Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights | Analysis

BURMA: Military Plays a Civilian-Looking Game

Analysis by Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Apr 10 2011 (IPS) - A new quasi-civilian government has taken over in Burma, but diplomats, analysts and pro-democracy activists are dismissing it as nothing more than “old wine in a new bottle”.

Burma analysts believe that strongman Than Shwe has only retreated to the backroom. Than Shwe recently stepped down as commander-in-chief of the Burmese army and relinquished day-to-day control of the country after nearly two decades as head of the military junta.

“He is likely to be pulling the strings from behind the curtain,” said the Burmese academic Win Min, now based in the U.S. “He will use his influence behind the scenes, relying on personal patronage and connections.”

“If anyone thinks this new government is a step towards democracy they are sadly mistaken,” said Maung Zarni, researcher at the London School of Economics.

Yet there are those who see change coming to Burma, though not the sort that most Burmese people are yearning for.

A new system of government has been unveiled, in which parliament will play a subsidiary part, and the executive, headed by newly elected president Thein Sein, will play the leading role.

The new government was formed after elections last November, in which the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won by a landslide. Most western countries, and the pro-democracy movement led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have rejected the results as a sham.

But there has been a clear transfer of power to a new generation. Although mainly military men or former soldiers, most of Burma’s new leaders are under the age of 60 and have a technocratic background. Even the military officers turned politicians, who occupy part of the 25 percent of parliament seats reserved for serving soldiers, have a different outlook.

The new army chief, 55-year-old General Min Aung Hlaing, is reported to be a professional soldier keen on restoring the prestigious image of the army tainted by the repression after the uprising of 1988, and the 22 years of authoritarian rule that followed.

There are other signs of change. On his recent visit, senior Chinese leader Jia Qinglin, the fourth most important man in the Communist Party’s political bureau, did not meet Than Shwe. Jia was instead hosted by Thura Shwe Mann, speaker of the Lower House and vice-president of the ruling party USDP.

But there are other signs that those who have resigned or retired from the army no longer have their military stripes. Soldiers no longer guard the homes of former top military officers, including Than Shwe and the former No. 2 leader Maung Aye, either in the capital Naypyidaw or Rangoon, according to residents in these cities. The police have taken over that duty, as they do in most countries that are regarded as civilian democracies.

This is a sign that Burma is moving, albeit tentatively, towards becoming a civilian-governed society. Of course, what Burma is experiencing now is a transition; it is not yet democracy and it may not yet be significant change. It is something akin to Indonesia under Suharto’s Golkar-led government.

This may not be the sort of democracy that most Burmese people want, but it could be a significant step towards an Asian-style democracy. Even in Thailand the military continues to play a significant political role behind the scenes, and in the recent past shown it was not averse to intervening with force as it did in September 2006, the last time the military staged a coup.

This is the critical hope for Burma – a transition similar to what has happened in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand in the last 20 years.

Of course, worrying signs still remain that Burma’s form of “disciplined democracy” as the military prefer to call it, may not match the minimum standards of civilian-military regimes in the rest of Asia. Too many military men and former soldiers dominate the country’s emerging political scene. Change is impossible as the military mind remains entrenched even in the new political system which pretends to be a civilian administration, according to Maung Zarni of the London School of Economics.

Even if the top generals have retired to the back room, the new crop of officers are effectively clones. “The officer corps are a sub-class of society that has come to view themselves as the ruling class, feeling they are eternally entitled to rule,” Zarni said in an interview with IPS.

“Whoever takes their places (Than Shwe and Maung Aye) will not be more enlightened or more progressive, simply because they have all been inculcated with thuggish, racist, sexist and neo-totalitarian leadership values, and only junior generals who are their mirror image have been promoted,” said Zarni.

As yet there is still little room for discussion and dialogue – crucial elements of a democracy or an emerging civilian form of government. Parliament is yet to be a fully functioning legislature, though some questions that had been taboo before – ethnic education issues, land confiscation, the release of political prisoners – were put to the president.

The parliament is now in recess and may not meet again for another year, the minimum set by the constitution. But above all there is no role as yet for Burma’s real opposition – Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) – though the opposition leader has asked to meet the new president and government, according to senior sources in the NLD.

But there is good reason to remain skeptical. Change will not happen quickly. “The train has left the station, but we don’t know where it going or how long the journey will be,” said a Burmese academic on condition of anonymity.

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