Burma’s by-elections are overhyped

First off, it’s really breathtaking to see so many enthused Burmese, so many people anticipating a future of opportunity. It fills me with emotion, too. This sense of yearning, reconstruction of a totally damaged country. Maybe I could be a part of this recovery? But these are just far-off dreams. My dad would return to Burma in a heartbeat, if the country allowed dual citizenship. My family has spent hours gathered around the television, watching Youtube clips and news programs about the by-elections.

This interview of Kawhmu Township residents gives a pretty interesting and sincere look at voters’ aspirations. I found the 70-year-old voter who calls herself “daughter” (သမီး) charming.

But this is all just hype. The elections didn’t change the scheme or the pace of reforms. Perhaps the most important outcome was that the NLD and Suu Kyi were specifically accommodated so they would contest the elections (laws were amended so they would participate). I also thought the speed with which the Union Election Commission announced results was surprisingly fast. Results for most constituencies were available within a day.

Than Shwe and his brothers-in-arm must all be pleased at how well the so-called reforms have been humming along. There’s a Burmese proverb: asa kaung hma, ahnaung thaycha (အစကောင်းမှ အနှောင်းသေချာ), that the certainty of the future is contingent on a good start. They have laid out a sophisticated plan to ensure their survival. Simple as that.

As my mom put it, Thein Sein appears to be a puppet worked by shadowy figures, maneuvering these plays to gain credibility in the international arena. Thein Sein has already said he plans to retire in 2015, and even his indirect election (by other MPs) was planned from the start. He was deliberately chosen because he had the cleanest record of the bunch. “A king among lepers” or anu taw lu chaw (အနူတော လူချော).

There’s no doubt the roadmap to a disciplined democracy, emphasis on disciplined, is well underway. The country’s new commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Min Aung Hlaing, recently said that the military was prepared to defend the Constitution, to ensure the military’s role in politics. I don’t foresee the NLD’s ambitions to dismantle the present Constitution’s clauses on guaranteed military presence in parliament, to go away anytime soon.

It’s difficult to read the exact behind-the-scenes mechanisms driving the exact decisions being made. Like the Burmese proverb goes, politics is as hard to read as a parrot in a tree (ပြည်ထဲအရေး ပေါက်နဲ့ကျေး). But this has been cleverly orchestrated for years, not just the result of a sudden epiphany by Thein Sein or his advisers. And everything is falling into place as the planners predicted. Make no mistake, there isn’t a Burmese Spring or a glasnost happening here. Hah, the Economist called this opening “Yangon spring.”

State TV broadcasts announcements of all the seats NLD won.

Suu Kyi’s party won 43 out of 45 seats, including 4 in the Upper House and 37 in the Lower House. But these numbers are just a drop in the water. The fact that by-elections went to smoothly was simply because so much rides on this particular election, especially the coveted prize of abolished sanctions from the West. If the NLD had won any less, it would have cried foul and unleashed a storm of criticism. It is obviously in the government’s best interests to ensure NLD’s victory.

Campaign movie for the NLD, starring Burmese celebrities like Htun Eindra Bo and Lu Min. It’s fascinating to see how many celebrities have publicly endorsed this party.

The feeling of many in the overseas Burmese community is that Suu Kyi is being used as a pawn to legitimize the authority of the current government, plain and simple. No wonder Suu Kyi has been very careful in saying that NLD participated in these elections because it was the people’s will, and has practically praised nobody in the government except for Thein Sein.

Burma’s government has clearly shown signals to have sanctions lifted (since the 90s), so they are eager get business up and running without any impediments stat. Burmese officials seem to have studied Western sanctions well, including those of America and move away from their alliance with China. There’s an interview with a government adviser, where he remarks that US sanctions will be hard to lift quickly, because most require legislative approval.

I thought this article was really informative, in how other military-run countries like Brazil have transitioned to democracy. But Burma’s circumstances are very unusual–the military occupation of 50 years has wiped out the last class of decent civil servants and Western-educated professionals (think Hla Myint, father of modern development economics), so there’s not much know-how left in the country. Think of all those substandard roads being constructed by Lo Hsing Han’s Asia World and the like. Ever wonder why car accidents on long-distance roads are so common in the country? They lack construction know-how.

Investors expecting Myanmar to be another Vietnam are likely to be disappointed. Instead, they are likely to find a market more akin to Angola: a shattered nation with minimal human capital. Myanmar has a large labour force, but unlike Asian exporting powerhouses which focused government resources on education, the quality of its labour is extremely low. […] Today there are only a handful of well-educated younger Burmese skilled in information technology, communications, or management, which would make it hard for multinationals to build an office of any size in Myanmar.
Financial Times‘ “Beware talk of business-friendly Myanmar”

And all the talk of censorship reform seems over-exaggerated. I’ve read articles calling them the “most liberal press laws in Asia.” Laws in Burma are meaningless when “rule of law” is nothing but a phrase. Even politicians seem confused by the byzantine rules they’re supposed to abide by.

But I earnestly hope that I’m proven wrong. That in 10 years, that the Burma  the world has known for the past half century will be history.

Image from source.

3 thoughts on “Burma’s by-elections are overhyped

  1. Wagaung says:

    Some of us see their game plan from the start. Some are simply in denial, a small victory served on a platter reinforcing their desperate optimism. There are others who never accepted the sanctions as positive in any way. The international business class of banks and corporations typically sees it as a large untapped market of vast natural resources and cheap labour. The carrot and stick approach of the West never loses sight of the former’s interests.

    Daw Suu saw no alternative, and under pressure herself from the West for a different approach in order to break the stalemate, decided if you can’t fight them join them (one piece of advice that has been around for a long while). Cooptation leading to collaboration or a Trojan Horse, only time will tell. The jury is out.

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