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Burma: The Generals Win Again

It’s game, set and match to the Burmese generals. On Wednesday they finally announced the date of the general election that was once seen as the real dawn of democracy in Burma: 8 November. But the army will emerge as the winner once again.

The political party that was created to support the generals, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, will not win a majority of the seats in the new parliament. Indeed, it may win very few. But serving military officers will still have 25 percent of the seats, in accordance with the 2008 constitution (written by the military), and that will be enough to preserve military rule.

The spokesman of Burma’s president, former General Thein Sein, tried to put a positive spin on this in an interview last month. “In the past the military was 100 percent in control of the country,” he told Peter Popham of The Independent. “Today it is only 25 percent in control.” But that’s not true: it is still 100 percent in control.

Those military officers (who wear their uniforms in parliament and vote in a bloc as the army high command decrees) will continue to dominate politics, because 25 percent of the votes, according to that 2008 constitution, can block any changes to the constitution.

And if they can’t find or buy enough allies in parliament to muster a majority and pass legislation that the military want, they have a fall-back position. The constitution still allows the military to simply suspend the government and take over whenever they like. Well, whenever they perceive a “security threat”, technically, but soldiers are usually pretty good at doing that.

Two weeks ago the civilian parties in parliament tried to change those parts of the constitution. They also tried to drop the clause that was written to stop “Burma’s Mandela”, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, from becoming president. (She has two sons with British passports, and the constitution says that nobody with “foreign” ties can be president.) The soldiers just used their 25 percent blocking minority to reject all the changes.

Aung San Suu Kyi now has until Saturday to decide whether she will lead her National League for Democracy into the November elections, or boycott them as she did in 2010. In principle, it shouldn’t be a tough decision. Her party could win by a landslide – indeed, it probably would – but she still couldn’t be president, and any NLD-led government would be permanently under threat of removal by the generals if it challenged their privileges.

When she was asked in a press conference last year how the democracy project was faring, she gave a one-word answer: “Stalled”. And in an interview in April she put the blame squarely on the countries that used to support her: “I would just like to remind you that I have been saying since 2012 that a bit of healthy scepticism would be very, very good, and that too many of our western friends are too optimistic about the democratisation process here.”

It’s quite true that just the promise of democratisation was enough to end the long-standing Western economic sanctions against Burma and unleash a tidal wave of foreign investment in the country. After fifty years of military rule during which the soldiers got very rich, Burma is the poorest country in South-East Asia (it used to be the richest), but it does have huge, mostly unexploited natural resources.

So the foreign investors piled in and the economy is being transformed, even though the military are really still in charge. But Suu Kyi has made some serious errors too. She took the generals’ promises seriously enough to let her party run in by-elections in 2011, and even took a seat in parliament herself. She undoubtedly understood that it was a gamble, but unfortunately it failed.

So now she has no practical alternative to going down the road she chose in 2011: taking part in the November elections despite all the limitations on civilian power, and working for change within the military-designed system even though she lends it credibility by her cooperation.

Aung San Suu Kyi used to be a symbolic leader of great moral stature; now she is a pragmatic politician who has to get her hands dirty. It cannot feel good, but it was inevitably going to end up more or less like this if she ever made any progress in her struggle to make Burma a democratic country. She HAS made some progress, and the military were inevitably going to push back. They never thought she was their friend or their ally.

The Burmese army has ruled the country for fifty years, and it has done very well out of it. It has won this round of the struggle, but Burma is changing: all the foreign influences coming in, all the new money, and a more or less free press are creating new dynamics in the society. Aung San Suu Kyi is still in the game, and the game is not over yet.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3and 9 (“The spokesman..control”; and (“It’s quite…resources”)