Prospects for Democratization in Myanmar: Impact on India
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Issue Vol 24.4 Oct-Dec2009 | Date : 27 Nov , 2010

According to the military junta that rules Myanmar,1 the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is on the cusp of the completion in 2010 of its self-ordained “roadmap” to a form of “democracy” in the country – an election, the inauguration of a bicameral representative national legislature, local legislatures, and the operational stage of the new constitution that was approved by a questionable referendum in May 2008. These series of events will introduce a new “discipline-flourishing democracy,” as the Senior General (and Head of State) Than Shwe has so proclaimed.

On “Discipline-Flourishing Democracy”

How “democratic” will this new discipline-flourishing democracy be, and what are its prospects for changing the orientation of Myanmar’s domestic and foreign policy in both the near term and into the future? In spite of protestations to the contrary by the Burmese expatriate community, human rights advocates, and the United States (among other nations), Myanmar is at present a strong state both in its exclusive monopoly on coercive power, and in its capacity to limit any significant element of political pluralism that could alter state control or even effect, in any major sense, a reorientation of foreign policy.

“¦policy level officials have maintained that they can withstand the isolation imposed by sanctions, which are, in any case, incomplete because of the wealth of Burma/Myanmars natural resources”¦

Over its score of years in command, its power, capacity, and resources have grown. The foreign and domestic policies of Myanmar are solely in the hands of the SPDC, and the new constitution will ensure the autonomy of the tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) not only in its internal operations but also in its international activities. Its multiple roles will not be compromised by the new multi-party elected legislature at least over the next half-decade. As the Senior General, quoting a Burmese proverb, indicated in an Armed Forces Day speech on March 27, 2009, democracy is like a newly dug well – it does not yield clear water for some time. The military will filter that water for the foreseeable future.

It is ironic that the strengths of the regime are also its vulnerabilities. Concepts of finite power and authority lead to its personalization, and thus entourage politics that are complicated by factionalism, and is further supported by a hierarchical society strengthened by a military command system that brooks no dissent. Loyalty is valued over competence, and orthodoxy is required not only among the tatmadaw, but in other institutions, such as opposition political parties. These reinforcements of the strong state are also its weaknesses. Hierarchy leads to a Potemkin-village-like shielding of some of the top leadership from the realities of current multiple crises, and thus timely responses. Rigidity discourages innovative solutions to problems.

Entourage systems virtually require corruption to grease social and economic skids. Strident responses to perceived foreign insults or threats prevent arbitration and discourage compromise. Dirigiste policies inhibit economic growth. Stifling of managed dissent forces it into the streets. Yet in the near term the strong state will prevail. Although discipline-flourishing democracy may be internationally challenged, the prospects for successful internal challenges seem remote.

Although the human rights abuses of the military regimes in all of their incarnations under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (1962-88), under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC-1988-97), and now under the present SPDC (1997 onwards), are all internationally well known and deplored, and an embarrassment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United Nations, and other groups, this international lack of legitimacy penetrates only partly into that semi-obscured state, in which legitimacy is defined by the regime in alternative, indigenous terms.

 Myanmar, however, is not insensitive to Chinese penetration. It regards the control or even the extensive Chinese presence, or that of any other state, in the Burmese economy as subversive of its interests”¦

These terms, stridently repeated and the basis of a military ideology that is required to be printed in all locally published volumes, which are subject to censorship, and are taught in all schools, form the core, both of its internal concept of power and its international relations. These evolve around the ideology of national sovereignty and the unity of the state, both of which the tatmadaw believes can only be maintained by the military in its predominant role. The military has moved from legitimation previously defined (1962-88) in now defunct socialist terms (although the administration is still highly dirigiste) to one related to Buddhism but more focused on the historic, inevitable, and paramount role of the military in Burma/Myanmar’s past, present, and future, to which end history has been rewritten. The military explicitly will guide the state, as the new constitution expressly stipulates.

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