Myanmar takes a democratic step

KyaemonFebruary 10, 201013min710

By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK – As Myanmar prepares for its first elections in 20 years, uncertainty surrounding the promised democratic transition has crippled the workings of government and raised tensions inside the armed forces. While many analysts view the highly anticipated polls as mainly a one-horse race, there is also a growing sense that the elections may not go exactly as dictator Senior General Than Shwe plans.

Even though an official polling date has not been announced, election fever has gripped the country, one of Asia’s poorest and most politically repressed. The state-controlled media are now full of reports, footage and photos of government ministers in fullcampaign mode inaugurating community development projects, meeting with local leaders and handing out government assistance.

At least a dozen current military appointed ministers have reportedly been selected by Than Shwe to run for office. They and others will have to resign their post to contest the elections and most are expected to vacate their seats by April, when the government’s financial reports are due.

Thereafter an interim administration is expected to be established to run the country for the six months leading up to the elections and for a period thereafter until the newly elected parliament is up and running. Leading up to that transition, changes to the government and military are also in the pipeline, including a cabinet shake-up, streamlining of government administration and enforced mass retirements of civil servants and soldiers.

Thousands of senior officers will be forced to retire to make way for a new generation of younger officers, as Than Shwe apparently plans to firmly enforce the 60-year-old retirement rule in the transition towards democracy. Because there will inevitably be winners and losers in the process, the planned changes are already causing ripples among the rank and file.

“Periods of uncertainty like this disturb the army more than anything else,” said the Chiang Mai-based Burmese academic and military specialist Win Min. “They are only confident when everything is predictable,” he added.

In recent weeks there have been unconfirmed reports of unrest among army ranks, with soldiers worried about their futures apparently protesting against low pay and meager rice rations. The reports mentioned in particular mutinies in the Light Infantry’s 66th and 77th divisions. Government officials have dismissed the media reports as unfounded rumors.

Yet it is clear that there is uneasiness within the army that its now dominant political, economic and social role in society will be diminished significantly after the elections. Soldiers in the army’s far-flung regional commands must often fend for themselves in finding food, supplies and other essentials due to their meager salaries.

There have been growing reports of corrupt officers demanding even more “taxes” from impoverished farmers in the areas they control. “There is tremendous fear within the army about the future and increasing anger at their living conditions, especially out in the far-flung regions,” said Win Min. “This is only likely to increase as the elections draw nearer.”

“After the elections, soldiers will be nominally under civilian control,” the Myanmar specialist and Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer Justin Wintle told Asia Times Online. “This is something that the [Myanmar] army is not used to having been in control for nearly 50 years and will certainly create unease and friction.”

In the promised shift towards a civilian-led administration, regional commanders will in theory be required to answer to local government authorities – a potential fundamental shift to the military’s autonomous operating procedures over the past 20 years. There have also been reported tensions between local authorities and the central government, including over forced labor issues.

While a select group of military officials will benefit from the redistribution of power in the democratic transition, the vast majority of Myanmar’s 500,000 strong military will likely see their roles diminish. Over the past year, certain junior officers have been given intensive instruction in politics and economics as part of senior officer training courses.

The sessions aim to prepare them for possible service as military members of parliament, according to Myanmar military sources. (According to the 2008 constitution, 25% of the seats in parliament will be reserved for military officials.) Many of those who have attended the prestigious officers’ school, the National Defense College, are now reportedly preparing to take up positions in the new parliament. As many as 2,000 soldiers may be assigned to parliamentary work in the national and provincial assemblies.

Those legally reserved seats, onlookers say, show that the transition to civilian rule will not result in a clean transfer of power. “Things will remain the same, there will be no change in political power in Naypyidaw,” one senior Chinese government official told ATol. “There is no chance that any civilian government after the elections will have real power,” said Martin Moreland, a former British ambassador to Myanmar.

Lessons learned
Moreland served in Myanmar, then known as Burma, during the 1988 mass pro-democracy demonstrations, the military crackdown on those same protesters and the 1990 elections the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, overwhelmingly won but the military later annulled.

The generals have apparently learned from that experience and are now tightly controlling the electoral process to ensure a more favorable result. Myanmar watchers meanwhile doubt that Than Shwe will quietly leave the scene after the polls, as some people close to the authoritarian leader have previously intimated.

“Than Shwe is unlikely to retire. More likely he will copy his predecessor, Ne Win, and remain the ultimate authority behind the scenes,” Moreland added.

Than Shwe, a former psychological warfare operative, is treating the upcoming elections more like a military battle plan than democratic process. That has included a high degree of secrecy surrounding the process, including uncertainty surrounding the actual election date. “Ministers are tight-lipped about the election and keeping their political work low key,” said a senior government source in the new capital Naypyidaw.

The military is now reportedly quietly selecting its candidates and launching unpublicized campaigns in their favor. In that direction, Than Shwe recently moved the usual weekly cabinet meeting back by a day, from Thursday to Wednesday, to allow ministers to travel in their respective regions for four consecutive days to hand out development aid and other state funds in a bid to build their candidacies.

“Clearly the military are now trying to win the hearts and minds of the people,” said an Asian diplomat charged with monitoring Myanmar. While ministers and other military affiliated candidates go on the hustings, already severe restrictions and controls have intensified apparently to avoid independent reports on the military’s electoral maneuvers.

For instance, United Nations representatives and international aid workers are now finding it more difficult to get visas into the country and permission to travel outside Yangon. The International Labor Organization and several European non-governmental organizations active in the country have had their operations only sanctioned through April, according a European diplomat who monitors Myanmar from Bangkok.

“No decision is being taken that does not relate to the election preparation,” a senior UN official in Yangon told ATol on condition of anonymity. Government officials have informed the UN official that several projects they had scheduled will only be allowed to start after the election.

Censorship and control of the media is also tightening. While the election itself is frequently mentioned in the tightly censored local news publications, items about the formation of political parties have been banned by the government’s censorship board, according to editors of privately run publications.

Significantly, Than Shwe has put influential Energy Minister Aung Thaung in charge of the election campaign and tasked him with providing funds to pro-junta candidates, according to sources close to Than Shwe. That includes ensuring that the two main pro-junta organizations – the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and the National Unity Party (NUP) – secure the popular vote. The junta chief has instructed soldiers and government officials to view the NUP as “a sister to the army”, according to a government source.

Junta head start
The main opposition NLD has not yet indicated whether it will field candidates in the polls. The party has called for the release of all political prisoners, including NLD leader Suu Kyi, as a conciliatory gesture before the polls are held.

Other prospective parties and individuals planning to contest the polls have been hobbled by the lack of official regulations to govern the campaign process. Until the election laws are made public, political parties can not register and their candidates are barred from campaigning.

“The electoral laws are now 70-80% complete,” Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win recently told his Thai counterpart, Kasit Piromya, at a meeting of the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc in Hanoi. “So, I think the elections would be most probably held in the second half of the year,” he reportedly said.

“The political parties and election laws will be revealed at the last minute even though we understand they have been completed for some time,” said Win Min, the Chiang Mai University-based academic. “They want to keep any potential opposition wrong footed and not allow them time to organize.” In the run-up to the 1990 polls, the electoral law was made public 20 months before the polls, giving opposition parties and candidates time to prepare their campaigns.

Some have speculated that the upcoming polls may be on October 10, 2010 – or 10-10-10 – because of the military regime’s obsession with numerology. Military leaders have made key decisions in the past on the basis of what astrologers have determined as auspicious or significant dates, including the 1990 election date and recent sudden move of the national capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw.

Following that logic, only 10 political parties will be allowed to run in the elections according to Prime Minister General Thein Sein, who reportedly tipped the regime’s plans at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit held last October in Thailand, according to an Indonesian diplomat at the briefing. There was no mention of Suu Kyi’s or the NLD’s participation in the polls, the diplomat added…. Click link for more: