Gambling with the Generals

RANGOON – No one save for Burma’s military rulers was sure when exactly this country’s 2010 parliamentary elections were to take place. But sometime in July this year, about 20 teenaged Burmese youth gathered in downtown Rangoon for a clandestine two-day workshop on civic education that introduced them to the concepts of citizenship, human rights, and democracy.

Anticipating a compromised outcome of the parliamentary polls, the teenagers had resolved to help raise political consciousness as their contribution to fostering political change. But far from advocating a head-to-head confrontation with the military, which has ruled this country since the early 1960s, the multi-ethnic mix of college students chose to underscore national reconciliation as a vital underpinning for reforms during their discussions.

And yet, one of the youths admitted, “We are honestly afraid. It is quite sensitive to talk about these things in our country that’s why we are doing this secretly.”

Some of the workshop participants, in fact, had refused to discuss such matters even with their parents. Still, like many of their peers, they said they had “felt emboldened to work for democracy” and had organised activities like the workshop here to help “spread the word”.

While this was going on, somewhere in this historic city, U Phyo Min Thein was also handing out newsletters of the Union Democratic Party (UDP), which he chaired. A former political prisoner, U Phyo Min Thein said that by participating in the polls – Burma’s first in 20 years – he would be able to “consolidate strength with other activists and say what I want to say”.

The Burmese people “have enough of uprising for now”. he also said, “and should instead try to do our best within the space we are given.”

A return to democracy

The Burmese junta had touted the parliamentary polls as marking the country’s return to democracy. In the past, the knee-jerk reaction of most Burmese would have been to assume that these would be yet another part of the junta’s strategies to remain in power. Yet now it looked like there were those like U Phyo Min Thein and the youthful reformists who were willing to suspend their disbelief and consider the elections as a legitimate political exercise where their voices would be heard.

To some observers, they may have seemed as having been reduced to clutching at straws as they tried to find some sense in the junta’s ‘Seven-Step Roadmap to Democracy’. Then again, who could blame them? In 1988, U Phyo Min Thein himself had been among the thousands of student protesters rounded up by the military and thrown behind bars; he was released only in 2005. In 1990, the junta also ignored the opposition’s landslide poll victory, and instead jailed opposition leaders and members. Three years ago, Burmese authorities crushed a series of peaceful protests led by monks via a bloody crackdown, which had become the junta’s trademark reply to demonstrations.

Years of economic sanctions imposed by many nations on Burma had come for naught as well, while ASEAN’s “constructive engagement” of the pariah nation had apparently done little to ease the junta’s suffocating grip on this country’s peoples. True, ASEAN was now talking about creating a “community of caring” five years hence, but the Burmese apparently see little or no connection between that vision and what they have long been hoping to see in their country.

Former Thai ambassador to Burma Poksak Nilubol, speaking to this writer in Bangkok, said that actually, the regional bloc could use its new charter to enhance the push for democratisation in Burma. He pointed out that the ASEAN Charter’s preamble talks about member-states’ adherence to democracy and “respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”; it also mentions member-states’ resolve “to place the well-being, livelihood, and welfare of the peoples at the centre of the ASEAN community building process”.

“But,” asked Poksak, “who will take the cudgels for this?”

Indeed, if Burma’s critics could have had their way, ASEAN should not have even accepted the country as member in the first place. Along with Laos, Burma became part of the regional grouping in 1997 – despite howls over the move by much of the rest of the international community. According to Poksak, though, ASEAN had wanted to “bring out Burma to the world” in the hope this would inspire domestic change and “contain China’s influence over it”. But over a decade later, that decision has not panned out as planned.

Platforms. ploys and plays

ASEAN membership did afford Burma an influential diplomatic platform, boosted by ties with powerful states like China, India, and Russia. But instead of trying to engage in diplomatic niceties with its critics, the junta seems to have just used its ASEAN membership to fend off criticism, especially those from the West. At the same time, it has gone against at least one of ASEAN’s principles, tinkering with building nuclear-weapons capability even though ASEAN is committed to a nuclear weapons-free region.

According to a veteran Rangoon journalist with training in nuclear engineering, Burmese military cadets since 2001 have been sent regularly to Russia to learn nuclear science. “If that is for peaceful use,” the journalist wondered aloud, “why send military people?”

Burma has a bilateral cooperation pact with Russia for nuclear technology in medical applications. But Poksak himself commented, “We can’t really trust the junta on its nuclear ambitions.”

Moe Zaw Oo, an activist working with the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), meantime said that the junta’s nuclear buildup seems to mimic that of North Korea, a country that dangles its nuclear might over the international community to repulse outside interference in its sordid internal affairs.

Saw David Taw, general secretary of the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), for his part said that compared to other countries, India and China have “greater influence” on Burma. But he said that it is doubtful that either would weigh in on Burmese affairs to achieve domestic political change since both countries are particularly keen to tap Burma’s energy and other natural resources to power their expanding industrial needs. Planned punitive actions by the United Nations Security Council may even be strained by a China veto, said Taw.

And so dogged optimists have turned their gaze once more to ASEAN, even though Burma’s co-members cannot seem to agree what to do with their controversial colleague. Some observers say that could be because many of the group’s 10 member-nations have questionable human-rights records themselves and simply do not want to be accused of being pots calling the kettle black. Others say that some ASEAN members – Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand in particular – have substantial business interests in Burma and therefore cannot be counted upon to criticise this country’s powers-that-be. Then again, Malaysia and Thailand, along with the Philippines and Indonesia, have begun speaking up regarding Burma, urging its leaders to implement political reforms.

It is the Philippines and Indonesia, however, that have been more vocal than the rest – to the point that they have challenged claims by the junta. When Burma’s parliamentary polls finally pushed through this 7 November and yielded the unsurprising sweep by the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the Philippines and Indonesia were among the elections’ loudest critics, going as far as branding these as a farce.

Given their respective democratic legacies, the Philippines and Indonesia have been increasingly regarded by observers as having the most gumption to tackle ASEAN’s Burma dilemma aggressively. After all, they point out, the Philippines had the 1986 People Power that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In 1998 in Indonesia, popular protests forced the resignation of strongman Soeharto, who by then had enjoyed more than two decades of being in power.

Speaking to this writer months before the polls took place, exiled activist Hkun Okker of the Burma Lawyers Council (BLC) noted, however, that one should never underestimate Burma’s generals. He even observed, “The Burmese dictators are very clever, learning lessons from the pitfalls of Asian despots like Marcos and Soeharto.”

The generals take their time

In truth, the generals took as much as 20 years to get to the 2010 polls that not only shut out the opposition from active participation, but also ensured that the parliament would be under the junta’s control.

Within this period, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) built its strength, which would reach over 20 million members by the time it was converted into the USDP.

“Membership into the USDA was inescapable for those graduating from middle school,” a Rangoon youth leader said. His fellow youths added that each of them had to fill up membership applications for it before they could receive their National Registration Cards from their teachers. Apart from passing the matriculation or the national college admission test, a Burmese student needs this card as passport for acquiring higher education.

The junta also used the time between 1990 – when it ignored the results of parliamentary elections that would have seen the opposition take over the reins of government – and 2008 to hammer together a new charter.

On 9 April 2008, the junta presented the draft charter to the public in the runup to the scheduled 10 May 2008 referendum. But eight days before the Burmese were supposed to vote on the charter, the deadly cyclone Nargis devastated several Irrawaddy and Rangoon townships, killing an estimated 140,000 people.

Instead of training its attention on humanitarian relief, the junta turned the disaster into yet another opportunity to railroad ratification of the charter. It pushed through with the referendum, which was attended by massive fraud. For example, a Rangoon journalist recounted that in 11 Rangoon townships where ‘No’ votes predominated, the result announced was the opposite. Journalists also observed the use of pre-marked ballots, as well as voter intimidation and substitution.

Official pronouncements would later say that over 90 percent of Burmese voters had ratified what has since come to be known as the ‘Nargis Constitution’. In the cyclone’s wake, the junta secured the legal foundation for its political game show – so much so that some Burmese began thinking that perhaps it would be best if they participated in what the generals said would be a brand-new political set-up.

But then the junta’s old tactics and dirty tricks came to fore in the runup to the 2010 elections.

Control, and more control

A veteran journalist in Rangoon, for instance, said that official censorship pulled down media coverage of election-related activities and issues, in turn dampening peoples’ interest in the polls. The same journalist also said that his weekly publication’s repeated attempts to write articles explaining the polls and the 2008 Constitution never got past the censors board.

Moreover, the junta kept the populace guessing just when exactly the elections were going to be held. It made certain, however, that the NLD, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who it had kept under house arrest for most of the last two decades, would be unable to field candidates for it (even if the opposition party itself was apparently not interested in giving credence to what it said would be a rigged exercise).

Aside from Daw Suu Kyi, hundreds more of key NLD leaders were then still in prison. One of the directives issued by the Union Election Commission (EC), headed by former general Thein Soe, prohibited registration of political parties with members who are “serving a prison term as a result of conviction in a court of law”.

Human Rights Watch also noted “broad prohibitions”, such as one that disallowed criticism of the military and another that curtailed the campaign discourse of opposition parties. The EC, moreover, required prior notice before public assemblies could be held; and when these were allowed, they could only take place within party headquarters. Too, the display of party signage and logo was not allowed.

In contrast, the USDP was virtually unrestrained in its campaign activities, allegedly even using government resources.

The USDP is the military’s political arm. Its officials and patrons are military officers. USDP bets were mostly retired officers of the armed forces or personalities identified with the junta, which in its most recent incarnation had taken to calling itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The Nargis charter says that while 75 percent of the seats in parliament would be up for votes, the remaining 25 percent are to be occupied by armed servicemen who would be appointed by the commander in chief of the Burmese armed forces.

The dire implications of all these could not have escaped even the most positive of thinkers among the Burmese. Thus, just a week after he had been out on Rangoon’s streets, handing out his organisation’s flyers, U Phyo Min Thein quit his post as chairman of the UDP.

“The polls are just a way out of military rule to military-controlled civilian rule,” he said with resignation. “Even as the military is given power to appoint those who will occupy 25 percent of legislative seats, the junta avidly seeks control over the remaining 75 percent of seats up for election.”

He may not have been happy to hear that members of ASEAN did not seem to share his views. As Burma prepared to inaugurate its newly elected parliament, various media reports said that ASEAN foreign ministers were urging the international community to lift economic sanctions on Burma in recognition of this political milestone.

It was not immediately clear if those of Indonesia and the Philippines were among them.