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Political transition in Myanmar: Thinking outside the box

  • Baladas Ghoshal

New Delhi | Tue, May 31 2011 | 09:51 am

On March 30 this year, Myanmar dissolved its ruling military government and sworn in a new president.

Former prime minister U Thein Sein, who shed his Army uniform to contest elections last year, was inaugurated as President of the newly elected government. Than Shwe, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1992, was referred to only as “chairman of the SPDC” in the inauguration report, even though he is expected to remain a dominant force despite Thein Sein as president.

The inauguration of the new cabinet is the latest step in Myanmar’s so-called transition to democracy, which critics have called a sham designed to cement military rule. The road map could be viewed as an initial step toward a gradual and incremental transition, but needs to be broadened by the inclusion of NLD and other political groups that the junta has barred.

The vote has occurred under a constitution that has inevitably guaranteed an unfair result. It reserves many government posts and 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military officers, and allows the president to hand over power to the military in emergencies. It also effectively bars Aung San Suu Kyi from seeking elected office because her two sons are foreign citizens.

Critics scarcely recognize the significance of the 2010 election being conducted at all, even though 30 million voters were registered (of which perhaps 50 percent turned out), 37 parties and numerous independent candidates competed, and at least 180 anti-government representatives were elected to the first parliamentary assemblies seen in Myanmar for 20 years.

Also for the first time, representatives of minority groups were elected to national and regional. While the military regime may derive some comfort from their victory, they have not won greater legitimacy but have rather alienated people even further. Widespread grievances notwithstanding, the ground realities in the country go against the grain of hope for any political change in Myanmar in the near future. There is a need for thinking outside the box to break the deadlock.

There are structural difficulties in the democratic transformation in Myanmar. Apart from an unending civil war for 60 years, there are two difficult factors, legacies of Myanmarese history. The first is the long history of failed state and institutional building, and the second is a lack of a long-term vision of the future state. Today the military machine is all there, with only the shadow of other institutions remaining.

India and Indonesia must use their influence with the junta to nudge them to gradually liberalize the polity.

The civil society has been completely debilitated. A vibrant civil society is a must for restoration of democratic political development. The problem lies in creating state institutions from the scratch that can replace the military state that exists, not just in governance and administration, but also in the economy of the country.

Thus, to restore democracy in Myanmar, it will require not only creation of political institutions but also overhauling the existing bureaucracy and establishing new ones with values, norms, rules and an orientation that ensures civilian supremacy over the military.

The significance of the elections has never been dependent on their free and fair conduct. The opportunities lay elsewhere, with the resumption of legal political activity and discussion, something that has been impossible for most of the last half-century; with the generational transition within the military; with the separation between military and government; and with the introduction of regional legislatures and a limited devolution of governance. Some of these developments are tentative, not all may prove positive, but they do represent change and opportunity in a situation that has been frozen for many years.

Suu Kyi’s release is also a highly emotional moment for the country. It seems clear that the regime had taken the decision on her release from a position of strength and confidence, having completed the election process on their terms.

Political parties in Myanmar are taking a forward-looking approach, determined to make the best strategic use of the small opportunities that are available. They are challenging the election results, but are not defining their strategy for the future on that basis. A dramatically new political landscape is taking shape in Myanmar, although it may take a while for some of the protagonists to recognize this.

The institutions of government and the government itself are changing; the opposition is in flux, with a host of new players and perspectives, into which Suu Kyi has been thrust; and the ethnic issue has been further complicated, with some ethnic parties doing reasonably well in the polls, others being excluded from them, and heightened military tensions in some areas.

India and Indonesia, as two large democracies in the world and experienced in nation-building in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society, must use their influence with the junta to nudge them to gradually liberalize the polity. India’s low profile help in cyclone relief in 2008 has surely endeared her in the eyes of the regime that might offer some leverage in its back-room diplomacy to seek change in Myanmar.

Indonesia, which itself has transformed from a military regime to a vibrant democracy, can show its own experience to the Myanmarese regime to be as inclusive as possible in its transition bid. Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN could be an attractive carrot for change that will require compromises, and will be slow at best. Bargaining for gradual and incremental change over a period of time, rather than gaining nothing could be a realistic option.

Integration of Myanmar’s economy with its neighbors — India, China, Thailand and Indo-China countries of the Mekong region — is a necessary condition for economic interdependence and breaking Myanmar’s isolation.

The success of Myanmar’s transitions to democracy hinges to a large extent on viable economic development that can create a growing middle class, which can then seek greater reform and political change in the country.

This has happened in the case of Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea in the last decade. To realize such a goal, assistance should be extended for human resource development and the construction of the Asian Highway by extending the north-east and east-west corridors from Bangkok to India via Myanmar, measures that will in the long run facilitate socioeconomic and political change in Myanmar.

Lifting of sanctions by the West for a limited period could be tried to persuade the regime to give some matching concessions in the form of release of all political prisoners. There is need for concessions from Suu Kyi’s side as well.

It has to be acknowledged that such an approach will not generate immediate political reform but worth trying given the fact that sanctions and international pressure has not brought about desired results of crippling the regime.

The writer is visiting senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research and distinguished fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.


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