Burma Power Transfer Thornier Than Lanka

By Kumar David –

The Aung San Suu Kyi– NLD (National League for Democracy) triumph is a big forward step but two inherited problems remain. First, 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for kaki clad thugs who will also appoint three ministers including defence. It will take time and tactical sagacity, but until the political interference and the power of the army are destroyed, Burma will live in the shadow of a return to brutality and dictatorship. Secondly, a junta imposed piece of junk called a constitution decrees that if your children are foreigners you are debarred from the presidency! Loony chauvinism and dictatorship go hand in hand everywhere!

But there is a third self-inflicted defect. Suu Kyi is no Gandhiji or Mandela; she is silent on the genocide of the Rohingya people in Rakine Province. Burma has 2 million Muslim Rohingyas (4% of the 55 million population). Hundreds of Rohinyas have been killed and 140,000 forced to flee, but the Nobel Laureate has kept silent. Is it because to have spoken against genocide of a minority would have been a vote loser? If this was all, she would be no different from our reviled politicians and bearers of Lanka’s primitive post-independence zeitgeist. Déjà vu for us Lankans!

But this may be more than electoral opportunism. From long before the elections she failed to raise her voice against monk-and-state inspired pogroms. Does she too harbour a chauvinist Burman tilt, induction into British liberalism notwithstanding? This is troubling. How Suu Kyi and her NLD government conduct themselves in the months ahead will tell us more. It goes beyond Rohinyas; the Burman (Buddhist) majority accounts for 70%; Shans (9%) are also Buddhist, half the Karens (7%) are Christians as are the smaller Christian Kachin, and Chin groups. There has been armed conflict of varying intensity of the state with Karen and Shan nationalists in border regions since independence in 1948. There are 130 more ethnic minorities hence ethnic tension goes well beyond the Rohingyas.

SuuKyi.2.Platon.2010Suu Kyi is no Gandhi and no Mandela. In April 1964 at the Rivonia Trial Mandela closed his address with these words: “I have fought against White domination and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Black and White stands for all the people; Suu Kyi falls short of this categorical imperative. Gandhi paid the ultimate price for protecting Muslims during the partition riots of late 1947 when a million were killed and 13 million displaced. But for his intervention the carnage in Calcutta and Bengal would have been much worse. Gandhi was killed for shielding a minority; Suu Kyi is silent on Rohinya genocide.

The reasons for silence are known, but not forgivable. Hard-line Buddhist nationalists accuse her of being pro-Muslim and stir up emotions in Rajapaksa-style replays. They hand out pamphlets that warn of a foreign invasion and Buddhism being destroyed. Leaders of the military government (Defence Secretary sic!) appeared at rallies sponsored by the machete wielding Ma Ba Tha, Burma’s BSS, led by shadowy anti-Muslim monk Wirathu. The MBT and the military say the Rohingyas are stateless foreign migrants, though they have lived in Burma for generations like our Upcountry Tamils who too were disenfranchised for more than 30 years. One expects this from the military and Burman-Buddhist chauvinists, but the NLD, to its shame, refused to let a single Muslim contest on the party ticket or to explain why.

Elected to part-power

What next after this landslide victory? The tricky transition of throwing out the old regime will be followed by the trickier matter of putting together a sane and stable alternative. In one way it seems less difficult than Lanka; thanks to a huge parliamentary majority there is no need to rely on reviled and corrupt detritus from the outgoing junta. In theory this debris can be discarded. However, practicality is otherwise. The junta holds armed power and cares not a hoot for the rights of the people or for democracy. Despite wholesale rejection by the people it may baulk at the verdict. In 1990 the junta annulled an NLD victory (60% of votes and 392 of 492 seats). Not power lust alone drives the military, but also the gravy train; corruption and looting by all ranks of the poorly paid army is huge. Even if compelled to countenance an NLD government, formally, the army will still breathe down its neck and endeavour to dictate decisions. Objections will be raised to a constitutional amendment permitting Suu Kyi to take up the presidency.

The electoral arrangements are complex – see box

The NLD needed two-thirds of all elected seats in both Lower and Upper Houses to smother the entrenched military block and form a government on its own (2/3 of 3/4 is 50%). In fact it secured 75% to 80% of elected seats in both Lower and Upper Houses giving it control of future legislation. The president is chosen by simple majority in a 664-strong (440+224) joint-House called Pyidaungsu Hluttaw where the NLD, obviously, has a majority. But the realities of power make some form of compromise unavoidable; another coup attempt has to be forestalled and the constitution has to be amended. A constitutional amendment requires 75% of the votes in parliament; this gives the military a veto even if every elected member supports an amendment. Hence the loyalties of the military have to be split both to pre-empt coup attempts and to amend the constitution.

One option is to allow the current president Thien Sein, an ex-general who seems flexible on resolving these deadlocks, to continue in office for another year giving time to amend the constitution and reorganise and emasculate the army. Parliament does not sit till January and new president and government take office in March-April, so there is time. There are feeble parallels with Lanka in 2015, for example, political compromises to split the SLFP and going easy in prosecuting old regime scoundrels for corruption, abuse of power, murder and responsibility for war crimes. Does mounting anger at the UNP for unnecessarily bending over backward foreshadow Burma’s future?

How Suu Kyi and the NLD will handle their dilemma is an open question. Their advantage is the titanic size of the electoral victory. The voice of the people is unanimous, if the army tries to annual this mandate it will face an uprising. It will have to precipitate a bloodbath and turn Burma into an international pariah, again. In Burma as in Lanka firm international pressure is vital to forestall such outcomes. Thankfully this is the new normal of the Twenty-first Century. President Putin promised international cooperation and ordered an internal inquiry into allegations of drug use in Russian sports. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko says he may lay criminal charges and may invite a foreigner to chair the internal inquiry. Contrast this survival motivated snap response to local bigotry and Rajapaksa stupidity in dealing with more serious war-crimes allegations.

At the same time the threat that Suu Kyi and NLD face is graver than in post Rajapaksa Lanka since a hard-nosed army is de facto still in charge. This was not the case in Lanka pre or post 2015. If the NLD makes no slips, it can successfully complete a transfer of power, that is real power, within say a year. This would spare the people the need for a revolutionary uprising. When Suu Kyi pleads “We must not embarrass the losers” it raises my gall though I know she is strategising. Still, does she need to go that far in mollifying the delicate feelings of monsters?

People’s expectations

There are huge expectations about both livelihood and democracy. People will be a great deal less patient later than this moment’s enthusiasm may lead the NLD to imagine. A parallel with Lanka is too tempting to resist. Public impatience is turning to anger; rogues of the old regime are not merely being allowed to go scot-free, but permitted ample room to regroup; cabinet infighting is comic. Wijeyadasa and rambunctious Marapana, since turfed out, are like street-hawkers shielding a fat-cat moneybag who was allegedly their benefactor. It’s just three months since the cabinet was formed! What will it be like in three years? Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, fairly or unfairly, bears the brunt of criticism. Let me add a word for myself: I was ready to give the authorities time to “Do things properly and build strong prosecutorial cases”; but increasingly, those who were patient now chaff about being taken for a ride.

Because of the preceding 50 years of harsh military dictatorship the overriding expectation in Burma, at this moment, not only among the politicised classes but among the poor as well, has more to do with political expectations – that is democracy – and less an expectation of quick economic betterment. This priority will change after the new government is stably anchored and the constitution amended installing Sue Kyi in the presidency. After that, say from end 2016, Suu Kyi will face her Ranil moment! You may opine that fate has dealt her a stronger hand with a resounding electoral mandate, or that minus the military trump, she will be easier to checkmate – sorry about the bridge-chess crossed metaphor. Historians of the future will have a full analytical cup of comparison to drain.

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