As Sunday fast approaches and the prospect of any disruption of the polls lessens, speculation now rests on what will happen in the near future. While it is certain that military rule will continue, more attention should be paid at this critical stage to the diversity of the current political landscape and the prevailing number of uncertainties that follow 7 November.
Pro-democracy radicals, fearful that the elections will psychologically entrench military rule in the minds of an already subdued population, continue to encourage a voter boycott. Contrastingly, thousands of business, political and social leaders tired of waiting for a utopian democracy, aim to squeeze what they can from the process, supporting non-junta candidates and encouraging strategic voting to block out pro-junta candidates.
Junta-backed parties look set to take a majority of the legislature, largely due to the configuration of an acutely unlevel playing field by the authorities. With that and the 25 percent of parliamentary seats automatically going to military personnel without popular vote, the chances of the president and two vice presidents being anyone but military favourites are minuscule. This president, alongside the commander-in-chief, will then be in charge of electing the country’s key ministers and will form a National Defense and Security Council with a majority of military appointees. All of this makes a shift away from unilateral, brutal policies towards political opposition or ethnic minorities unlikely to change at all.
With this in mind, many pro-democrats will now be looking for much subtler indicators of change: how many non-junta candidates gain seats and what bills are passed (many of which have already been drafted). Others will be more interested in the level of political defiance from voters. Futilely, a proportion will likely continue to stare in inactive bewilderment at western governments and the UN, wondering when they’re going to save the day.
The possibility of positive development resulting from the new system largely depends on the candidates aiming to support a transition towards democracy within the current framework, despite its imperfections.
The legitimacy of these ‘pro-democracy’ candidates varies massively in the eyes of Burma’s other pro-democrats. While the most radical consider them apologists who are helping the military to entrench its power, others see courageous luminaries who have spent years face-to-face with belligerent soldiers negotiating for development deals or better civilian services. In the middle are a whole range of sceptics, many of whom understandably won’t believe anything resembling progress in Burma until they see it, scarred as they are by 20 years of political stagnation and a half century of suppression of civil liberties and brutal violence.
The general feeling among civil society leaders in Burma is that many candidates are not supportive of the military’s goals, despite being involved with business and development and maintaining essential contacts and acquaintances within the current government. If that’s the case, the question then is how much any civilian can really achieve in politics in Burma today – likely very little compared with any conventional democracy, but perhaps a lot more than any civilian has in the past 48 years in Burma.
Out of a legislature of 664 representatives, few are likely to risk drastically opposing the current status quo. Those that do will be out-voted and thus silenced without the need for military crackdowns of yesteryear. However, there are expected be 100 to 200 elected pro-democracy candidates eager to kick start dialogue with the key instruments of the regime. And, believe it or not, many of those ‘instruments’ are also human beings with mere human hopes and fears, and are thought to be very much willing to talk, if not act. Non-junta parties will see the first five-year term under the new constitution as a period in which they can experiment and slowly start to find ways to shape the country from within.
Interestingly, the Kayin People’s Party, for example, have one candidate in each of the five regions and states with high Karen populations. Optimists will be hoping that such independent parties can get their foot in the door this year without posing enough of a threat to the military to be forced out of politics, and aim to increase their influence year-by-year working with the military to shape a better environment for their constituents to live in.
“But they won’t be allowed to change anything without the dictator’s order,” the sceptics cry. Matters of large-sale business and development or national security will continue to be dominated by generals, but will they really be involved in questions of agricultural policy in Chin State, for example, or a value-added tax on tea leaf sales? No.
One of the major reasons this constitution is being implemented now is because of the desperate need to encourage a more technocratic approach to certain industries and rationalise the economy. These are the kind of bills that could bring an end to a deadly three-year famine and mass-exodus of civilians, and mark the first small step towards an economic system based on fair distribution of profits to Burma’s ethnic regions. Both are better than what we see today. ‘Pro-democracy’ candidates will be hoping that strategic thinking and exceptional interpersonal skills will be enough to see small steps like these being made, and that more progress will be made in the first five-year term than in the preceding two decades.
On the other hand, many people who thought over and again in the past 20 years that societal breakdown was imminent, and that civil disobedience contributed every time, will be devastated to hear of such generous compromises being made on the part of millions of neglected civilians. These people, aware of Than Shwe’s expertise in psychological warfare, fear this election will allow him to subdue them for another generation, expel unwanted elements from within his ranks and solidify his power. Less fearful of a civilian uprising or indeed a coup from beneath, it is thought the doddering dictator then plans to back away from the day-to-day, satisfied that the country’s assets will be safe in the hands of his lineages – in short, forming an oligarchical, if slightly more functional, military dictatorship to rule for decades to come.
Though still far from a 2008 US presidential election scenario – a political race that had the world on the edge of their seats – a closer look at Burma’s election process shows it should not be ignored as if nothing will change. The entrenchment of military rule is certain, and perhaps more ominously the rule of Than Shwe and his most loyal subordinates. However, while that seemed certain before election plans were announced, many are now wondering whether through this, incremental positive progress can take place, at least in Burma’s non-conflict regions. With four days to go, anticipation is building, but those hoping to follow the political battle in all its complexity will need to look more closely than ever to spot the incremental developments.
Kim Jolliffe works for Burma Matters Now