New Internationalist

On the short road to discipline-flourishing democracy

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Put aside an election called by despots as also revolutionary fantasies. We must look elsewhere for hope for Burma, argues Dinyar Godrej.

Photo by Roger Price under a CC Licence
Photo by Roger Price under a CC Licence

Burma’s ruling generals have at last whipped out a date for the country’s long promised elections – 7 November 2010. Pundits ponder whether they could be the first small step towards the long transformation from military rule to something resembling democracy (no-one believes they’ll deliver democracy overnight). There’s an awful lot of wishing and hoping.

But look at Burma’s previous democratic experiment in 2008, a referendum conducted days after Cyclone Nargis wiped out the southern delta. Somehow an astonishing 92.4 per cent of the adult population (out of a recorded turnout of 99 per cent) managed to forget their hunger, thirst and shattered homes, and said a resounding ‘Yes’ to a new constitution created by their military overlords. A constitution few would have had the chance to read and which it was an imprisonable offence to criticize even before it was so miraculously ratified. Perhaps a few pigs were observed flying over the horizon to mark the event.

The generals, in their magnanimity, want a ‘democratic’ parliament to uphold the values of their new constitution, and, displaying the character flaw of most creators, they want it in their own image

Now the generals, in their magnanimity, want a ‘democratic’ parliament to uphold the values of their new constitution, and, displaying the character flaw of most creators, they want it in their own image. Over 2,100 political opponents of the State Peace and Development Council (the benevolent official name of the military regime) cannot contest these elections as they are in prison. The country’s iconic leader, Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is barred because she is detained at home. Even were she free to contest, the constitution bars her from leading the country under a specially tailored clause that rules out people who have foreign family connections (her late husband was British). Her party, the National League for Democracy, has taken a principled stance and stepped into the political wilderness by deciding not to participate. In the last elections 20 years ago, they had won over 82 per cent of parliamentary seats; results which the generals swiftly annulled.

In the fray instead are 11 parties which are fronts for the regime; a number of others which represent the different ethnic nationalities and a handful that have a broader base and could be qualified as opposition parties. The latter are underfunded and operate under surveillance, in a softly-softly manner. Their campaigning, which could only begin mid-August when the elections date was announced, must somehow convey opposition without breathing a word of criticism about how things are currently run in Burma. The main regime party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), meanwhile faces no restrictions and was campaigning in full swing even before the announcement, offering sops and bribes: repairing roads, donating rice, even loaning money to the needy.

In an election which will not have international observers, it is expected to win. Let’s be clear: even if it doesn’t win, it is expected to win (remember the referendum for the constitution?). So presuming pro-regime parties crowd into the new parliament, here is the trump card: the unelected military will still retain 25 per cent of the seats. And that lovely constitution of theirs states that if 25 per cent of parliamentarians vote against, no bill can be passed. This then is what the much-criticized military regime hopes will provide a veneer of respectability and what they like to call ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’. Whether it will differ one jot from five decades of totalitarian rule remains to be seen.

No viva la revolution

Why, asks the uninformed outsider, don’t the people revolt? Would you wish the bloodshed of revolution on your own country? reply Burmese political activists. Because in Burma it would not be a question of toppling the dictator at the top à-la-Ceauşescu; the entire military apparatus would need to be confronted. Burma has had its revolutionary moments, most recently in the September 2007 protests led by Buddhist monks, and each time they have been ruthlessly crushed.

This is because, in modern historian Timothy Garton Ash’s crucial distinction, Burma is not just a military dictatorship, it is a military state. The country’s armed forces form a full one per cent of the population; every street of every town has someone who bears a firearm in the name of the dictatorship. Underpaid and unmotivated they may be (indeed, Burmese exiles often point to the number of soldiers who go AWOL), but this is their source of income in a country which has been systematically impoverished in order to fatten the military élite’s bank balances.

In an election which will not have international observers, it is expected to win. Let’s be clear: even if it doesn’t win, it is expected to win

The grinding poverty of the vast majority has led to Burmese society being riddled with spies for the hated regime. The generals fund the insidious Union Solidarity and Development Association (from which the USDP has sprung), which has countrywide members. Their job is to provide the degree of social control required to keep everyone acquiescent. In return for being the eyes and ears of the regime, these civilians can access small loans and receive occasional handouts. The degree of self-censorship thus maintained cannot be underestimated.

People, even in crowded spaces, move in an orderly and quiet fashion – there is none of the normal chaos and bustle of crowds. The thousands that turn up at government rallies sit in serried ranks, their backs bolt upright, their faces dispassionate. It seems the Burmese have mastered the skills of non-involvement and living in parallel realities, and keep any natural curiosity on a tight leash.

People for whom each day brings the renewed challenge of earning enough for an evening meal tend to have little time to spare for revolutionary activity. Little wonder that political activism has sprung from the people in the Burmese voluntary sector, university students, the country’s monks and nuns who hold a revered position, and generally those who have at least modest disposable incomes rather than none at all.

The reality of change

When Burmese activists speak of change, it tends to be change that reflects this reality. Even those activists who have suffered the worst outrages of the regime speak in terms of reconciliation and transition. They realize this is probably the only way they will be able to erode the military’s power and give the top brass a face-saving option of retreat.

This would also play out well with Burma’s neighbours who, given the corruption of the generals, have been having a field day with Burma’s wealth of natural resources. India, the much touted ‘largest democracy in the world’, gave head honcho Than Shwe a state welcome earlier this year. China is investing and extracting big time, and looks favourably upon the regimes’ quelling of ethnic unrest along its common border. Even the West’s sanctions regime has been riddled with leaks and the UN’s denunciations have been like water off a duck’s back.

It seems the Burmese have mastered the skills of non-involvement and living in parallel realities, and keep any natural curiosity on a tight leash

A crucial factor in Burma’s future is the fate of the country’s ethnic nationalities, who were promised a degree of autonomous rule at independence but who have instead suffered the most. Indeed, even during Burma’s short span of democracy, which ended in1962, the country’s leaders failed the ethnic nationalities and pursued policies which attempted to make the dominant Burman culture the national culture. Military rule has only worsened things and there are civil war conditions in many ethnic nationality states. Many of the conflict regions are littered with landmines and should an unsuspecting person blow themselves up by stepping on one, the military has been known to contact the bereaved family to ask for compensation for the lost mine.

When the generals announced their new constitution, it clearly spelled out a union administration rather than the federal one hankered for by the ethnic states. Unless the pro-democracy players can keep representatives of the ethnic nationalities assured that they would be equal partners, any democratic upheaval would suffer from this long-open wound.

With the elections set to be a sham, will the world do more than tut-tut and point an admonitory finger this time? Such posturing has done nothing to help the ordinary people of Burma so far.

International diplomacy tends to be remarkably conservative when it comes to the channels it follows. The real hope for Burma lies in nurturing its civil society – you know, the argument that next to no-one believed when it was suggested as a non-invasive way of toppling Saddam Hussein. In Burma it has a greater chance of working. Despite strict censorship of print media, the generals haven’t been able to hold back the tide of information from other channels. There are active exile communities who maintain links with dissidents within Burma. Burma’s borders aren’t impregnable to activists, who regularly infiltrate in order to offer assistance to remote communities and exchange political intelligence. There are the green shoots of voluntary organizing that need support. Burma’s monks and nuns who have the public’s loyalty and who stand aside from party politics, also require it so they can speak out again. An alternative network that could ultimately challenge the extensive spy network in Burma is not a pipedream; it needs donors to be a bit creative with their funding, helping to build the capacity for resistance. It requires more than getting the umpteenth report published abroad.

An alternative network that could ultimately challenge the extensive spy network in Burma is not a pipedream; it needs donors to be a bit creative with their funding, helping to build the capacity for resistance

Instant democracy and revolutionary change may be unlikely to materialize any time soon, despite the overwhelming hatred for the regime among Burma’s people. The generals’ ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ is not much of an option. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for things to change. They do, however, need to happen on the Burmese people’s terms. The more the Western leaders who condemn the dictatorship can move beyond grand diplomacy to seeking out (admittedly unorthodox) ways of strengthening the grassroots, the greater the possibility of democratic openings. This would help ensure that when eventually power does shift in Burma, the people could claim a chunk of it for themselves, rather than having to vest it all in politicians.

Dinyar Godrej is one of New Internationalist’s co-editors. Read his 2008 reports from Burma: New Internationalist May 2008

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