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Dr Josef Silverstein, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has kept a firm eye on Burma for much of his 50-year academic career, spending a period as lecturer at the University of Mandalay. His publication record began in 1956 with an essay on the Burmese election of that year, which appeared in the Far Eastern Survey. He has published more than 50 scholarly articles and numerous essays in various newspapers and journals on issues related to Burma. Here he reflects on what changes, if any, have occured since Burma’s new parliament first sat, and whether ethnic minorities can begin to play bnigger role in Burma’s political future.
Some say the new parliament means a new beginning in Burma. What do you think?
Well first we have to consider what really has changed. What has changed is that although the military is in power and remains in power because its people either with their uniform on or off are still ruling, there are other involved people participating in the parliament and state legislatures.
But will the new make-up of parliament really divide power between all people?
We really don’t know how unified the military is. The various representatives of the military have not been chosen by the parties but have been chosen by the military to take these seats and serve in the legislature. All might not be absolutely harmonious and settled in the military, but there’s no question that the military as a body through its personals is the only rulers in the country.
And what about true civilian power?
I say that even knowing that about 20 percent of the elected members of parliaments – many of whom are civilians – really have no power whatsoever, so in that sense the rule of the military continues. General Than Shwe is still a very, very senior individual, although he’s allowed a president to be chosen and sworn in and also deputy presidents to take those offices. But again this in no way indicates that General Than Shwe has given up any of this own powers: there is speculation that an advisory body to the government will probably be formed under General Than Shwe as a way in which he would continue to control the men that he put in those offices as the issues arise and need decisions.
Many ethnic parties joined the parliament, while others have formed new alliances in the border regions. How will Burma’s ethnic issue take shape with the new parliament?
The parliament has representatives from the armed opposition and the unarmed opposition – those that accepted to take the job of being border guards. This was rejected by most, with only two or three [armies] accepting the role of the border guards. So what we have to take account of is who is guarding the nation on the frontier, and what are they guarding it from? The first part of the answer is that there is no foreign enemy – there is no nation state threatening Burma at the present time. So the Border Guard Force and armed groups that occupy the territory on the frontier are all people who claim to be citizens of Burma, or part of it.
Do these ethnic groups support the Burmese junta?
Well I’m not so sure if we can say that because we don’t really know where the loyalty of some of these people lies. Many of the armed opposition that existed before the new government came in continue to have their weapons and continue to hold their territories and continue to fight skirmishes with the military in the border areas, particularly in the northeast of Burma. There also are political parties that have accepted the legitimacy of military rule in the new constitution. But we do not know exactly where they stand or what they will do. Finally we have to look at something like the [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army] – remember in 1994, 1995 they broke away from the Karen National Union and for a number of years the DKBA was an ally of the military. Today, however, they are in direct contest with the military. They no longer accept the rule of the military and they did not agree to the new constitution and they are a clear threat to the new government and a continuation of warfare on the frontiers which could become larger if they join with other rebel groups who do not accept the new constitution and the new government.
Is there widespread support for Western sanctions on Burma?
Well you are getting a different picture in a different place. For example, many foreign governments, many businessmen inside of Burma and many individuals, people who are even citizens in the United States, do business in Burma – they are all bringing pressure on the US government to lift the sanctions and to accept the new government and the new system because they argue that that [the elections] was the first step in the democratisation of Burma. Now most people don’t accept this but if you’re in business with these people you try to put the best face on it and say, ‘Oh they are really good’ and that they really want to have a democracy.
There’s no indication that we are moving towards democracy in Burma. There is no freedom for political prisoners; there is no law that is honoured by the government. There is nothing but the power of the gun in the hands of the military under the leadership of Than Shwe. So in my estimation, there has been no change towards liberalisation and democracy. The only thing that the government is willing to do is to encourage foreign business and domestic business to continue to grow, make money and to give the appearance that Burma is really moving towards democracy. But anyone who looks at all at the situation in the northeast or elsewhere in Burma will find that nothing has changed.