmar no nearer democracy

AFTER 14 years of intermittent meetings and tortured prevarication, a constitutional commission appointed by Myanmar’s junta has come up with the answer it first thought of: to entrench military rule in the benighted country. This week the 1,000 members of the National Convention wound up their work, producing a document outlining the principles to underpin a new constitution. It will give a thin democratic façade to continued military rule. After the actual drafting of the constitution, it will be put to a referendum—probably next year, say officials. Elections would then be held in 2009.

At the closing session of the convention, Myanmar’s acting prime minister, General Thein Sein, presented its conclusion, offering what the regime regards as “disciplined democracy”, as a roaring success. Yet the country’s most popular politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), is under house arrest and has in effect been excluded from the process. So have the numerous groups representing ethnic insurgencies.

Under the guidelines, a quarter of the seats in parliament will be reserved for military appointees. The president will be a military man, and the army will control important ministries, including defence and home affairs. The army would set its own budget, and would retain the right to declare a state of emergency and seize power whenever deemed necessary.

The charter would ban Miss Suu Kyi, as the widow of a foreigner, from holding elected office. It has also disappointed the hopes of the country’s various rebel ethnic groups for greater autonomy. Most of these used to wage armed insurgencies but now have ceasefires with the junta. Many are now so dissatisfied with the charter that they have begun to rearm and are threatening to resume fighting.

On the pretext of “national security” the guidelines also severely curtail civil liberties and the rights of political parties, which, as yet, are unable to operate openly in Myanmar. With the exception of its headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, the offices of the NLD have been shut by the junta for years. Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog, estimates there are more than 1,000 political prisoners in the country.

On a secret visit to Beijing earlier this year, the country’s army chief, Thura Shwe Mann, told Chinese leaders that Miss Suu Kyi could not be released as she remained a big security risk. It is still unclear whether her party, the NLD, will be allowed to run in the elections. Last November, Myanmar’s most senior general, Than Shwe, said it would be allowed to field candidates. Most probably, however, the generals will find a pretext to disqualify them.

The NLD convincingly won the last elections, held in May 1990, taking more than 80% of the seats. But the army refused to recognise the results. Now the regime insists it is committed to introducing multiparty democracy. But diplomats in Yangon and the pro-democracy opposition in Myanmar think Miss Suu Kyi got it right back in 1995, when she called the convention “an absolute farce”.

Recent protests against rising fuel and food prices were put down brutally. Several thousand vigilantes, armed with wooden batons, attacked protesters in Yangon, leaving them badly beaten. The authorities have arrested hundreds of people for organising or taking part in small protests that have taken place all over Myanmar in the past few weeks. This week around 1,000 marchers joined the latest demonstration, the biggest so far, in central Myanmar, before pro-government thugs dispersed it.

The vigilantes are part of a pro-government “community group”, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, whose thugs attacked Miss Suu Kyi in 2003, when she was touring in the north of the country. The regime that deploys them seems little interested in democracy. But nor does it seem self-confident.

I wrote about the the constitutional charter a few months back, and it seems the latest version is no different, at least according to The Economist. Except for one thing: the Burmese national flag’s star is in the center, not on the upper left-hand corner, as I had written earlier this year (and the colored stripes have switched places).

I guess the government really does believe it can fool the world by presenting a ‘disciplined democracy.’ I read an article in The Irrawaddy some time back about how the SPDC had studied Indonesia’s dwifungsi doctrine (according to a doctrine of their own evolution, under which they undertook a double role as both defenders of the nation and as a social-political force in national development.), to allot military participation in politics. The Burmese government’s reasoning is this: without the military, Burma as we know it today would fall apart, with the Shans, Karens and the myriad of other ethnic minorities calling for independence and dissolving, “the Union [of Burma].” Also, the military justifies its presence in politics to make sure Burmese voters don’t elect charlatans and what have you, sort of like how Americans indirectly elect the President, because the Founding Fathers believed voters might not elect proper people for the position.

But I have to ask one question: has the military government ruled to the benefit of the Burmese people? It may have created temporary stability, by brokering a series of tentative ceasefires with ethnic militias, but throughout the course of its rule, has only worsened Burma’s economic state. Inflation has increased. Unemployment has increased. Drug use has increased. The majority of people have not benefited from a more open economy. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees, millions of people without citizenship and scores of people with HIV/AIDS (Burma is #3 in Asia for HIV/AIDS cases, after Cambodia and Thailand).

How long will the military government think it can fool itself? Its leaders are uneducated but very clever. They have little experience in policy-making and good governance. But there’s a general misinterpretation of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) leaders. They have been able to retain power for so long because they are smart and calculating. Each move they make is done for a good reason. I personally believe that the increase of fuel prices in Burma was done so that pro-junta parties can use this as a political platform for lowering prices. Or it may be used to rouse the Burmese people.

But protests continue, sprouting like mushrooms throughout the country. In a very recent one, 500 Buddhist monks in Pakkoku protested, only to be met with brute force by USDA and Swan Arr Shin members. A day later, Burmese officials went to the primary monastery to apologize for physically assaulting monks, but the monks took the officials hostage, in exchange for 10 monks in jail. Things may be getting out of hand and I pray they don’t. The last thing the Burmese people need is another repeat of the 8888 uprisings or something similar. The government cannot repeal the fuel price hikes–it would prove that protesting works.


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