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BURMA

The Generals' Election

by Bertil Lintner

Burma's elections will be held on November 7, and the optimistic scenario goes something like this: Nearly 40 political parties will compete for more than 1,000 seats in the national legislature as well as regional assemblies. The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party will win, and a quarter of the seats in the national assembly's lower and upper houses will be reserved for the military. But there will be some space for opposition voices, and besides, there is a younger generation of more reform-minded army officers lurking in the wings.

This scenario, posited by diplomats from the United States to the European Union, is dangerously uninformed. Rather than being "the first step toward democracy" the upcoming election is the final step in the military's consolidation of its absolute grip on power, and a way for the regime to acquire the legitimacy it desires.

Even before the election has been held, the military has scored some remarkable victories. Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been effectively marginalized and even seen by some foreign observers as an "obstacle" to the democratic process because she has announced that she will boycott the election. The regime also dissolved her party, the National League for Democracy, which won a landslide victory in the 1990 election. People inside Burma jokingly refer to Nov. 7 not as a "general election" but as "the generals' election." The Burmese have been through this before and are not as easily fooled as Western diplomats and other outsiders.

The country's ethnic former rebel groups—which have had cease-fire agreements with the government for nearly two decades—have also been co-opted by the ruling junta. The regime has pressured them to convert their respective armies into "Border Guard Forces" under the command of the military. Their political wings can then participate in the election or other activities "within the law." Some smaller groups have acquiesced while others, such as the Wa, Kachin and Shan armies, are resisting. The Karen and a faction of the Shan never agreed to a cease-fire. Recent troop movements in northeastern and northern Burma suggest that a military offensive against these armed ethnic minority groups may follow after the election. Thus a political solution to Burma's decades-long ethnic strife seems now, with a new military-drafted constitution in place, more remote than ever.

Burma's immediate neighbors are likely to welcome the election, even if it means just a continuation of military rule under the guise of a partly civilian cloak. China wants stability, not any dramatic change, to secure vital trade links and other economic and strategic interests in Burma. India wants to keep China at bay by trying to be equally friendly with the Burmese regime, not by trying to export its democracy to a weak neighbor, a policy which the Indians fear would push the Burmese military even further into the arms of the Chinese. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is openly welcoming the election in what is arguably its least democratic member state.

These countries' policy makers all echo their Western counterparts in arguing that this election is better than nothing. Be patient, and things will change in due course. In the meantime, criticism of human-rights abuses in Burma should be toned down so as not to upset "the process." But this thesis presupposes that a younger, more liberal generation of army officers, exists. The bitter reality is that it doesn't. Lower and middle-ranking army officers remain immensely loyal to the leadership, knowing full well that they can only rise to prominent and privileged positions by showing that they are even more hardline than their superiors. The only alternative is to defect, and so far very few have chosen that option, which, anyway, doesn't affect the political order in Burma.

As for the MPs-to-be, constitutional safeguards are already in place to make sure they don't cause any trouble after they are elected next month. Article 396 of the new constitution ensures that they can be dismissed for "misbehavior" by the Union Election Commission, which is indirectly controlled by the junta. And, if the "democratic" situation gets really out of hand, Article 413 gives the president the right to hand over executive as well as judicial powers to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

In other words, the military has already won the "election." Rather than close their eyes to this reality, the best way forward for democratic nations would be to back a United Nations' enquiry into the junta's alleged crimes of humanity. That is the only way to force some of the younger military officers to think twice before blindly following their superiors. After all, the only hope for Burma's future is that some officers, young or old, question their country's path. Until that happens, nothing is likely to change.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2010

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