A vote against ‘discipline democracy’

Published on December 12, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen


Asia Times – December 12, 2008

Shed another tear for Myanmar’s (Burma’s) swelling population of prisoners of conscience. In recent weeks, the country’s ruling military junta has handed down prison sentences ranging from six months to 65 years to scores of peaceful activists, Buddhist monks, artists, journalists and others. 

The international community’s rhetoric, without any substantive follow-up actions, has emboldened Myanmar’s generals to advance slowly but steadily towards their seven-step roadmap to a “disciplined and flourishing democracy”.

That included United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s lukewarm reaction towards a largely symbolic December 3 petition signed and sent to him by 112 former world leaders, including former US president Jimmy Carter and British prime minister Tony Blair, requesting him to visit Myanmar in the wake of the recent political arrests and sentences.

Through a spokesperson, Ban responded that he ” … will not be able to do so without reasonable expectations of a meaningful outcome, which is what we have been saying all along”. Had the same letter been sent by a similar number of incumbent leaders, goaded on by their respective predecessors, the letter would have had more impact.

Ban clearly sees the limitations of his office, which lacks any effective enforcement mechanisms. If he were to venture to Myanmar and return empty-handed, as his predecessor emissaries have, he would demean the secretary general’s position. The UN’s basic calls for the release of political prisoners and initiation of dialogue with opposition groups, after years of pleading and prodding, have not been answered.

Meanwhile, the recent spate of arrests and prison sentences has been seemingly designed to eliminate anyone who could potentially disturb the regime’s carefully orchestrated 2010 elections. In the process, the hardline regime has sent yet another clear message that it is unconcerned about the international community’s opinions about the legitimacy of its democratic process.

Senior General Than Shwe recently praised the 15-year anniversary of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) mass organization, which it claims has 24.6 million members out of the country’s estimated 48 million people. Many believe the USDA will soon be converted into a full-blown political party designed to perpetuate the military’s interests.

Meanwhile, the new constitution, passed in a controversial referendum in May, reserved 25% of seats in both houses of parliament for military members. Amendment to the constitution, meanwhile, will require the approval of more than 75% of both house’s members, meaning the military will be able to block any proposed charter changes it doesn’t favor. The regime has long taken pride in having one of the largest standing armies in the region, with over 400,000 personnel, and the top brass’ interests are spread far and wide throughout the local economy.

Myanmar‘s generals learned a hard political lesson at the 1990 general election: that any free and fair election will go in favor of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other democratic opposition groups. It’s still unclear whether the NLD will be allowed to participate in the 2010 polls; it’s clearer that restricted polls will do little to bring an end to Myanmar’s political problems, as the regime hopes its seven-step roadmap will achieve.

If the NLD is barred, as widely expected, the polls could cause more political confusion than they alleviate. While the new, likely military-affiliated government pursues its agendas in a nominally new democratic era, the NLD will likely continue to lobby the international community to recognize the 1990 elections the military resoundingly lost and stubbornly nullified.

The 2010 elections will bring a transition to Myanmar, even if the new government is still directly or indirectly under the military. While most Western nations, including the United States, will either refuse or reluctantly recognize the result, many Asian governments, led by its ally China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, will welcome it as a positive step toward democracy.

It is these conflicting approaches – sanctions versus engagement – that have over the years given Myanmar’s military generals political breathing space and allowed the rights-abusing regime to survive. Yet a long-lasting solution to Myanmar’s problems will require the participation in an inclusive process of all groups, not just the military.

Myanmar‘s political landscape could still be dramatically changed before and after the 2010 general election, provided that the international community pursues a coordinated “stick and carrot” approach. If the international community is sincerely serious about finding a solution to Myanmar‘s political problems, it should take actions, beyond letter-writing, that would make a difference.

A humanitarian military intervention, an adapted model of the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, or a firm UN Security Council resolution enforced universally against the regime’s economic interests would all potentially be more effective in bringing democratic change to Myanmar than military-planned elections.

None of those options is currently on the table, but as the 2010 elections approach and the military’s vision for “discipline democracy” comes into closer view, its clear the international community needs new policies and strategies to deal with Myanmar’s junta.


Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).

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