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General Thein Sein

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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”)

Battle for Burma

17 April 2013

The Battle for Burma

By Gwynne Dyer

Last month, as the anti-Muslim violence in Burma spread from Rakhine state in western Burma to the central Burmese city of Meiktila, Aung San Suu Kyi sat among the generals on the reviewing stand as the Burmese army marched past on Armed Forces Day. She is seen as a saint by many people – but she didn’t say anything about Meiktila, where just days before at least 40 people were killed and 12,000 made homeless.

She hasn’t condemned the far greater violence against the Muslim Rohingyas of Rakhine state during the past year either, but there she had at least the flimsy excuse that this group are portrayed by the military regime as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The military regime even revoked their Burmese citizenship in 1982, and they have never got it back.

The claim that the Rohingyas are foreigners is a despicable lie – the first written mention of Rohingyas in Rakhine dates back to 1799 – but Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t say that. She just murmured that “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” Meiktila, however, was different.

The Muslims of Meiktila, who make up a third of the city’s population, are not Rohingya, and there is no question about their Burmese citizenship. There is a large military base in Meiktila, and yet for two days the army did not intervene to protect the Muslims. And once again, Aung San Suu Kyi did not condemn what was happening. What is going on here?

There is a long game being played in Burma, and we will not know its outcome until the national elections scheduled for 2015. The officer who launched a democratic transition after he became president in 2011, General Thein Sein, seems willing to return the country to civilian control after fifty years of military rule– but he certainly intends to retain a major role for the army in Burma’s politics.

Thein Sein’s main motive for withdrawing the military from power is probably to end the country’s pariah status. As a result of the brutal and corrupt rule of the generals, Burma has long been the poorest country in the region. But there are several reasons why he would want to keep the army’s influence high.

One reason is that his fellow generals would overthrow him if he did not protect them from future prosecution for their past crimes. Another is that the army is obsessed with maintaining Burma’s unity.

Only two-thirds of the country’s 60 million people are actually ethnic Burmese, living mostly in the Irrawaddy river basin. All around the frontiers are large ethnic minorities – Shan, Karen, Mon, Kachin – most of which have fought against the centralising policies of the military dictatorship in the past.

The military don’t believe that a strictly civilian government would be tough enough to hold the country together, so they have no intention of giving up power completely. As things stand now, however, that is precisely what will happen: in last year’s by-elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 43 out of 44 parliamentary seats at stake. The military’s candidates would be simply wiped out in the 2015 elections.

The army has to find some way to make itself more popular politically, and the obvious way is to position itself as the defender of Burmese unity against treacherous minorities. Then it might win support from the majority population – or so it clearly believes.

The real separatists are way up on the frontiers of the country, far from the view of the majority population – but the Muslim (5 percent), Chinese (2.5 percent) and Indian (1.5 percent) minorities live right amongst the ethnic Burmese majority. So far only the Muslims have been targeted, but there is reason to suspect that the military were implicated even in the first outbreak of anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine.

There is no doubt that the army is now complicit in anti-Muslim violence elsewhere in Burma. The military are clearly hoping that Aung San Suu Kyi will speak out in defence of the Muslim Burmese, and thereby lose her popular support among the highly nationalistic majority. Knowing this, she has chosen to remain silent, presumably thinking that all this can be fixed after she wins the 2015 election. This is almost certainly a mistake.

The transition from a long-lasting tyranny to a democracy is particularly tricky in ethnically complicated countries, and there are two recent examples that might offer her some guidance.

One was the end of Communist rule in Yugoslavia in 1991, when the Serbian Communist elite, led by Slobodan Milosevic, tried to keep its hold on power by playing on Serbian resentment of the other nationalities. The result was a decade of war and the fragmentation of the former Yugoslav federation into seven successor states.

The other was South Africa, an even more complex ethnic stew. There the ruling white minority surrendered power voluntarily, and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress did not pursue the politics of vengeance. As a result, the country is democratic, and it is still united and at peace.

At some point in the next two years, Aung San Suu Kyi is going to have to decide which way she wants to go.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“Transition…peace”)