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Peter Popham

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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”)

What’s Wrong with Italy?

1 March 2007

What’s Wrong with Italy?

By Gwynne Dyer

The most extreme diagnosis of Italy’s problem was offered by journalist Peter Popham in the Independent. He blamed it all on the Vatican: “Imagine that Hitler did not die in his bunker in 1945 but instead cut a deal with the new West German government, giving him continued sovereignty over a small patch of Berlin — and continued intellectual hegemony over the millions he had brainwashed during the previous decade….Italy’s Vatican problem is a lot like that, with the difference that the Church has been wielding its mind-control for nearly two millennia.”

The trigger for this extraordinary outburst was the week-long political crisis that nearly brought down Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s centre-left government, Italy’s 61st since the Second World War. Yet Popham is not anti-Catholic. It’s just that, like most people who spend a lot of time in Italy, he has simultaneously fallen in love with the country and utterly lost patience with it.

It’s an affliction he shares with a great many Italians: no country except Argentina spends more time debating what is wrong with it. He blamed the Vatican on this occasion because the crisis was provoked by a government plan to legalise “civil unions” (marriages by another name) even for gays, which greatly annoyed the Catholic Church. But it’s more complicated than that.

The vote that Prodi’s government lost was actually on a proposal to leave 1,900 Italian troops in Afghanistan until 2011 and to double the size of an American military base outside Vicenza. Both projects are very unpopular in Italy, but they were part of the deal that created the nine-party coalition behind Prodi’s government, and only two senators from the far left defected in the key vote on 21 February.

The government would still have won the vote if senator-for-life Giulio Andreotti had not unexpectedly voted against it. But the 87-year-old Andreotti, seven times prime minister and often known as the “Prince of Darkness,” is a strong supporter of NATO and the American alliance, so why would he vote against that bill? Because it was going to be so close that his surprise “no” vote could bring Prodi’s government down.

Why would he want to do that? Andreotti has always been very close to both the Catholic Church and the Mafia, but on this occasion it was the former tie that mattered. The Vatican wanted to kill the “civil union” proposal, which required killing Prodi’s government. Andreotti just seized the opportunity that presented itself. It worked, too: a week later Prodi managed to revive his coalition government, but this time their agreed programme does not include the “civil union” project.

The normally judicious Peter Popham was so irked by this that he implicitly compared the Pope to Hitler, but it is nonsense to blame all of Italy’s ills on the Vatican. The Catholic Church used to have huge clout in Italian politics, but that is because almost all Italians used to be devout Catholics. It’s still a bit weird to have a tiny sovereign state ruled by a foreigner in the middle of your own capital city, but the Vatican today has no more influence on politics in Italy than the evangelical churches have in the United States. (But no less, either.)

Most Italians would agree that there is something wrong with their country, but it’s not the Church that bothers them. The stagnant economy makes matters worse — even Spain will overtake Italy in per capita income in a couple of years — but there is an underlying sense of frustration that permeates Italian life.

The Byzantine bureaucracy and the ubiquitous corruption are a big part of the problem. Getting a job usually depends on what group, party or family you belong to, not on your abilities, which is hugely frustrating. The core problem is that Italy is not really a modern society at all.

For almost forty years after 1945, while the rest of Europe was growing and changing very fast, Italy grew but didn’t change, because politics and all of society were frozen in a deeply conservative and profoundly corrupt pattern. In order to keep the huge Communist party from winning power and taking Italy out of NATO, the Christian Democratic party had to be kept in power permanently — and it was, thanks to foreign money and foreign intelligence services, to its alliance with the Catholic Church, and to its other alliance with the Mafia.

That system ended fifteen years ago when the Christian Democrats imploded in a blizzard of corruption scandals and Communism simultaneously went out of fashion, but Italians have a lot of lost time to make up.

Moreover, the decision to swap the lira for the euro was a disaster for Italy, because it lost the ability to remain competitive by continually devaluing its currency. Italian politics are still poisonous, the justice system is a joke, and the efforts at reform are endlessly sabotaged by the beneficiaries of the current state of affairs.

But that is about what you’d expect at this stage of the process of modernisation, because it IS a process, and it takes time. Spain is about thirty years into a similar process, dating from the death of Franco and the end of fascism, and it is thriving at every level. Italy is fifteen years in, and feeling the strain. But it will probably get there in the end.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The normally…States”; and “The Byzantine…all”)