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Burmese democracy still a distant dream

by Bertil Lintner

PRO-DEMOCRACY leader Aung San Suu Kyi has taken her seat in Burma's parliament, following a landslide victory for her party in April 1 by-elections. Then, on Sunday, Burmese media reported that the alleged hardline vice-president, ex-general Tin Aung Myint Oo, had resigned "for health reasons".

This and similar signs have led many outside observers to assume that "reformist" elements within Burma's quasi-civilian government are strengthening their positions vis-a-vis more "conservative" elements, and that Burma, at long last, may be on its way to becoming a functioning democracy. In an official statement late last month, the EU's External Action Service counsellor, Robert Cooper, even went as far as characterising recent developments as Burma's "Berlin Wall moment".

Not surprisingly, given all the hype, others have a much more down-to-earth interpretation of events. When earlier this year Suu Kyi was asked by a foreign journalist where Burma's development towards democracy stands on a scale from one to 10, she replied: "We're approaching one." In fact the 43 MPs-elect from her party, the National League for Democracy, at first refused to take an oath to "safeguard" the constitution. They wanted it changed to "respect" the same charter, which was adopted after a blatantly rigged referendum in May 2008 and, in effect, gives the military supreme authority in all important matters. Suu Kyi and her colleagues eventually backed down, but they had made their point: the highly undemocratic 2008 constitution is the main problem blocking any real political progress.

The short-lived boycott by the NLD highlighted the fact there are two incompatible forces at play in Burma today: the military, which wants to remain the ultimate arbiter in any political disputes, and the NLD, which aspires to break the absolute power the military and its institutions have wielded since it overthrew Burma's last democratically elected government in 1962. At the heart of that divide is the controversial 2008 constitution, which not only guarantees the military 25 per cent of the seats in parliament but also lays out complicated rules for amendments that effectively give the military veto power over any proposed changes.

Minor constitutional changes may be considered by the bicameral parliament if 20 per cent of MPs submit a bill. However, a tangle of 104 clauses cannot be amended without the prior approval of more than 75 per cent of all MPs. With 25 per cent of all seats reserved for the military, elected MPs alone are unable to enforce such changes. And even if approved by parliament, a nationwide referendum must be held in which more than half of all eligible voters cast ballots to approve suggested amendments.

This complicated procedure, coupled with Burma's record of holding bogus referendums, makes it virtually impossible to change those clauses, which in various ways legally safeguard the military's now indirect hold on power.

One of the first sections of the constitution guarantees the military's "national political leadership role of the state" and, in case of an "emergency", the "commander-in-chief of the Defence Services has the right to take over and exercise state sovereign power" after consulting the president. "No legal action" can be taken against the military for what it does while exercising such emergency powers, the constitution says.

In 2008, Burma's generals got the constitution they wanted and through equally rigged elections in November 2010 control a solid majority of all seats in the parliament. Allowing Suu Kyi's NLD to take part in the recent by-election for less than 7 per cent of seats in elected assemblies, which were left vacant by the appointment of ministers, will not affect Burma's fundamental power structure with the military at its apex.

Statements such as Cooper's also fail to take into consideration that there are three layers of power in today's Burma, not just a division between "hardliners" and "reformists". In the middle are civil servants, directors-general in various departments and even some ministers, who want to see change and catch up with their mostly dynamic neighbours. Those are the ones foreign visitors usually meet, getting the impression that everyone is in favour of reform. On the local level, however, are petty tyrants who for decades have been riding roughshod over ordinary people. They would resist any fundamental change because they fear retribution from a liberated populace. On the top of the structure are the generals, who depend on the lower tyrants to remain in power and, more immediately, to make sure the next general election, in 2015, produces the desired results.

The NLD's victory in the by-elections must have come as a surprise to generals still unable to realise how unpopular they are. And the first signs of a counteraction can already be observed. Tin Aung Myint Oo may have resigned, but, at the same time, 59 of 110 of the military's parliamentary representatives were replaced with higher-ranking officers, most of whom are seen as "hardliners". Among them is a colonel who was the officer in charge of a vicious 2007 crackdown on Buddhists monks marching for democracy and national reconciliation. There is certainly no "Berlin Wall moment" in Burma; the struggle for democracy, as Suu Kyi said, is, at best, perhaps only approaching the end of the beginning.,

This article first appeared in The Australian, May 11, 2012

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