Myanmar hides behind ‘democracy’

Myanmar’s new “disciplined democracy” doesn’t offer hope for any real democratic change.

Aung San Suu Kyi Back To Work In Burma
Myanmar’s military junta is hiding behind a newly unveiled “disciplined democracy” that only nominally allows opposition in a country generally under strict military rule [EPA]

As underpaid workmen make their finishing touches on Myanmar’s new parliament building, the junta edges closer to its long-calculated “disciplined democracy”.

When Than Shwe, the most prominent general, said the phrase during Armed Forces Day last year, shivers were sent down the backs of those inside Myanmar and beyond its borders who have fought long and hard for a “true democracy”.

Invitations to attend the January 31 opening of parliament have already been sent out to the recently elected MPs. And like everything in a country under the rule of a military regime, the grand event has a long list of rules, starting with a ban on recording devices.

Reading the recently released parliamentary laws, it is easy to gain an understanding of what the despotic leader, Than Shwe, meant by a “disciplined democracy”. Without the consent of “The Speaker”, no member of parliament is allowed to ask any questions during parliamentary sessions. In order to receive permission to ask a question, a letter must be sent 10 days before. The actual question itself is regulated under a law that states each MP must abide by the national cause – not doing so will get the question rejected.

Eighty per cent of the seats have been allocated to the regime-sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Most appropriately called the “Generals’ Selection”, the recent election involved rampant electoral fraud and intimidation, giving the USDP an easy win.

With such undemocratic principles and an unhealthy future ahead, what are the alternatives and how can Myanmar – also known as Burma – possibly achieve them?

Looking for change

Depressingly, the answer is that given the junta’s skillful ushering in of “disciplined democracy”, very little can be achieved in the near future.

As the MPs scurry into parliament in their traditional dress, realists will see a curtain closing on the pro-democracy movement. Despite the best efforts of countless Burmese dissidents and rebel soldiers, the regime has succeeded in creating Myanmar politics in dictator style.

Optimists, however, won’t see the convening of parliament as the final curtain. Hope for change was recently escalated by the release of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Despite having spent thirteen of the last nineteen years under house arrest, a large chunk of the Burmese population has retained faith in her ability to save them from poverty and oppression.

Since her release, she has remained cautious and despite numerous interviews, has said very little. Her party has stated they are willing to review the NLD’s sanctions policy and continue to seek “national reconciliation”. Her courage, bravery and dedication to her people is unwavering.

But the problem does not lie in her ability or inability; the problem lies in the regime’s somewhat magnificent ability to gain such a grasp on a nation, despite such little public support. As Suu Kyi spent her days confined to her crumbling family mansion, the generals slowly built a new country in a way that not even she can shake from their grip.

Suu Kyi continues to seek dialogue with the generals, but it is very clear they have no intention to speak with her, and nor do they need to. It is obvious they feel confident enough to progress on their road to democracy without her interfering too much.

They have even benefited from her; her calculated release was just one week after the sham elections, just as reports of fraud were trickling out, attention was quickly diverted and pressure eased.

Recently I interviewed an elderly NLD member, who had worked with her for the last twenty years. When asked whether he felt that Suu Kyi now released can really change Burma, he replied, “She can only change the country if she is allowed into politics and given some power … unfortunately the generals will never allow this”.

She has announced plans to help ethnic leaders coordinate a second Panglong Conference, which her father first held in 1947 between the various ethnics to gain independence from British rule.

While having the potential to bring the ethnics together, the generals would undoubtedly see it as a threat to their reign, and respond by imprisoning Suu Kyi and others involved.

If the generals feel as though Suu Kyi is gaining political momentum in any way, few will be surprised if she is returned to house arrest, as has been done three times before. Even worse, many of her supporters fear that any threat to the regime’s grip on power could ignite fresh plans for an assassination.

It was members of the new government who organised the Depayin Massacre, when intoxicated members of the USDP – formerly the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) – attacked Suu Kyi’s rallying convoy and killed over seventy NLD members.

For over two decades, activists have hoped for some miraculous event to occur which will topple the regime and allow the NLD to take power.

However, not only has such an event not happened, Than Shwe and previous leaders before him have only further entrenched an entire system of military rule, continually consolidating power on every front. Now this includes a political wing, the USDP!

And while the West rightfully convenes meetings on sanctions and discusses UN investigations into the junta’s human rights abuses, Than Shwe and his cronies dig deeper into their cosy, well-lit capital buildings in their jungle hideout, Nay Pyi Daw.

A dark future

Following the Saffron Revolution, the chances of another uprising are very slim.

The leaders are imprisoned and having seen monks and protesters beaten in the streets, few want to relive the nightmares with once again no rewards.

Others place hope in divisions in the top ranks – potentially spurred on by the threat of UN human rights investigations – but the rewards of being part of the regime are too great, and the willingness of Asian neighbours to confront the generals far too small. As a result it is highly unlikely we will see any military officials standing up to regime leaders any time soon.

Facing heinously undemocratic laws and greatly outnumbered, the pro-democracy MPs who will take their seats in parliament on January 31 offer little hope for dramatic change.

These politicians who made the bold move to participate in the election believe they can nudge gradual change over time – and potentially improve conditions in parliament for the promised 2015 election.

However, it is hard to change a regime that clearly doesn’t want to change. Therefore, it is easy to understand why the exiled activist community cannot accept working with the junta as the “best game in town”.

For many dissidents, working with the junta means accepting defeat, enriching their already wealthy pockets, disrespecting the work of over 2,100 political prisoners who are languishing in Burmese prisons, and allowing sanctions to be lifted in a country where forced relocation and labour is common practise.

But, as the current situation presents itself, even the idealists must ask what other viable choices remain.

As Suu Kyi slowly finds herself once again unable to achieve any solid progress, these few elected MPs who wish to change Burma may be the greatest current hope.

This is not a positive thing; little change can be expected to come from a parliament dominated by the military, which have a particular skill in flushing out nationwide dissent, let alone a few opposition MPs.

Already, these elected MPs have drawn up bills to propose in parliament and recently a statement from five ethnic parties called for a lifting of US-backed sanctions. The statement was later backed up by two other pro-democracy parties: the National Democratic Front (NDF) – a splinter group of the NLD – and the Democratic Party (DP).

Having been elected as MPs, their calls came with some weight and were also joined by ASEAN, though the NLD was yet to finish reviewing their anti-sanctions policy. 

Suu Kyi is not the reason sanctions have been placed on the regime. Although obvious, it needs reminding that sanctions are due to the regime’s brutal treatment of pro-democracy forces.

Remove the sanctions?

Recently, commentators have been saying more focus needs to be put on the regime to change before sanctions can be lifted.

While that would be ideal, countless groups and countries have been trying for decades, with little progress. It is difficult to change a regime which is delusional to the extent they are convinced they know what is best for Myanmar.

The rewards from lifting sanctions would undoubtedly be enjoyed by the cronies and families of the generals, who have recently inherited all the country’s most valuable assets through rampant overnight privatisation.

It would also decrease international interest in staunch pro-democracy groups, and strengthen the Burmese military against ethnic armies who struggle for self determination.

It would, however, put the country on a slow and painful climb to a better economy. And while the regime has laid down a complex legal safety net, if they feel secure, then draconian laws will not be enforced, allowing “disciplined democracy” to advance gradually into a more healthy political system.

For two decades, potential political leaders have languished in dark prisons, ethnic minorities have died in jungle battlefields, and students have bled in the streets to bring democracy to the Burmese people.

Accepting the convening of parliament as the best choice for many is understandably unthinkable, but with the generals having so carefully crafted their precious Republic of the Union of Myanmar, major political change is highly unlikely.

That is not to say the international community should give up on their dream for a new Burma, free of oppression and poverty. Now more than ever, the regime needs pressuring, and exiled groups need support and direction to create new avenues, which will benefit Burmese society in the long run.

Most importantly, all groups, both inside and outside Burma, must work together – and with the elected MPs – on both pragmatic as well as “idealistic” approaches, that use past work as lessons to learn from, but are not afraid to re-examine old positions in order to do what is in the best interests of the people.

Whatever good may eventually come out of parliament, the first day it convenes marks the beginning of the junta’s “disciplined democracy”, and will forever be a dark day for the Burmese democracy movement.

Alex Ellgee is a freelance journalist based on the Thai-Burma border, focusing on Burmese politics and ethnic issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.