Commentary: Can the 2010 election change Burma?

Naing Ko Ko

Aug 5, 2008 (DVB), In 2010, Burma’s military generals are going to hold an election under their new helmetocracy constitution, which was more than a decade in the making and aims to allow the generals to run the country for decades to come.

Prior to the referendum to approve the constitution, the ministers of the junta’s war office worked rapidly in both rural and urban areas of Burma, using populist appeals and fear-mongering, to persuade the people to vote Yes.

Can this helmetocracy constitution and the planned bulletocracy election change Burma? Will Burma become a semi-democratic state or remain under authoritarian rule in the post-election years?

Will Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo, Ko Min Ko Naing and all other political prisoners be released? Will the exile movement and overseas Burmese in rich first-world countries go back to Burma to vote in this election and to run for office?

"Road map to helmetocracy"

Elections are one of the foundations for democracy in civilized countries, with open competition giving public legitimacy to those elected to run the country. Unsurprisingly, the people of Burma do not have the right to monitor the election nor do they have access to the management of the election.

Burma is one of most ethnically diversity countries in the world and not all of its people can read, speak and write the common language of Burmese. Nonetheless, the constitution and election has been published only in English and Burmese and was written by the military generals and their handpicked, unelected cronies.

The people have no choice but to shut their mouths, close their eyes and act like sheep during the election period and beyond when the helmetocracy government comes to power. Those who dare to oppose the election risk imprisonment and the loss of their property and livelihoods.

While the junta is going door-to-door campaign for support for its road map to helmetocracy, thousands of innocent civilians are being locked up by the present elite generals. Those in jail include respected Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy which won 82 percent of the seats in the 1990 election that has never honored by the military thugs. Other members of her party have also been detained, as has Min Ko Naing, one of the 88 Generation Student leaders.

The generals of the junta’s cabinet aggressively ordered that referendum and election propaganda in support of the military regime should go out in the print media, including the periodicals, journals and magazines run by local journalists. But at the same time, there are no international media present to monitor the process and most ordinary Burmese cannot access international radio, TV and newspapers. Needless to say, the staffers of the military-run national media such as the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, Myawaddy TV and Myanmar Radio and Television have been forcefully ordered to parrot the junta’s psychological warfare and propaganda about the election and the next helmetocracy government.

Obviously, both the helmetocracy constitution and the bulletocracy government of the military elite are aimed at shoring up the country’s political authority, its domestic legitimacy and its international image. This reassertion of sovereignty was needed after the junta brutally sprayed innocent civilians and respected Buddhist monks with bullets. But this is no basis for genuine change or transition in Burma.

In fact, the people of Burma want a genuine change in the political, economic and legal systems. They want a peaceful state where they can live their lives without fear and the burden of military hegemony, brutality and domination. However, Burma’s elite generals still greedily guard their control over almost all of the state’s resources, power, sovereignty and legitimacy.

Even if voters across the entire country vote overwhelmingly against the military regime in the 2010 elections, the generals will still declare a win to secure their grip on political power and maintain the status quo. The junta does not want change in Burma and has no understanding of democratic transitional models. Significantly, the elite generals do not want to transfer power to civilian elected representatives.

Models for transition

There are many models for transition of an authoritarian regime to a democracy, for example the model sometimes referred to as "upper structure reform" , simply put, where power is transferred from one elite to another. This was seen in South Africa when power was transferred from the ‘white elite’ to a new ‘black elite’, the African National Congress leaders.

Another model is referred to as the economic development model, which has been followed in such countries as South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia. In Indonesia, the people gained knowledge and agency as a result of the country’s economic development, and were able to challenge the dictator Suharto.

However, neither of these models has been applied in the Burma context. In the past 20 years, Western liberal countries have tried to persuade the junta to enter into dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and even offered them $1 billion, but this was not accepted. ASEAN counties used an "economic development first and democracy later" approach, but this has also foundered. These regime transition models will continue to fail in Burma’s current political climate.

International responses

With respect to international legitimacy and sovereignty, it is noteworthy that the fox-like prime ministers of some neighboring countries are already planning a red-carpet welcome for the generals who will become the new generals-turned-president and prime minister of the Union of Burma, in a case study of the "Burmese way to bulletocracy".

Moreover, in the tradition of the decades-old non-interference policy of the Bandung Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, the leaders of India, China, Thailand, Singapore and some other ASEAN members are preparing a huge banquet to wine and dine the future president and prime minister of the Burmese bulletocracy.

At the same time, these countries are encouraging their business elites to cut virgin natural forests, dig mineral resources, explore natural gas and exploit Burma’s economy alongside the military junta. India, China, Thailand and Singapore ignored the liberty, security and sovereignty of the people of Burma for the sake of the seductive Burmese energy boom and the billions to be made from investment in new pipelines and ports.

In addition, the Western liberal democracies will as usual adapt their diplomatic responses towards Burma and its new helmetocracy constitution and bulletocracy Burma depending on the state of their economic relations with China. If the United States is at odds with the politburo of the Chinese Communist regime over monetary policy or if there is an imbalance in bilateral trade with Beijing then the US will use "megaphone diplomacy". The international media will report criticism of Burma’s human rights abuses and failure to democratise.

Under the helmetocracy constitution, there will be no genuine change in Burma. 110 members of the 440-seat People’s Parliament, and 56 members of the 224-seat National Parliament will be selected by the elite generals. Rather than making a transition to democracy, it is incontrovertible that Burma’s elite generals are instead following the models of North Korea and Suharto’s Indonesia.

Finally, the possibility for regime change in Burma depends on when people power rises up again to throw this helmetocracy constitution into the dustbin. People power can override this constitution and it will come about without a Burmese Ramos. A human sovereignty clock is ticking in Burma.

Naing Ko Ko is a postgraduate scholarship student in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He is a former political prisoner.

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