Where democracy is a curable disease

Burmese military

Burmese head of state Than Shwe reviews a parade on Armed Forces Day last March; Burma's generals are keen on a democratic veneer for military rule. Picture: AFP Source: AFP

This weekend's Burmese election will entrench the military in another Asian country under dictatorial rule

BURMA'S oppressive military regime has tomorrow's elections stitched up. The generals want no surprises; they want a solid victory for themselves, with the democratic veneer of a few seats won by marginalised and circumscribed opposition politicians.

Regardless of the results, the military will automatically be allocated 25 per cent of the seats in the national and local assemblies.

Nevertheless, in a belt-and-braces layer of electoral security, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, and her party, the National League for Democracy, has been formally dissolved. Campaign materials and speeches have been rigorously censored and observers and foreign journalists banned.

The two regime-backed parties are flush with funds and candidates, in stark contrast to the small and mostly struggling opposition parties.

Just to make doubly sure, many voters in Burma's conflict zones will be completely disfranchised by the junta's decision to keep certain towns out of the poll for "safety" reasons.

As a result, the first elections in 20 years have been roundly condemned as a sham, in keeping with the tenor of military regimes and military-aligned governments across Southeast Asia.

In Vietnam, democracy advocates are hounded and jailed, and the large army is the iron fist of the communist government.

In Thailand, the military coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 began a renaissance of uniformed power, burgeoning military budgets and increasingly vocal army chiefs.

In Cambodia, it seems unlikely the hounded and belittled opposition will ever win an election, and in Laos the communist government quashes all dissent.

In Indonesia, the despotic general Suharto was finally pushed out of the presidency in 1998, after the Asian economic crisis brought simmering discontent with his military regime to a head.

Since then there have been three democratic national elections, a free press has flourished and Indonesia has been hailed as a beacon for the region. But although the Indonesian military no longer has a quota of seats in parliament, the army maintains its territorial command structure and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a former general who derives at least some of his authority from his military past.

Some years ago Yudhoyono offered to help Burma make the difficult transition to democracy, but the Burmese generals seem more interested in the Suharto version of government, which includes blatantly rigged polls, a savagely censored press and overwhelming military dominance.

Burma's planned model echoes Suharto's dwi fungsi (dual function) military doctrine, which encompassed parliamentary seats and high-ranking bureaucratic positions for the military.

Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow at Heidelberg University, is deeply pessimistic about prospects of democracy in the region. He has written widely on demilitarisation in Asia, and he believes it will begin to take hold only in two circumstances.

"First, when the armed forces as an institution becomes so tarnished and fissured that a political vacuum allows for other institutions (for example, civilians) to assume more control," he says.

"In such circumstances, after a period of time the military will most probably come back as a powerful force. This can be seen in what happened in Thailand [in] 1992-2006.

"Second, when the armed forces find it more in their interest to operate as a powerful force behind the scenes. In an age when overt military control is not in vogue, such a situation becomes more likely for polities with powerful militaries. It is exemplified in Thailand and Pakistan."

Even though Burma has resisted all persuasion, hectoring and threats from the West in the past, Chambers believes it is now in its interests to establish at least a veneer of democracy, while reinforcing military power behind this facade.

Others believe rumblings within the military's rank and file helped to push the regime to stage an election. Toe Zaw Latt, the Thailand bureau chief for the exiled Democratic Voice of Burma media network, says his reporters have a number of informers in the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw.

He believes soldiers had begun to ask about progress along Burma's so-called road map to democracy that was originally mooted decades ago.

The impetus for elections likely came from a combination of internal and external pressure. Certainly Than Shwe, chief of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, embarked on a series of high-level diplomatic meetings before the elections.

He was feted in China and India (much to the disgust of democratic Indians), and he received Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in Burma.

Abhisit duly announced the multi-billion-dollar joint Burma-Thai development of a deep-sea port and economic zone on Burma's Tavoy coast.

Outside Asia, some observers regard the imminent emergence of this wafer-thin democratic veneer as a sign of progress in a nation with one of the worst human rights records, where more than 2000 political prisoners have been locked up, and where divergent ethnic aspirations have been ruthlessly suppressed. Some constrained civil space, they argue, is better than nothing, and engagement appears to produce more results than force.

Yet Maung Zarni, a scholar at the London School of Economics, a dissident and a scion of a Burmese military family, is deeply pessimistic about Burma's future.

"We are not heading to a democratic space, we are heading to a political and economic twilight zone," he said at a recent seminar in Bangkok.

The SPDC regime, he added, was a toxic mixture of "neo-totalitarianism with feudalistic characteristics". The new constitution simply expanded and encoded military rule and "entrenched military apartheid", he said, pointing out that photos of bureaucrats bowing to generals illustrated the social divisions.

Burma's generals have enriched themselves at the expense of ordinary people. "They're not interested in changing the political system," Maung Zarni said. "They're too fat."

All of Burma's leading corporations are either owned by generals or have strong links with the military, and the country is ranked on Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index as the second most corrupt in the world.

Than Shwe's daughter was roped in a stunning array of what seemed to be diamonds for her wedding in 2006, and luxury cars on urban streets are more often than not owned by military chiefs or their cronies.

Meanwhile, electricity flickers on and off in Rangoon; in eastern Burma, one child in seven dies, mostly of preventable diseases, before reaching the age of five; and everywhere civilians scheme to afford the necessities of life.

The 2007 Saffron Uprising in Burma, when monks marched in the streets and the world focused on the nation, was first inspired by sharp hikes in fuel prices.

The generals seemingly have good reason, then, to improve Burma's economic performance. The Saffron movement was brutally crushed, but the potential remains for popular revolt, especially if hunger and want increase.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an internationally respected political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, notes that in Thailand, economic development took decades to promote. He says the withdrawal of the military from politics is always possible, if not inevitable, but it is a gradual process. He points to South Korea, where democracy is flourishing, to Indonesia and to South American nations such as Argentina and Chile. But it's a difficult and muddled process.

"It's too easy to focus on doomsday scenarios, there has to be some hope of political progress," he says, referring to Burma.

"At one point we thought Thai democracy was being consolidated . . . but now the consolidation is lost."

Thailand has endured 18 attempted military coups, 11 of them successful, since 1932. The most recent effort, in 2006, began a cycle of bitter protests that culminated in this year's fiery red-shirt uprising, which left 91 dead and as many as 1900 wounded.

The army budget has doubled since the coup and the military boasts more than 1000 generals.

Even so, Thitinan sees some hope. The Thai military, though sorely tempted, has refrained from launching further coups. The international community, including investors and tourists, tends to look askance at blatant military dictatorships.

International credibility is considered important, and Thailand can drape itself in a cloak of democracy.

Cambodia, to Thailand's east, is ruled by the semi-authoritarian Cambodian People's Party. There, too, the facade of democracy is in place; elections are duly held, and the CPP always wins, largely because it brooks no opposition.

Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which investigates war crimes, concedes there's no democracy in Cambodia, yet he continues to negotiate with the government, because there's always hope for change. He says it took him nine years to get approval for a 98-page school textbook setting out the nation's history under the Khmer Rouge.

Thitinan notes that the democratic tide can ebb and flow before it becomes self-sustaining and reaches the point of no return. "Twelve years ago, we [Thailand] were going up and Indonesia was going down. Now it's reversed. Is 10 years enough to entrench democracy, or could Indonesia's military come creeping back?"

Ed Aspinall, head of the department of political and social change at the Australian National University, and an Indonesia specialist, says military interference in Indonesian political affairs ebbed dramatically after Suharto's fall. "The problem is that I don't think this military retreat has been matched by a reform of the military infrastructure," he says. "Many of the [military] structural mechanisms [that] allowed the control remain intact."

He points to the territorial command structure, which has been justified in terms of defence: the military is stationed throughout the nation to mobilise the population in case of dire need.

"As always during the Suharto years, there is a military administration shadowing the civilian government," Aspinall says. "Were the civilian side of things to become more fragile, that structure is there to be used."

The Indonesian military, now known as the TNI, was greatly feared during the Suharto years, particularly in rebel provinces. There is concern the pervasive culture of military impunity has basically survived intact; in recent weeks, footage emerged of Indonesian soldiers torturing a Papuan with a fiery stick in the genitals. Other Papuans were kicked.

These acts were admitted by Security Minister Djoko Suyanto, who said the soldiers had "overreacted" and were "unprofessional". But it remains to be seen whether they'll be punished.

Aspinall says the Burmese generals would like to build a regime that's patterned to some degree on the old Suharto model, with the military at the centre and a limited amount of civilian parliamentary participation via controlled political parties.

The tightly controlled system was oriented towards economic development and lacked interest in human rights. Suharto introduced the controlled parliamentary system early in his rule, and the regime survived for decades.

Senior Indonesian military officers have apparently visited Burma. But Aspinall says Burma is far more combustible than Indonesia was, and he doubts the regime's ability to successfully introduce an Indonesia-style system.

"That's the model they have in mind," he says.

"Whether they can pull it off is questionable."


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