The birth of democracy in Burma? Sadly not

Aung San Suu Kyi’s electoral victory is less the product of people power than of deal-making between the US and the military junta.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

You would have to have the heart of a despot not to think positively of the electoral triumph of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Burma.

This, after all, is a country that has been in the grip of various forms of military authoritarianism since the 1960s, and most recently, since a coup d’etat in 1988. Revolts have been put down, protests suppressed, and political activists, of which Aung San Suu Kyi is merely the most famous, incarcerated. So to see what look like relatively free elections take place, elections in which the Burmese people can at last exert some degree of control over their lives, is something that deserves at least a cheer.

Or so you would think. But there’s something not quite right here. Because if you look a little closer, if you peer behind the glossy photos of a demure but victorious Aung San Suu Kyi, if you cast aside the praise currently being foisted on current Burmese president Thein Sein by Western commentators keen to anoint him the next Mikhail Gorbachev, then the extent to which this is a victory for democracy and people power becomes highly questionable.

What exactly has been won here? As it stands Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy took 43 out of 44 parliamentary seats in a series of by-elections in which six million Burmese people were eligible to vote. On the face of it, this sounds impressive, hence the terms the more excitable parts of the Western media have used to describe it: ‘a landslide’, ‘a new dawn’, and so on. But when you consider that Burma’s parliament consists of 664 seats, over 80 per cent of which belong to the military and its political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, then Aung San Suu Kyi’s actual parliamentary clout will be very limited.

Furthermore, under the new constitution drawn up in 2010 by Burma’s military junta, even if the National League for Democracy were to prevail at a general election (which is by no means certain), not only is the president unaccountable to parliament, but so too is the National Defence and Security Council, not to mention Burma’s ultimate power, the military itself.

There is a sense, then, that Burma’s ruling elite is using Aung San Suu Kyi and the NDL just as much as they themselves are taking advantage of these limited democratic concessions. It may not be a stitch-up in intent, but it certainly looks that way in practice. The NDL, and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, serve a purpose: they lend to Burma’s rulers the semblance of democracy without them having to suffer any of its impact. That Burma’s elite is actually the sponsor of the NDL’s opportunity for this rather partial electoral success rather than its opponent ought to be clear from the fact that it was the elite itself, with Thein Sein to the fore, which drove through the NDL’s electoral participation. And Thein Sein, lest one forget, is no democrat. In fact, this 65-year-old former general was handpicked to be the new president in early 2011 by Burma’s long-time de facto ruler General Than Shwe on account of his loyalty to the military junta. Proof of which can be found in Thein Sein’s willingness to serve as caretaker prime minister in 2007 when the Burmese security forces suppressed widespread protests, killing more than 100 people.

And why might the military rulers of Burma be keen to be seen to be edging towards democracy, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s face at the front? Because not only do the concessions go some way to placate a currently fairly placid public, but – and this is the key dynamic in Burma – they also go some way to appeasing a powerful, sanction-happy international audience, which has systematically isolated the Burmese state over the past few decades.

In the words of Burmese journalist Aung Zaw: ‘There is a general acknowledgement among the ruling class, whether openly or in secret, that it has to moderate. It’s reaching for modest reform, trying to reintegrate into ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations], and repair relations with the West, particularly the United States. With the US as a roadblock, Burma can’t get any better or go anywhere.’ And for the US, Burma’s newfound willingness to engage with the West represents a chance to nudge them out of China’s orbit.

Little wonder, then, that while Burma’s rulers, steeped in decades of military rule, are now playing the role of democratic reformers, the US, promising this in return for that, has been enjoying a particularly influential role behind the scenes. Back in November, for instance, President Barack Obama announced that Hillary Clinton was to be first the US secretary of state to visit Burma in 50 years. Praising Thein Sein’s leadership, Obama said that ‘after years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks’. The interventionist purpose of Clinton’s trip was clear. As one report put it: ‘If [Clinton] likes what she hears [regarding reform], she will announce a number of steps that the US is willing to take in return to reward Burma for good behaviour and as an incentive to undertake more reforms.’

And, keen to curry favour with the US, Burma’s rulers duly released 651 political prisoners at the beginning of December. Clinton was effusive: ‘This is a substantial and serious step forward in the government’s stated commitment to political reform and I applaud it and the entire international community should as well.’

Of course, the publicity centrepiece of Clinton’s early-winter trip, and the democratic reform the US was kindly seeking to win on behalf of the Burmese people, involved Aung San Suu Kyi. Hence the countless pictures of Clinton hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi. It doesn’t take an expert political scientist to discern the mediating hand of the US in the negotiations between Burma’s rulers and Aung San Suu Kyi over her participation in this week’s April elections. No wonder a US spokesperson this week called the NDL’s victory ‘an important step in Burma’s democratic transition’.

Superficially, Aung San Suu Kyi’s triumph looks like the resurgence of democracy in Burma. But on closer inspection it reveals itself to be almost entirely stage-managed by the US, with the Thein Sein and the NDL playing their roles. Thoroughly internationalised, political developments in Burma seem to have very little to do with the Burmese people themselves.

Nowhere, in fact, is the role of the West in Burma more apparent than in the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi herself. She is not a mere politician in the West, she is an ‘icon’, a ‘symbol’. In the words of her BBC profile: ‘Like the South African leader Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi has become an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.’ Indeed. She has been lionised like no other figure apart from, well, Mandela. U2, long-time Mandela hangers-on, even wrote a song about her in 2000. And that’s not all: several plays have focused upon her; Hollywood has given her the full treatment not once but twice, first, tangentially, in John Boorman’s 1995 film, Beyond Rangoon, and second, centrally, in Luc Besson’s 2011 hagiography The Lady; and Western politicians fall over themselves to bask in her saintly aura. Labour peer Baroness Kinnock declared in 2010, for instance, that Aung San Suu Kyi had ‘more serenity and humanity than anyone I have ever met’.

Now there’s no denying Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity in Burma. After all, it was because of the popular support she commanded that Burma’s military rulers put her under house arrest during the national elections in 1990 – which her party won. But what is questionable is whether the West should be sanctifying her as Burma’s saviour. It is striking that it is not her politics, about which we know little, that are being praised; it is her fortitude, her bearing. Yes, she has endured countless internments, not to mention much personal sacrifice since her return to Burma in 1988 following two decades living quietly and contentedly in North Oxford. But these are not grounds to anoint her, Mandela-like, as the saintly saviour of the Burmese – which is what Clinton and Co seem all too happy to do. And even if her politics are fantastically agreeable, it is not up to the US or the equally sanction-happy EU to elect her on behalf of the Burmese people. If this US-backed stitch-up is any indication, however, that is precisely what is happening.

The sum result of this internationalisation of Burmese politics is that what looks like a democratic awakening is nothing of the sort. The demos, the people, have been excluded from the scene. Instead, a combination of the military junta’s desperation to shore up its regime, Aung San Suu Kyi’s willingness to play realpolitik and the West’s eagerness to make Burma an acceptable place to do business have conspired to create a near travesty of democracy.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World


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