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Burma: The Lady, the General, and the Future

There are good generals in Burma – that is, generals who are not too corrupt, not too brutal, and not absolutely determined to maintain military control of the country forever. One such general is Thura Shwe Mann.

Shwe Mann retired from the army in 2010 to lead the newly created Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a civilian front for the generals who still really control the country. Since that election was boycotted by the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi (known simply as “the Lady” to most Burmese), the USDP ended up with a majority and Shwe Mann became the speaker of parliament.

There was nothing in his past to suggest that he would ever jump the fence: he fought three successful campaigns against various minority ethnic groups featuring the usual human rights violations, and he was number three in the military hierarchy by the time he retired. But Shwe Mann is now Suu Kyi’s best hope for a peaceful transition to a real democratic government after next Sunday’s national election.

Something happened to Shwe Mann on the way to this election. Maybe it was just the realisation that he might end up as president if he played his cards rights, but he certainly talks differently these days: “Now we are in a democracy, a different form of government that requires total dedication….Our people are living below the poverty line. We have to change everything.”

That’s also what Aung San Suu Kyi wants to do: change everything. She wants to end the army’s control of 25 percent of the seats in parliament. She wants to get it out of the economy (the military now directly or indirectly control half the Burmese economy.) And above all she wants to stand for the presidency (the constitution written by the army forbids her to run).

Could the Lady and the General actually cooperate? It looked like that to the current president, ex-general Thein Sein, because Shwe Mann was openly talking about a possible post-election coalition that would include both his own USDP and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). So in September troops surrounded the USDP’s headquarters – and when they left Shwe Mann was no longer the party’s leader.

Suu Kyi will still probably need Shwe Mann, because this election is not going to be like the last free election in 1990, when the NLD swept the board. (Of course, the military just ignored the outcome and Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the intervening quarter-century in jail or under house arrest, so there is no foolproof formula for political success in Burma.)

But the military clearly don’t want to go back to that style of rule now, because the facade of democracy has ended sanctions, foreign investment is rolling in, and army officers are getting rich. So much better if you can sabotage the actual democracy without destroying the facade.
Athough the NLD will probably get a big win in this election, it will have trouble turning that into a government. It hasn’t managed to attract the support of the ethnic minorities, who see it as an ethnic Burmese party with the usual centralising instincts. It must also face the fact that 25 percent of the members of parliament will be military officers appointed by the high command.

And the USDP, although tainted by its military origin, will gain votes because of a shamelessly Islamophobic campaign by ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks who paint Suu Kyi’s NLD as a pro-Muslim party. Suu Kyi should defend Burma’s beleaguered Muslim minority (only 4 percent), but she dares not do so publicly because that would lose her even more votes.

So here’s the deal. The NLD will win more than 50 percent of the seats, but it probably won’t get 67 percent, which is what it would need to elect a president over the opposition of the military bloc in parliament. Suu Kyi can’t run for the presidency anyway, because the constitution, written especially with her in mind, says the president must not have foreign relatives. (Suu Kyi’s husband was English, so her two sons have British passports.)

But if Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann form a coalition – although he is no longer the USDP’s leader, he could probably bring a large chunk of his party with him – then that coalition could elect a new president and form a government. The president would have to be Shwe Mann (for constitutional reasons), but Suu Kyi could be the most powerful member of his cabinet, which would be loaded with NLD members.

Not a marriage made in heaven, perhaps, but much better than an anti-democratic coup by a panicked military. Burma was never going to become a full democracy in a single breath-taking leap, but this outcome would get it a long way down the road without panicking the army.

Burma has been ruled by brutal, ignorant and incompetent soldiers for more than fifty years, and what was once the richest country in South-East Asia is now the poorest. It’s time for a change. Take what you can get now, and come back for more later.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 10 and 13. (“But the military…facade”; “And the USDP…votes”; and “Not…military”)