The Prospect of Democracy in Burma
The prospect for the development of a democratic state in Burma has recently become a remote possibility. Burma’s military leaders have been holding talks with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The dialogue started while Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. When she was released in 2002, the international community and the people of Burma expected the process to evolve to the next stage – substantive political negotiations. However, the whole process has stalled. Burma’s military remain in control.
In justifying the hiatus, the Burmese military leaders engage in various forms of platitudinous rhetoric, carefully designed to obfuscate their totalitarian intent. The theme of this rhetoric is that the country is undergoing a transition toward a multi-party democracy. Burma’s influential intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, has warned that “such a transition cannot be done in haste or in a haphazard manner. The world is full of examples where hasty transition from one system to another led to unrest, instability and even failed states” .
However, this linguistic charade is not consistently maintained. Burma’s generals have made disturbing pronouncements that overtly envision a highly compromised, paternalistic democracy. They assert that any democracy in Burma must incorporate ‘Asian values’, and is therefore incompatible with Western models of democracy. The generals have proved recalcitrant in the face of international pressure, and persist with their particularly Burmese variant of democracy. Nyunt recently said that “The democracy we seek to build may not be identical to the West but it will surely be based on universal principles of liberty, justice and equality”. It is more than likely that Burma’s military rulers are now looking at the Chinese political model as the basis of their new constitution.
This rhetoric, centered around various abstractions and elaborations of political vision, is calculated to distract from the decidedly non-democratic Burmese political reality. What has actually been happening is that the country’s top military leader – Senior General Than Shwe – has strengthened his control over both the army and the administrative structure. Ever since the arrest of four members of the former military dictator General Ne Win’s family in early 2002, it appears that Than Shwe is intent on establishing and cementing his own personal dynasty. In line with this agenda, Shwe dismissed two top generals accused of being heavily involved in corruption. He then made major changes within the army high command, transferring 10 out of 12 of the country’s regional commanders, who exert almost complete authority in the areas under their control. They have been replaced by officers whose allegiance to Than Shwe is unquestioned . As a senior military officer has said:
“General intends to hold onto power for another 10 years. He is...