Beyond Burma’s stalemates

New parliaments and a new year – Nicholas Farrelly looks at the challenges for Burma and its democracy movement as the military attempts to remake the country’s image

31 December 2010



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“We tend to ignore just how limited and symbolic Western policies have become.” Poster (above) of Sakharov prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi at the European Parliament building in Brussels.
Photo: Pietro Naj-Oleari/ European Parliament/

EARLY in 2011 the penultimate step in Burma’s “seven-step roadmap to democracy” will see representatives take their seats in the country’s sixteen new parliaments – quite an increase for a country accustomed to being governed in secret by a small group of senior military officers. Three-quarters of these new political figures were elected in November, when the people of Burma went to the polls for the first time in two decades; the rest are military appointees.

Seeking to break the unwieldy stalemates of domestic politics, and also to curry favour internationally, Burma’s military leadership has adopted a strategy that it hopes will enable its country to begin shaking off its pariah reputation. Fitting into the spectrum of internationally palatable Southeast Asian semi-democracies – countries like Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia – is its long-term goal.

New faces will populate Burma’s constellation of national parliamentary institutions and regional assemblies. Active-duty and retired military officers will come out of the shadows to begin careers as parliamentarians, and a selection of elected entrepreneurs, ethnic leaders, technocrats and political fixers will also find themselves part of the new political reality. Overseeing it all will be the ruling clique, headed by Senior General Than Shwe.

For the military, and particularly for its most senior officers, stable government will remain the supreme concern. The new system, based around the 2008 constitution, was designed to preserve the military’s security and prosperity. Long-term strategising and horse-trading mean that too much has been invested for senior officers to surrender control to untested civilian leaders.

One civilian leader who hasn’t found a seat in any of the new parliamentary institutions is Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy icon, who was released from her latest stint of house arrest immediately after the 2010 elections. Some have suggested that her release means that Than Shwe and his advisers no longer fear her ability to disrupt their carefully implemented plans. In time-honoured dictatorial fashion, the government stacked the deck, even going so far as to draft the 2008 constitution with clauses that exclude her, and other Burmese with strong international links, from full political participation.

The fact that the country’s transition to semi-democratic politics was rigged has generated understandable resentment. Key democratic players, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, opted to boycott the recent polls so that their participation couldn’t be used to legitimise the military government’s electoral gambit.

Instead, many of Burma’s democrats find themselves confronted with a political landscape where old certainties have been replaced by a baffling array of contentious new challenges. Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle to pull the country in more democratic directions now jostles for priority among a fresh configuration of parliamentary, ethnic and international politics.

First of all, there are the new parliaments: two national assemblies (upper and lower houses) that will convene in Burma’s new capital, Naypyidaw, and fourteen regional assemblies, one for each of the ethnic-majority states and Burmese-majority regions. These new institutions, and the new political faces that will fill them, signal the military’s burgeoning confidence that it can maintain its grip on national politics.

A complex set of rules has been created to manage a system that they hope will convince the world that Burma is an acceptable “semi-democracy.” Obviously, we can’t ignore the fact that the electoral victory by the fledgling military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party means that the regime’s cronies will take many key positions across the country. Learning from their mistake when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 1990 elections, this time around the senior military leadership left nothing to chance.

Burma’s new parliaments will be dominated by figures who, we assume, are regime loyalists, entirely sympathetic to ongoing military dominance. This is a fair expectation, and it may well be that in the months ahead the complete control exerted by the military leadership through its civilian proxies will become apparent.

But there is also a chance that the new political institutions will provide opportunities for greater independence than we might imagine. Debates, at least within the Union Solidarity and Development Party if not more broadly in parliament, will test the capacity of the military elite to dominate all policy areas. Some new parliamentarians are already seeking out novel ways of gaining a public profile, and the participation of so many new faces suggests we are likely to see experimentation that confounds the standard stories about Burma’s politics.

Among the hundreds of unsuccessful parliamentary candidates from democratic and ethnic parties many lessons will have been learned. Even in defeat, the election campaign catapulted a number of future leaders to prominence. The day-to-day frustrations of the 2010 campaign, compounded by the onerous and expensive nomination process implemented by the authorities, will not extinguish their democratic instincts.

Even more importantly, Aung San Suu Kyi is now able to speak directly to the world, and to a lesser extent to the Burmese people, about her ideas and aspirations. Along with regular interviews for the international and Burmese media she has embraced other technologies to get her message out – video link-ups, for instance, including to a crowded lecture theatre at the London School of Economics – and is reportedly weighing up the pros and cons of Twitter versus Facebook.

After so many years of dislocation and frustration, the people of Burma, and the international community, now enjoy opportunities to hear from her with unprecedented speed and clarity, though there is an ongoing risk that she could be incarcerated for any perceived missteps.

For Burma’s rulers, Aung San Suu Kyi still distracts attention from what they hope will be a smooth transition into the ranks of Southeast Asia’s other semi-democracies. Ominously, the Burmese government anticipates that she will ultimately capitulate in the same manner as many of their other opponents who have faded from political life.

THE carefully managed stalemate has also been a feature of the way the Burmese government has managed the complex and potentially violent mix of ethnic groups within its borders over the past quarter of a century.

Since the late 1980s the country’s military rulers have manoeuvred over a dozen major ethnic armies into ceasefire agreements, most of which have held reasonably steady. Lucrative business opportunities, particularly in border areas, have encouraged ongoing collaboration with Burma’s military. The logic of these ceasefire deals is that the protection of wealth and assets militates against resumed hostilities.

Over the past two years, though, pressure to abandon the agreements has built within some ethnic armies. Some of these groups quietly question their complicity in the government’s undemocratic policies. Government negotiators have failed to convince the two largest ethnic armies, the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army, that their best option is to become government-controlled Border Guard Forces.

These ethnic armies have called for a resumption of peace talks and the implementation of a federated and fully democratic political system within which minority rights can be defended. Between them, the Kachin and Wa armies can marshal tens of thousands of fighters; any resumption of hostilities with the government would drastically change the national political mood.

Right now, fighting along the border with Thailand – where the Karen National Union has consistently resisted government efforts to force a ceasefire agreement – has the potential to shake the government. Violence has been almost constant in the mountains along this border for over sixty years.

Over the past year some armed groups that supported the Burmese government have switched sides and started attacking their erstwhile allies. Their disloyalty has been met with fearsome retaliation. Waves of villagers have fled to safety in Thailand as all sides prepare for what could be a long and bloody campaign.

At the same time, the international dimension to Burma’s political and ethnic stalemates is changing quickly. While boycotts and sanctions have made stronger links between Western democracies and Burma impossible, a wide range of other countries have opportunistically compensated. Among a long list of other investors and collaborators, countries like Singapore, Thailand, China and India – and, further afield, Russia, North Korea and Israel – have sought to become enmeshed in Burma’s economy.

One of the disadvantages of sanctions rhetoric is that we tend to ignore just how limited and symbolic Western policies have become. If we are hoping to change Burma’s behaviour, then our efforts to blacklist key government figures, ban their travel to the West and discourage economic links have failed. Instead, there has been a range of unintended impacts. Sanctions have left plenty of room for businesses with no scruples about human rights or democracy. Does the average Chinese dam builder really care if Burmese army units use rape as a weapon of war? Are Singaporean hoteliers uncomfortable with more-or-less permanent military rule? Would an Israeli arms manufacturer ask too many hard questions?

The indignation voiced from Washington, London and Canberra ignores the vibrancy of economic and personal connections that Burma now has with other countries, particularly its near neighbours. In every case, their investments and connections benefit from the lack of American, British and Australian competition or involvement.

The conundrum for Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters is that the military government has proven almost completely impervious to Western opprobrium, and is now well-positioned to move beyond Burma’s political and ethnic stalemates. The parliaments that they have built, and the ethnic wars that they are fighting, are products of a system where Western commitment has been constrained.

And critical jabs from Western idealists, insisting on immediate steps to a “pure” democracy, have only served to bolster the government’s resolve. A military leadership that sees its own history in terms of resistance to colonial subjugation and defiance in the face of internal and external threats will habitually seek out mechanisms for even greater control.

The current mechanism of choice is the semi-democratic 2008 constitution. It is steeped in the rhetoric of a government that sees itself as the liberator and guardian of a society under threat. Part of the unheralded success of Burma’s military regime is that perceived threats to the government’s survival are immediately, even naturally, described as threats to everyone. The conflation of military rule with national integrity and sovereignty has proven a potent recipe.

But as a government that has faced down decades-long insurgencies, crushed popular street uprisings and weathered international condemnation it has clearly developed a fresh appetite for moving beyond the prevailing stalemates. Generating a degree of legitimacy through the new parliamentary institutions and further neutering the capacities of the ethnic armies are the two highest priorities. It helps that international instincts to criticise will be tempered by Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest.

What we now need to acknowledge is that the military leadership has crafted a political and economic system that will likely endure well after elections are regularised. Their anticipation is that our lack of attention to Burma ensures that the military and its civilian proxies will be quietly encouraged to continue ruling the country.

This means that in 2011 we will see a new stalemate between Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic forces and this semi-democratic system. Anyone who seeks to challenge the military and its rule will want to test whether anything has changed. It is still far too early to hope that much extra room for compromise and conciliation will be available. •

Nicholas Farrelly is a Southeast Asia specialist in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. In 2006 he co-founded New Mandala, a website that focuses on regional politics and society.

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3 Comments

  1. Larry Dohrs added this comment on 1 January 2011 | Permalink

    There’s much here that makes sense, though it’s hard to be very optimistic about the political opportunities the new dissident parliamentarians will have, given published rules restricting their speech, the vague outlines of what the new bodies will actually do, and the isolation of the parliament itself in Nay Pyi Daw.

    But the implication suggested herein that somehow Western business participation is any kind of panacea for Burma’s ills should have been discussed in the context of existing Western business involvement.

    Let us take as an example the largest Western investment in Burma, which is a direct partnership between Chevron of the US, Total of France and the Burmese military junta. This consortium pipes Burmese natural gas to Thailand where it is used for electricity generation. The International Monetary Fund has found that the Burmese generals book less than 1% of the revenues from this project into the national budget. By using the old, “official” exchange rate of 6 Burmese kyat to the dollar, rather than the “real” exchange rate of about 1000 to the dollar, the generals make more than 99% of the revenues from the biggest foreign investment in the country simply disappear, likely into private bank accounts in Singapore and elsewhere.

    Chevron and Total have both refused to reveal to their shareholders or the Burmese public the exact amounts that they have paid Burma’s generals, but the amount is estimated to be about $5 billion.

    So the net result of the largest Western “engagement” in Burma is as follows: A Burmese natural resource is sold abroad, with the revenues shared between multinational oil companies and Burma’s despotic generals, while the 50 million Burmese derive virtually no benefit. The people do however see the guns and the enhanced political power derived by their oppressors from these deals.

    Given this reality, it seems the argument would have to be that new Western investments would have to take place in a manner quite different from existing investments. This would require some genuine reforms from the generals (is anyone holding their breath waiting for these?). Failing these reforms, more Western investment would most likely have the same effects as the existing ones: Vast income for the generals, little but crumbs for the people. That’s what you want?

  2. Hla Oo added this comment on 28 January 2011 | Permalink

    I just would like to point out one particular misconception about Burmese Budget due to the parallel existence of official and black market exchange rates.

    The popular report that Burmese Government has misappropriated most of the Natural Gas revenue is grossly incorrect as not only all the revenues are booked in kyats in the budget but also all the expenditures are booked in kyats at the official exchange rate.

    One particular example is machinery purchases by the Irrigation Ministry. If one carefully looks at the details one will find a Caterpillar Bulldozer imported at the cost of 600,000 kyats.

    The reality is with 600,000 kyats one can not even buy a scooter in Burma. What the Burmese government really paid for that buldozer was US$ 100,000 or 100 million kyats at the market rate of about 1,000 kyats a US$, but they booked in the budget 600,000 kyats only at the official rate of about 6 kyats a US$.

    Since U Nu’s democratic government time in the 1950s there has always been a black market exchange rate as Burma always has a sizable black economy much bigger than the official economy.

    For example the illegal trades across the broders during Ne Win’s rule were the real economy of Burma for more than thirty years.

    So the gap between official rate and black market rate just getting bigger and bigger as the black economy has been expanding over the years.

    Instead of officially depreciating the currency the successive Burmese governments have been using a parallel currency called FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate) for almost all private overseas trades through MFTB (Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank)and most tourist related transactions inside Burma.

    Officially one FEC is equivalent to one US$ but in practice it is discounted. For example if one US$ is 1,000 kyats in the markets one FEC would fetch about 920-950 Kyats.

    In reality the Burmese governments also massively depreciate the currency over the years by generously printing paper-kyats to accommodate the ever-expanding black economy.

  3. wilma western added this comment on 18 February 2011 | Permalink

    As a fan of Aun San Suu Kyi I found both N Farrelly’s article and the above comment enlightening. There has been other western involvement in Burma also , however , for example Oxfam’s assistance during huge flooding a few years ago. Farrelly is correct to highlight how non-western groups are making hay with the junta but it seems a major oversight not to mention Chevron-Total.

    It seems as though shareholder agitation and publicising issues such as the rake-off of national revenues by the junta could have some impact in achieving a modicum of justice for the nation’s people, though how you could get the junta to cooperate is problematic .

    While the junta is playing ethnic politics surely they can’t be sure of keeping all these newly elected politicians under the thumb.

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