This parliament makes a mockery of democracy

Burma’s first parliament has opened in the capital Naypyidaw in strict secrecy. This first sitting of the parliament in 22 years is meant to be a watershed, with the introduction of a new form of civilian government to replace the past two decades of naked military rule. But it is nothing more than a thinly disguised military dictatorship.

Disciplined democracy, as the junta leader prefers to dub his military plan to try and gain international legitimacy, is nothing but another charade. The reality is that while some structural changes are being introduced – a new president, parliament, civilian government and regional assemblies – little will in fact be different from the past.

Than Shwe will remain in power – though perhaps not formally – and the new administration will be virtually all made up of former military men. After months of speculation, it seems certain now that the current prime minister, Thein Sein, will become the president when parliament nominates and votes for the position in the coming days.

Most of the current ministers will also be re-appointed, with a few deputy ministers taking over the top portfolio, including Maung Myint, who is tipped to become the new foreign minister. Former key military commanders will become chief ministers of the states. General Myint Swe (the former Bureau of Special Operation chief for Rangoon) not surprisingly will become Rangoon Division chief minister, and General Ye Myint (former Bureau of Special Operation chief for Mandalay) will become the Mandalay Division chief minister.

Despite the massive propaganda in the last few months, Than Shwe has finally baulked at introducing anything that might damage his authority and lead to a pluralist system.

In fact Than Shwe has opted to keep his tried and trusted lieutenants in power. The new civilian government will be in name only, as there is unlikely to be any room for civilians in the cabinet given that Than Shwe does not trust them.

His biggest concern of course is to ensure that the new political system would never provide an avenue for an army successor to build up sufficient support and power to overthrow him in the way he removed his predecessor, Saw Maung. The fate of Ne Win and Saw Maung haunts the Burmese military leader, according to sources in his family circle.

He has been so mesmerised by trying to avoid this that he has finally opted to make Thein Sein – who has been a ‘civilian’ general for some time now – prime minister instead of the former general, Thura Shwe Mann. But the former number three in the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is to be trusted with the crucial position of speaker of the lower house and will effectively control the day to day running of the parliament, and hence much of government.

Than Shwe is a very cautious man at best and the thought of loosening his grip on power has given him nightmares for years, with his wife in particular urging him to remain in the saddle for as long as possible. But the senior general has promised his neighbours, especially the countries of ASEAN, China and India, that change was in the pipeline but that he could not back down completely. A clear sign that he is not comfortable even with his own changes however is apparent: the new military-civilian government, including the president, is only an interim administration, and unlikely to remain in place for more than a year.

Than Shwe has already warned the future government that if it fails to meet his expectations, the army will lead another coup to make sure the country follows the military’s model of development and governance.

It is still unclear how often the parliament will meet and how long any session will be, though sources in Naypyidaw say it is to run for two weeks from its first sitting, after it elects the new president and the two vice presidents. It will then approve the Cabinet appointees – selected by the new president – and the chief ministers by the respective regional parliaments.

The whole strategic plan was outlined to the remaining generals in the SPDC at its recent quarterly meeting, which is likely to be its last. And the future cabinet ministers and chief ministers met Than Shwe last Friday in the capital and were given their final instructions. So much for democracy – the senior general is leaving nothing to chance.

A new political structure will be unveiled in the coming days, but it’s only an adaptation of the current power structure, with few checks and balances. For one thing, Than Shwe and Maung Aye will remain in the current positions – effectively in control of the army for at least another year, according to sources in Naypyidaw. They will also be on the National Defence and Security Council – a new body that will supervise the army and appoint the chiefs in future.

With the army remaining tightly under his control, Than Shwe has engineered a political system that will cascade down from his position at the top of the political pyramid. A triumvirate controls the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP): the three patrons – Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann – will exercise control of the party.

The one thing that appears to be emerging is that power will be more diffuse than before – deliberately to minimise any challenge to his authority. While Than Shwe remains in good health he may be able to manipulate the political process to his own end. But his balance of power approach will rekindle personal ambitions and resentments, as has happened before in the time of Khin Nyunt and his military intelligence network.

The fault lines will emerge again, this time amongst the middle-ranking and junior officers who may feel they have been mistreated and had their access to money-making ventures curtailed by the ‘new’ civilian administrators who may no longer feel beholden to the up-coming generation of military leaders. They may also realise, as Khin Nyunt and his coterie did earlier, that unless Burma manages to open up to the world, and benefit from greater global trade and foreign investment – their future may well be a limited one.

The dangers of even ‘benign’ autocratic rule that continues to ignore the interests of the people at large have been pointedly illustrated again in the last couple of weeks – with massive unrest sweeping through North Africa and parts of the Middle East. Than Shwe has been horrified by the scenes on television broadcast from Eygpt, according to sources close to the top general.

This may have been the final straw that made the senior general heed his wife’s persistent urging not to give up power – or at least to remain securely in control. The irony is that the tighter he maintains his grip, the more likely there is to be a backlash. For one thing, there are two generals, Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann, who will be very disgruntled at Than Shwe’s current plans.

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