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Love them or hate them, you have to hand it to Burma’s military, they are very smart. Characterisations of them being crazy and superstitious are simply wrong. In various forms, the military has run Burma for more than 50 years, far longer than most regimes last. There have been some bumpy transitions of leadership during this time, and the odd purge, but overall, despite personal rivalries, they have stayed disciplined and united. Hopes and predictions of splits and collapse were proved wrong. Their effectiveness and ruthlessness in dealing with opponents in Burma as well as within their own ranks helped ensure their longevity in power.
On the international stage, the Generals ran rings around the United Nations and governments, avoiding the imposition of the strongest sanctions called for by democracy and human rights activists. UN envoy after UN envoy were duped by the tactic of promises of future reform and manufactured soft-liner hard-liner divisions within the regime. Reclusiveness and games played with the granting of visas helped mute criticism, and the bar on improvements set so low that just getting into the country was considered a diplomatic success.
A skillful game of divide and rule was played with powerful neighbours India and China. Cheap deals over natural resources were used to buy political protection from neighbours on the international stage. Restrictions on access for international humanitarian agencies left them so fearful that almost uniquely around the world, they stayed almost completely silent on human rights violations and the root causes of poverty in the country.
Then, when a combination of domestic and international pressure finally did force the military to accept reforms would need to happen, they did so slowly, at their own pace, and on their own terms. They brought in a new constitution which would guarantee that they still controlled the key levers of power in the country, would have the legal power to retake control, and could veto any attempts at further reform which might threaten their power and interests.
It isn’t full democracy, but it looks a lot like it, and they calculated correctly that western countries, which would reject any such system in their own countries, would agree that it was good enough for Burma. They also persuaded their main opponents in the country to agree to work within their constitution.
And their plan has worked, almost all sanctions have been lifted, there has been a massive increase in aid and trade, they have been embraced diplomatically, and praised for their reforms. Military to military contacts have been established by the USA and others, and the British government even provides them with free training.
They get first claim on the government budget, they have billions of dollars-worth of military owned companies, and have sold off companies, natural resources and government contracts worth billions more to themselves, their relatives, friends and cronies.
The November 2015 election was the culmination of their careful transition plan to a new political system in Burma, which they see as essential to their survival. The constitution was designed knowing an NLD election landslide was likely. Hence the guaranteed seats in parliament, the high bar for changing the 2008 Constitution, and military appointed ministers. They needed the election to go smoothly, and they need a smooth handover of power. They have been applauded domestically and internationally for following their own plan.
They have power and money, and have gone from pariah to praise. So with everything going so well for them, having been so smart in developing and implementing this transition plan, why are they going after people like U Gambira, recently arrested on ridiculous immigration charges? Why are they throwing people like Patrick Kum Jaa Lee and Chaw Sandi Htun in jail for a Facebook post? Why are the students who protested last year facing such serious charges?
There has never been any justification for how the military arrested and jailed thousands of its critics over the past 50 years, but you could at least see how, from the military point of view, it was afraid that even the smallest criticism could grow to become an uprising that could threaten its rule. The same cannot be said now.
When soldiers join the military, they know that they might have to take a bullet, but at the moment, they are shooting themselves in the foot. With all their power and success, does a Facebook post really threaten them? Does U Gambira, who has not even been politically active recently, pose a threat to their power and wealth?
Uprisings took place roughly every ten years in the past, but an uprising is inconceivable now. One of the biggest threats the military face now is themselves. Whether it’s old habits dying hard, revenge, or Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing being a sensitive soul with a thin skin, arresting old critics, students, and people who might have said something on Facebook, is just plain dumb. It isn’t in the interests of the military.
They designed a constitution with a democratic face, where their power lies largely behind the scenes. The more they step into the forefront, arresting and jailing critics, the more they remind people of how they still control key levers of power, and the more people will demand the removal of their power.
Mark Farmaner is Director of Burma Campaign UK
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.