Post-election Burma may see at least some change
fter two decades of relatively static confrontation between its ruling generals and the outside world, potential movements are afoot as Burma heads to the polls on Sunday. By all accounts, the electoral process and outcome will be an organised fraud. Even the State Peace and Development Council, the top brass who have lorded it over Burma with an iron fist for two decades, do not pretend that the elections will be free and fair. Yet the ensuing charade and shenanigans still matter as they could foment unintended consequences and allow Burma to break out of its military-dominated stranglehold.
Whether all will be the same, better or worse under a civilian guise, the impact and implications for the Burmese inside the country and those in the diaspora, as well as the international community and regional neighbours, will be palpable and plausibly far-reaching.
To be sure, the imminent election will seal the SPDC's robbery of Burma's last and legitimate poll from 20 years ago. That was when the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landslide but was denied power and government by the generals. This time, constitutional rules have been rigged and pro-military candidates have been stacked to ensure a pro-SPDC proxy government. A hefty candidate registration cost by local standards ensured that only the SPDC-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and pro-junta National Unity Party (NUP) can field candidates nationwide. Other parties, led by the NLD offshoot New Democratic Force, are scattered along national and regional lines and only able to send a fraction of candidates compared to USDP and NUP. And the military will be given 25% of assembly seats to begin with.
That these parties decided to contest the election in the face of the NLD's disbandment and Ms Suu Kyi's boycott suggests that post-election movements are not implausible. The contesting parties from the various opposition camps inside Burma have demonstrated their willingness to put up and fight for a better day even when the odds are stacked against them. While the USDP and NUP will dominate, the resulting outcomes may create newly vested interests and dynamics and power struggles, underpinned by electoral legitimacy, that could reshape Burma's political terrain. A country that has endured two decades of autocratic darkness should not be expected to wake up to democratic sunshine overnight. Military withdrawals and democratic transitions the world over have shown that the road ahead is always topsy-turvy and reversible, characterised by dashed hopes and false promises but steered by unrelenting hopes and aspirations. Any change must start from somewhere. For Burma's brutality and tragedy under military rule, this is an opportunity not to miss an opportunity.
For the international community, largely comprising the major capitals of Europe and North America, the upcoming Burmese vote is a quandary. As the Burmese dissident groups in those capitals have rejected the electoral process, Western governments will be hard-pressed to tread a fine line. Sanctions have been spectacularly futile, and forceful regime change was never on the cards. The continuation of wait-and-see through deft diplomacy in quiet places, such as building the opposition's networks and capacity inside the country, is advisable. That the SPDC generals have bothered to go through this civilianisation sham when it was not necessary for prolonging military rule suggests that potential space is there for the West to help find a way forward.
The response from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma became a member in 1997, is a set piece. Asean went along with Burma's road map, which culminates with the polls. A cautious Asean endorsement can be expected. Moreover, the regional environment has now reverted back to the early 1990s when Asean-China relations were frictional. Tensions over overlapping claims in the South China Sea have resurfaced as China swings its weight in the lead up to its own leadership transition. The Asean-China enmity was the reason Asean accepted Burma then and it will facilitate Asean's approval of Burma's election now. In addition, none of the Asean member states except Indonesia and the Philippines to a lesser extent is in a position to pontificate on democratic purity. A similar endorsement can be expected from India and China, the regional giants. As Southeast Asia's own "great game", Burma is being courted by suitors from all immediate directions for its abundant natural endowments and geo-strategic payoffs.
For Thailand, the impact from post-election Burma will be at least fourfold. First, the spectre of renewed armed conflicts between post-election Tatmadaw and the ethnic armies along the Thai-Burmese border should worry Thai security planners. Emboldened by electoral legitimacy, the generals calling the shots from behind the scenes may go after the minority ethnic groups that did not lay down arms and become Border Guard Forces once and for all. Such conflicts would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis seen in recent years. Indeed, the balkanisation of Burma is a nightmare for Thailand's security calculus.
Second, the illicit trade and human- and drug-smuggling operations may increase along the Thai-Burmese border in parallel with war-financing by ethnic armies. Third, Thailand's energy dependence on Burma is a growing source of insecurity. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's recent visit to Naypyidaw and the lucrative port-development deal he brought home underscored the necessarily closer commercial relationship Thailand must pursue. To alleviate its energy insecurity, Bangkok needs to come up with a serious and enforceable long-term, consensus-based energy master plan that can withstand changes of government.
Fourth, Burma's nuclear interest should never be disregarded. The post-election Tatmadaw's possession of nuclear weapons, however crude and whatever its development duration, could be a game-changer for Thailand.
The most important impact and outcome of the Burmese polls will be confined to the Burmese people. The Burmese dissident groups near and far should consider a more nuanced approach towards the elections when opposition groups inside have bitten the bullet and run for what they can get as hope for a way ahead. Dissident groups should condemn the electoral process as a farce as much as they should look for ways of fostering changes and finding space inside the country. Eventually, dissident groups outside the country will have to be re-integrated to make a viable Burma going forward. Re-integration should dissuade intransigence.
The Burma story has too long been dominated by headlines about the main protagonists. Even on cursory impressions, any first-time visitor to this rich country and fabled kingdom will notice people in the streets toiling for a better day at great costs against the odds.
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