Wednesday, July 13, 2011

An opportunity missed, or an opportunity best lost?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011 16:09 Joseph Ball

(Commentary) – Burma’s 2010 general election and ensuing front of civilian parliamentary rule has certainly not ushered in an era of unbridled freedom and flourishing democracy—arguably not even “disciplined democracy” as promised by the generals.

President Thein Sein is one of the players in the
struggle to get more power within the new
Burmese government. Photo: Mizzima
But at the same time it would be wrong to suggest the same processes have not resulted in significant changes to the Burmese polity—changes asking new questions of those residing both within and outside formal decision-making circles. As a result, there is today a tenuous element of power residing with various political leaders, as well as the people, in sculpting potential paths forward.

For the best part of two decades, at least, Burma’s ethnic and political opposition were confronted with a military, vestiges of a government at times difficult to come by. It was, especially after 2004, fairly simple to discern who was in charge, the convenience of a military hierarchy providing little room for ambiguity in the machinations of treaties or appeals for dialogue.

Not so anymore; there are choices to be had.

There is little doubt that high-profile standing members of the Parliament are facing off, jousting for position in future government scenarios. Most notable is the tug-of-war between Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo and Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann. However, there are multiple other points of debate, including the utility of President Thein Sein. Ex-military men each one, populations within the armed forces can also be expected to be of divided mind as to the competing political voices. Add to this political cauldron the powerful heads of ministries searching for a means of bringing institutionalization to an institutionally starved landscape and there are options aplenty, as partners are sought in tipping scales and hedging exposed positions.

While President Thein Sein has aired tentative overtures toward empowering regional assemblies and modest reform in the running of the state, he is also seen as relatively quiet and not overtly assertive. These characteristics may well have assisted him in landing the presidency in the first place, as operatives try their hand at the manipulation of Parliament from behind the scenes.

As a result, rumours are rife of the president’s imminent demise, as more forceful figures look to imprint their stamp on Burma’s winding, searching road of political form or reform. And at present, if Thein Sein loses the support of the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s key constituents and its military patrons, he has no support.

Though it is difficult to assess just how sincere the president may be in his mollifying words, there is little doubt as to the posturing of some more robust would-be presidential aspirants. Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann and Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo have each stepped forward as aspiring and competing individuals.

Shwe Mann, the former No. 3 in the ranks of the former State Peace and Development Council, has come out highly critical of the workings of the state. Most recently, in a speech to businessmen in Rangoon, the speaker acknowledged Burma’s lowly place in the hierarchy of the world’s countries, appealed for an empowered Parliament and railed against debilitative features of Burmese society such as corruption. General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of Burma’s armed forces, is believed to back Shwe Mann.

In contrast, Tin Aung Myint Oo is seen very much as a defender of the old guard, looking to follow in the image of former Senior-General Than Shwe. There is even talk of the vice president rising in the political ranks via means of a military coup––either direct or indirect. The government’s information minister, Kyaw San, is apparently a further member of this clique, having obediently refrained from giving public attention to Shwe Mann’s critical remarks.

For years spectators marveled at the relative cohesiveness characterizing the Tatmadaw, who ruled over the country in the absence of even the veneer of civilian government, cunningly making use of divide-and-rule tactics vis-à-vis potentially hostile camps. But it is no longer simply the armed forces that occupy center stage in Burmese politics, or the traditional centres of opposition that stand exposed. There are also competing camps, even if led by ex-military figures, to the fracas––not to mention striations within the military reflective of a more complex political environment. Thus, there are options in choosing not only whether to support those in power and their colleagues, but also who to support.

Electoral democracy is but a single element, and a matter that can prove equally empowering or eviscerating to the participatory nature of a society’s role in governance. While the 2010 Burmese general elections proved much closer to an eviscerating electoral experience, space was nevertheless ceded in the fight to enhance participatory governance.

The path to peace and reconciliation in Burma likely lies in dialogue between the government, ethnic representatives and the prominent political opposition. This is nothing new. What is new is the possibility of choosing with whom a future dialogue might take place. Absent tangible options in the past and with trust between parties at a near permanent nadir, for years the static and unsophisticated landscape of Burmese politics meant this was rarely even a remote possibility.

It is, admittedly, tempting to stand aside and watch the Burmese political drama enter a new performance with largely the same cast of lead characters and conclude with a similarly anti-climatic ending as previous productions. And this remains a distinct possibility of what will transpire unless trust is built between outlying populations and inner circles of the government, providing previously nonexistent options in exploring substantive dialogue when coincidence creates the opportunity.

The alternative to waiting in hope that the Burmese political body will spontaneously self-combust is to reassess strategies and contentious issues. Electoral democracy has not come to Burma. However, complexities have arisen in the fabric of Burmese politics as a result of a flawed electoral process. Yet, for progress to be seen, clear signals of support in the direction of identified individuals needs to first be extended.

Admittedly, such counsel holds no guarantee of success and leads to the possibility of working with some parties that share responsibility for the mismanagement of the modern Burmese state. It further in no way promises that once individuals sit down together a clearly agreed upon comprehensive path forward will instinctively take root. Moreover, in the immediate future the 2008 Constitution would in all probability remain in force, with the military overtly enshrined in political theatre and the practical application of electoral democracy as practiced 21 years previously fading ever more into the past.

With such a prognosis, and cognizant of Burma’s modern history, vehement insistence on absolute victory and waiting for the fortuitous day to arrive certainly retains much of its appeal. But, nonetheless, there are today at least identifiable opportunities to be considered in potentially making that day a reality.

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