Burma: Enlightened Despotism’ or something else?
The world has to receive Burma with open arms these days. Reason is; after decades of intransigence, the country’s long ruling military leaders appear to be politically enlightened. Six months ago, the two decade old junta was replaced with an elected government which vowed to realize the contents of a semi democratic Constitution. The world public is seeing a series of visible feats which can be construed as a thaw of the long frozen political climate of the country of sixty million souls.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s internationally famed antagonist is mildly elated. Her recent takes on the latest development has somehow endorsed the initiative of the regime. She had reportedly told Bishop Desmond Tutu that “the beginning of change” is in view. If a chapter of world history can be reference, the Burmese episode might as well be a small scale repeat of enlightened despotism in the post-postmodern world of today.
Burma’s military dictatorship is trying to reincarnate into what could be dubbed as ‘constitutional authoritarianism’ laced with sorts of democratic features. Whether this oxymoronic regime can transform and eventually grows into democracy to the full sense of the term remains to be seen. The fate of this historic step now rests on the goodwill and brinkmanship of all characters in the drama. The duration of the whole process and the trajectory may vary depending on the interplays of multiple factor variables such as the regime’s political will, the speed of coming of age of the Burmese civil society, the issues of the state led economic development, and the changing global balance of power.
Objectively Burma’s attempt to tune up itself with the trends of history could be said as positive in character. Neutral observers such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) urged to compliment the Burmese effort rather than hamper or be indifferent. But, in light of past experiences, the Burmese overture received less welcomes from the world publics than expected. The United States, after Special Representative and Policy Coordinator Derrick Michelle’s fact finding mission, extended economic sanctions for another year, meaning it need more hard evidences to be convinced. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell had reservations. He argued that the initial steps could still be reversed. To him the Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin assured via his UNGA address last month that steps his government has taken are irreversible. At least, Hillary Clinton is pleased the way President Thein Sein has treated the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Naturally China praised Burma’s political reform that has taken for too long to happen. Senior General Than Shwe, now retired regime leader, once reportedly had said in one of his visits to Beijing that Burma has a lot to learn and copy from China. Proximity may turn Burma into a beneficiary as well as a victim of the rise of China on the international stage.
In the smaller world, ASEAN is obliged to show recognition of Burma’s changes by awarding the rotational chair by 2014; can be the second time to favor since the award of membership to the club in
1997. Thailand can face tougher competition in the Burma market which received a record $ 20 billion investment last year. Both Thailand and China have invested billions of dollars, building seaports, highways and SEZs on Burma’s Indian Ocean rim as well as in other sectors. For Thailand that the new Thai PM is a Shinawatra may be an advantage for anything between the two countries. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is visiting Burma, a protocol in the region though.
Inside, people are getting through a ‘regime change from above’, which is a tightly controlled process bent on mitigating political and human costs. Burma is a torn country, if not a failed state, in many ways. The rifts between civilians and the military, the rift between the Burmese majority and the non-Burmese minorities, and that between nationalist ideals of the colonial era born older generations and the rising new generations under the influence of globalization and digital media can instantly be identified. The existing regime cannot fix them by itself since it has been ‘part of the problems’ throughout.
Then, like it or not, talking Burmese politics with Aung San Suu Kyi excluded is impossible. She has been by far the towering figure opposing the regime since the tumultuous days of 1988. Her antagonistic criticisms have caused the regime leaders paranoia and perceived, if her party, the NLD, have the state power, the politics of retribution is a possibility. This has been ‘the reason’ why it took so long for a thaw, according to one regime insider who recently cleaned his breast to the domestic media.
The military has repeatedly attempted to marginalize Suu Kyi. But her fame and political stature rises to a new height internationally each time the authorities persecuted. She has become a measure to test regimes’ sincerity to everyone in the nation. Eventually and ironically it comes down to the point that the regime sponsored political change requires Suu Kyi’s endorsement to be legitimate.
Last month, the world has seen her in news photos posted together with President Thein Sein. She was officially invited to Naypyidaw, Burma’s new capital. A brief official statement was released to the public. Both sides promised to work together shelving differences for the time being. In Rangoon, the former capital and nation’s economic engine, folks wondered whether their country has really turned ‘the corner.’ The 84 years old former dictator Than Shwe was out of sight and out of talks, probably for the good of all.
Thein Sein promised his government will be clean, dedicated toward good governance, and vowed to combat corruptions. He has recruited Western educated experts into his think tank. He patronized workshops on mass poverty, and emphasized the importance of media in the democratization process. Stories previously torn away from pages were in print. Banned foreign websites are released. Expatriates are welcomed home.
Still, promises, gestures and photo-ops have yet to deliver a sea change. The censure of NLD’s legal standing has yet to be revoked. Many of Suu Kyi’s followers and student leaders are still in jails. Street demonstrations are still not permitted. There is no citizen owned private newspapers circulating yet. These ‘easy to grant easements’ are still ‘on hold.’ The explanation given by Minister of Information and Public Relations who heads this office as a Brigadier General since 2002 up to now - as to why these freedoms are ‘on hold’ is characteristically typical of a ‘nanny state.’ The Minister, who also takes
questions from visiting foreign dignitaries, is not only the spokesperson of the regime but also one of the known hardliners.
Certain ex-military turned Ministers are even rude to questions raised by MPs in the legislature openly showing disdain on the nascent civilian power. One recent issue of public concern is on a Chinese hydropower project to be built on one of Burma’s national prides, the 1000 mile long Irrawaddy River, Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay.” The answer given by Minister of Electric Power (1), formerly a Major General, who supervises the said dam project, was quite arrogant that it has sparked a nationwide public anger.
The Constitution per se is a short-changed version of democracy. A clause in it says, ‘The Tadmataw (the military) must participate in the leading role in ‘national politics.’ This is literally translated to be the military holding a portion of the state mechanism, split-up vertically. The new setup is a civilian military hybrid in both the executive and the legislature. A quarter of the seats at the legislature are occupied by officers in green, sent by Commander in Chief who is equal with a Vice President in official status. His successor is to be nominated only by him. Three key ministries of the Government, Home, Defense, General Administration and Border Area Development, are structurally awarded to the military. Military operations against a dozen minority rebel armies widespread in the nation’s rugged peripheries are so far out of the scrutiny or oversight of Government and Legislature. The central government is too ridiculously powerful vis a’ vis provincial and regional governments in the still highly centralized state.
The present mixture raises the question whether the regime is genuinely committed to change?
It needs a brief retrospect dating back to the pre 1988 period. Burma was early among the socialist countries to find out that the command economy capped with one party system is not sustainable. But the Independence era leaders’ overall reform plan came too late and situations got out of hand. The first junta leader, General Saw Maung, had appealed to the country that the army will be temporary, hinted a return to barrack after an election tabled for 1990. But when some voices from the election wining NLD aired a possibility of retributions for the bloods of 1988, not only he was removed by subordinates but also the transfer of power to NLD was dashed. General Khin Nyunt, then junta’s front man known as ‘prince of evil’ in the West, had spelled out a raison d'être for the continued holding of state power.
Characteristically, the coup in 1988 was a ‘guardian coup.’ The first title of the junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), clearly indicated it. It was redefined to be a ‘modernizing coup,’ with a mission to build a market economy with a matching political system. The junta was renamed, “State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).” Despite the economic sanctions, a ‘developmental state’ with a host of 20 years plans was launched. The socialist economic structure was dismantled by a series of privatization. Foreign investments are invited. Neighbors and natural resources helped. It is remarkable that though sanctions and its own follies yet it did achieve a measure of economic progress.
It is obvious the Burmese military seeks legitimacy by way of economic development. ‘Performance legitimacy’ is not new in the authoritarian East Asia. From Singapore to China - with Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea in between - political legitimacy is mainly built on economic performance; and elections are largely for external recognition.
Efficient bureaucracy can contribute to political legitimacy. Singapore has an enviable meritocracy. China is trying hard, purging corrupt bureaucrats, sometimes even executing those found guilty of bribery. Vietnam also is fighting corruptions more ferociously than Burma.
Burma’s state bureaucracy is saturated with military families and regime’s clients. It is inflated with junk staffs, redundant functions and replicated departments. Employment has been made conditional to political loyalty, a step that enabled the junta grew into a regime. The national scale political appointments in the state bureaucracy for a very long time caused efficiency badly eroded and corruptions grown out of control. In all Government ministries, bribes constituted state employees’ major income where official salary, a joke. Top military officers turned Government ministers have been amassing personal wealth amid mass poverty. This kind of status quo spawns hardliners.
The President has so far touched it only verbally and for once. One of his advisors has recently pleaded though, that there are too many issues, all equally important and cannot be selectively prioritized. Anyway Burma’s state bureaucracy can be the cardinal force of inertia vis a’ vis the drive for change.
Secondly, Burma possesses what other Asian authoritarian polities do not, the Suu Kyi factor. Political legitimacy has long been on her side by virtue of NLD’s election victory. Had she been awarded the office in 1990, Suu Kyi probably might have shared the fate of Corazon Aquino in precedence – a one term president than fade - as she was then a rookie thrown into the chaos of 1988. The failure to do so had prolonged NLD’s legitimacy (thus regime’s illegitimacy) for the next twenty years. The de-jure/de-facto stalemate has created a long impasse.
The departure of Than Shwe has created an opportunity for his successor to make a fresh start. Probably the dictator himself might have devised such an arrangement. Whatever it may be, latest episodes show Thein Sein seems to be wining Suu Kyi’s cooperation. The Nobel winner opposition leader is quoted as saying, “(she is) available to be ‘utilized’ for the sake of national interest,” in reply to criticisms by admirers.
Next the country is impatient to actually enjoy the civil liberties guaranteed in the (semi) democratic constitution with no further delay - to win trust and participation of the wider population. Finally, sensitive issues like the environmentally challenged (China and Thailand financed) dam projects and other matters of strategic importance like the Nuclear reactor - legacies of the despotic era - need fresh reviews and revisions done in a more comprehensive, democratic manner. These as benchmarks are to test the sincerity as well as the scope of enlightenment. The President’s recent decision to hold the dam project on the Irrawaddy upstream is a positive sign.
The regime is, naturally, not monolithic. There was one open objection made by an MP on the suggestion over the inclusion of Aung San Suu Kyi in the plan for a ‘national reconciliation committee,’ pointing her continued referring of the country in her talks to foreign media by the old name, “Burma” instead of the new and official name, “Myanmar.”
This shows that hardliners are not only in the state bureaucracy but also in the legislature.
There are not only reformers and hardliners but also continuity and change in any given country’s historical turn. The military’s vested interests in the Constitution and appropriations in the Government are clearly the ‘continuity within the change.’
But changes within the continuity are also taking shape. The generational change in the military is not only significant but also positive. Its third generations of officers are now sitting in the legislature mingling with civilian MPs. They are there supposedly to represent the military, the regime. These younger, better educated, more outward looking officers are - to witness their participation in debates and motions – now unconsciously undergoing a civilianizing process. Two houses of the assembly become their internship venues for ‘democracy politics.’ This definitely is a change within the existing continuity.
Previously, the junta is the all-encompassing institution, the Government (the executive), the law maker (legislature) and the enforcer of law and order (the armed forces), all blended into one. This is now decommissioned. The state’s functions are now separated, another change within the continuity.
Thirdly, a new rule of the game in political decision making - debate and vote – is introduced to the nation including the military, replacing the old ‘top down command chain,’ the indispensible gain.
There can be no definite yes/no answer to the question whether the Burmese regime is enlightened. To quote Joseph Stalin, the merciless Soviet dictator, “there has been no case in history where a ruling class has voluntarily departed the stage.” If so, the Burmese regime’s offer of a ‘short -changed’ democracy or its preferred term, ‘disciplined democracy,’ shows that it is at least aware of the world’s historical trend and the need for adjustment. How far it will proceed from that point is for posterity.
Seventeen years ago, the writer of this story wrote an article in Bangkok Post . Then, I said: “History has only a few cases of enlightened despotism. In the case of Burma, whether they (the military) are really enlightened or just another ploy remains to be seen. The world has a good yardstick named, Aung San Suu Kyi. Until these base traits are changed, either voluntarily or by force, the rape of Burma may continue. ” (The Rape of Burma to continue, Perspectives, Bangkok Post, 13, February, 1994):
In addition to a popular notion that ‘a regime change is the replacement of one regime with another,’ students of Burmese history should also regard that ‘sometimes a regime change means an existing regime is changing its essence and contents, voluntarily or by forces other than its own.’