Burma’s “Democratic Transition” at the Dictatorship’s Pleasure
Burma’s “Democratic Transition” at the Dictatorship’s Pleasure
Democracy is ideal in today’s world where significantly growing interconnectedness and cooperation among states ensures the undesirable consequences of international isolation. The hegemonic influence of the West, especially after the Cold War oversaw the rise in “hybrid regimes” in which authoritarian leaders began to incorporate certain elements of democracy, maintaining the facade of compromise. This has been treated by the over-optimism of democracy which characterises such developments as progressing towards democracy (Levitsky and Way 51). However, the premature celebration of democracy sometimes means that authoritarian leaders with their self-serving campaigns become legitimised while the people are not enjoying the ideals of democracy such as full civilian autonomy and human rights despite some celebrated nominal aspects of democracy. This paper seeks to give an account of how it was the case with the democratic transition of Burma1(Myanmar) which unfolded to shield the interests of its military dictators at the expense of justice.
Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 as a parliamentary democracy. In 1962, Army Chief Ne Win staged a coup, which marked the beginning of the decades-long oppressive dictatorship by successive military generals forcibly maintaining power (Pedersen 51). What was once one of the vibrant nations in Asia became one of the world’s most impoverished countries, suffering from economic isolation and increasingly deteriorating socioeconomic status (Tallentire). Several sporadic protests staged, especially by university students, were brutally and
1Even though the current official name of the South East Asian country is “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”, the author continues to use the name “Burma” which was its official name before the then-military dictatorship changed it into “Myanmar” without the aspirations of the people, allegedly because the name “Burma” was a “colonial invention”. Such a reason made no sense, instead contributing to their propaganda campaign of fueling extreme nationalist sentiments and “fighting against foreign threats and influences”.
lethally suppressed by the overwhelming armed force. Among the protests is the most significant “8888 Uprising” where Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San who is considered “The Father of Burmese Independence” or “Father of the Nation”, emerged as a pro-democracy opposition leader only to be put under several house arrests as the democratic aspirations of the people of Burma continued to be suppressed (Buncombe). After decades of such oppressive and brutal rule, the dictatorship which was facing increasing international isolation was compelled to promise a programme of so-called reforms which included drafting and controversially implementing a new constitution in 2008 and allowing a general election under the newly implemented 2008 constitution in 2010, both of which were opposed and boycotted by the pro-democracy forces including the major pro-democracy party, National League for Democracy (NLD) whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was still under house arrest (Kyaw 310; Kipgen 215). The military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) allegedly won the general election which was considered “neither free nor fair” and formed a government with the ex-general Thein Sein as its nominally civilian president (MacFarquhar; “Western states dismiss Burma’s election”). However, a series of reforms including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other political prisoners, did ensue under Thein Sein’s administration and was welcomed by the international community (“Burma law to allow labour unions and strikes”).
Despite some reservations at first, the NLD party eventually decided to compete under the military’s playbook. The decision later oversaw its landslide victory in the 2015 general election (Kipgen 222; Pedersen 50). With Aung San Suu Kyi becoming the de facto head of the newly elected so-called civilian government, the world celebrated. The United Nations uploaded a video captioned, “Myanmar: Democracy Wins” and celebrated the “sweeping change” (United Nations). The president of the United States, Barack Obama who had also visited Burma and
honoured the political transition, celebrated the development in his address to the United Nations General Assembly (Obama). The truth, however, has always suggested otherwise. Despite the significant role of elections in democratisation, it is always a democratic fallacy to presume that holding elections embodies a successful democratisation process. In the case of Burma, it even entrenched the interests of the decades-long oppressive military generals under the disguise of democracy. The NLD finally deciding to compete under the military’s undemocratic 2008 constitution happened to spell its acceptance of the constitution, thereby also constitutionally legitimising the maintained dominant role of the military in politics. The NLD’s decision might have been attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi’s “national reconciliation” pursuit and the international over-optimism and premature celebration around the so-called reforms of the military proxy government. Aung San Suu Kyi, in fact, used to caution that Burma was not “well on the road to democratisation”, but rather “at the beginning of the road and in danger of coming o a full stop” (“Why democracy matters | Aung San Suu Kyi | TEDxHousesofParliament”).
Levitsky and Way (53) lay out four minimum criteria for any democracy: executives and legislatures through open, free and fair elections; non-discriminatory franchise; respect for all rights and freedoms; and the full autonomy of the elected civilian representatives in governing without being subject to “the tutelary control of military or clerical leaders”. The failures of Burmese so-called “democratisation” in all those four criteria can be traced back to the root problem: the notorious 2008 constitution, upon which the so-called democratic transition itself was built upon. Despite some democratic aspects such as elections and parliament, the constitution ensured the civilian-unelected military’s maintained and pronounced dominant role, interference, and even disruptions in government affairs and the country’s legislation. In fact, it served as nothing different from a tool having been formed to shield the previous dictators and
constitutionally legitimising the maintained military’s role and influence in Burmese politics. According to the 2008 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, it was impossible to hold the previous regimes accountable for the crimes committed. No armed force was under the supervision of the democratically elected civilian government but that of the unelected military chief. Three vital ministerial posts: Defense Minister, Border Affairs Minister and Home Affairs Minister could only be appointed by the military chief. Furthermore, 25% of both the Union and State/Regional legislatures were occupied by the military representatives solely chosen by the military chief. There were even some manipulative sections in the constitution that allowed the military chief to take over the counter in case of some ambiguously stated conditions: “a state of emergency” and “attempts therefore by wrongful forcible means” (Ch 1, Sec 40, c). All of these were nowhere near consistent with democratic values and ideals. Even though the constitutional amendment has always been one of the most proclaimed priorities of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, it was technically never possible given the section 436 of the constitution which detailed that any constitutional amendments must be approved by “a vote of more than seventy-five present” (Kyaw 328). It implied that even if all the democratically elected members of parliament which were only 75 percent of the legislature were for the constitution amendment, which was already unlikely given the presence of the opposition military proxy USDP and other parties, as long as no military representative agreed to it, the constitutional amendments would never be realised (Harding and Kyaw 203).
The excessive influence of the military under the disguise of democracy caught the reconciliation-oriented Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in a very fragile and compromising position and ensured the increasingly tattered reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, especially among radical youths and pro-democracy and human rights activists both locally and internationally.
With the lack of supervision from the civilian government, the military was effectively acting as an independent institution on its own, even as if a government within a government, and sabotaging, at times, the civilian government’s push for peace with ethnic armed organisations and the reduced military’s role in Burmese politics. Human rights violations against civilians, especially under the name of military operations against armed rebels were prevalent (Lin). The government not only had no authority over such operations but also was reluctant to speak out against the military to avoid a more hostile relationship, earning itself a lot of both domestic and international criticisms (Ellis). This all culminated in once the world’s celebrated democracy and human rights figure, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, defending her country against the allegations of one of the most appalling crimes of genocide at the International Court of Justice, which further crippled her image internationally (Prasse-Freeman 3). In fact, since the time Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD decided to pursue reconciliation with the military under its playbook, the idea appeared to have been to bring stability while maintaining a good relationship with the military and slowly reforming it, rather than continue endeavouring to hold them accountable for the past crimes and atrocities to observe transitional justice (Renshaw 385). All of such compromises and sacrifices that Aung San Suu Kyi had made at the expense of her image seemed to have gone in vain given the complete breakdown of the reconciliation attempt and another military coup on February 1, 2021, which has repeated the abhorring history of grave human right violations and social unrest countrywide. Appearing to have learnt the lesson, the resistance of the pro-democracy forces this time, however, is determined to completely get rid of the military’s role in politics (Lin; Vrieze 4).
Notorious decades-long oppressive Burmese military dictatorship seemed to have taken a break only to rear its ugly head again 10 years later. Quasi-democracy that Burma experienced
was merely the military’s democracy given birth by the very same dictators who had been oppressing the democratic will of the people of Burma through all possible avenues of power and force. The purpose was only to protect their interests and constitutionally legitimise the dominant role of the military in Burma’s politics while having gotten rid of international pressure. Thus, Burma’s so-called democratic transition served as a great example of how over-optimism and premature celebration of democracy is problematic and further testified to the thesis that the presence of some elements of democracy such as elections and parliaments does not ensure genuine democracy and its ideals.
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