Monday, 09 April 2012
By: Sai Wansai
The 1st April by-elections, which Aung san Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 43 out of 45 seats, is hailed as a “success” by President Thein Sein, whose Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) captured only one seat and the other, taken by Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) in northern Shan State, number 3 constituency.
The Election Monitoring Network, led by the 88-Generation Students, on 7 April produced a report on the April by-election, which is considered a well-balanced one.
The report stated while the pre-election and election day periods were overshadowed by numerous irregularities and shortcomings in nearly all the constituencies, the by-election is, by and large, seen as relatively free and fair. The post-election period was said to be significantly smooth.
Immediately after the NLD landslide win, the US, EU, Australia and Japan vowed to lift various sanctions imposed on Burma for more than two decades.
On 4 April, the US State Department and in particular, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that the US is prepared to take the following steps:
• exchange of a fully accredited ambassador;
• establishing an in-country USAID mission and supporting the United Nations Development Program;
• enabling private organizations in the United States to pursue a broad range of non-profit activities;
• facilitating travel to the United States for select government officials and parliamentarians; and
• targeted easing of the ban on export of U.S. financial services and investment as part of a broader effort to help accelerate economic modernization and political.
But Mrs. Clinton also warns, “Sanctions and prohibitions will stay in place on individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts”.(Source: The Special Briefing statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "Recognizing and Supporting Burma's democratic reforms" made in the Treaty Room of the State Department –4 April 2012)
The EU, which is putting its sanctions against Burma up for review on April 23, 2012, is divided on the issue. According to AFP, an EU diplomat, on 3 April, said that while Britain and Nordic countries are for gradual, step-by-step approach, maintaining arms embargo and sanctions against individuals who are still committing human rights abuses, some nations want to lift all sanctions later this month.
Meanwhile, ASEAN and China have also called on western nations to lift the sanctions on Burma, once and for all.
President Thein Sein regime has surprised many with its speedy reforms, which include the release of hundreds of political prisoners; gradual lifting restrictions on the media; peace initiative to end the long-running ethnic conflicts; enacting laws allowing for the formation of trade unions and the right to protest; and nudging the long moribund economy back into life.
Topping all these reforms is the recent April by-elections, where the President’s USDP lost out pitifully to the NLD, which nearly captured almost all the 45 seats. While some irregularities occurred during the election, the end result was a testimony that the USDP has not rigged or manipulated the outcome in any significant way.
Some reasoned that the President Thein Sein regime has been prepared to make way or open the political arena a bit wider for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party for this is the only way to break the deadlock of confrontation, leading to workable new setup, which could benefit all stakeholders. Others are still quite doubtful of the regime’s change of heart, emphasizing the will of the people, when in fact it is just letting go the “hundreds” for the opportunity to win over “thousands”, which is achievable and in sight. In other words, the regime, by letting the NLD win some 7 percent of the seats within the parliament, is nothing compare to the lifting of sanctions, increased legitimacy, economic support and other tremendous benefits, which would follow suit, by allowing a free and fair by-elections. After all, USDP controls 80 percent of the parliament votes, a 25 percent non-elected seats for the active army personals and last but not least, the right to declare emergency rule, either in specific areas or the whole country, if the army decides that the going is not good, according to its perspective.
Under such circumstance, it is becoming quite important to determine the status or position of President Thein Sein regime in the light of regime classification.
Seen from the various reforms and the recent successful, April by-elections, President Thein Sein regime has definitely upgraded itself from purely “closed authoritarian regime” to “electoral authoritarian regime”.
Michael Wahman, in his piece titled "Democratic Breakthrough or Authoritarian Legitimization?" suggests a typology consisting of four categories;
• Liberal democracies (e.g. the United States), are countries that combine civil liberties and rule of law with free and fair elections.
• Electoral democracies (e.g. Brazil), are countries that hold free and fair elections, but do not guarantee an adequate level of civil liberties to be placed in the liberal democratic category.
• Electoral authoritarian regimes (e.g. Venezuela) are countries that hold recurrent, at least partly competitive but flawed elections. In contrast to the electoral democratic category the elections within the electoral authoritarian category do not meet the minimum democratic requisites to be labelled democratic. The elections are however not pointless. Even though the game is not played on equal terms the elections are real events of political competition.
• Closed authoritarian regimes (e.g. China) are regimes that either do not have any elections or that have elections that are merely legitimizing façades. Elections within the closed authoritarian category could for instance be of an intra-party kind (e.g. Cuba) or events where candidates run for relatively powerless positions (e.g. Iran).
Taking into account of the latest April, by-elections, Thein Sein’s USDP regime has even not resorted to the classic characteristic of authoritarian manipulation in which ruling parties seek to control the substantive outcomes of electoral competition. Otherwise, the by-elections might have played out in favour of the ruling USDP regime.
The question now is, if the Thein Sein, “electoral authoritarian regime” would refrain from asserting its influence in the game of institutional reform, like the April, by-elections. For according to Michael Wahman:
“Even though electoral authoritarian regimes establish competitive elections as the official route of access to state power, they do not, as a matter of course, establish electoral competition as “the only game in town.” At the same time they set up the electoral game (competition for votes), they introduce two metagames: the game of authoritarian manipulation, in which ruling parties seek to control the substantive outcomes of electoral competition, and the game of institutional reform, in which opposition parties seek to dismantle non-democratic restrictions that choke their struggle for votes”.And as such, the main democratisation process would be on how the game of institutional change be played out, which could generally be taken as the amendment or rewriting of the military supremacy, 2008 Constitution. While, in general, the USPD regime would definitely do everything in its power to refuse the alteration of the constitution, NLD and all the opposition parties would try to amend or rewrite the lopsided, military dominated constitution to be on a more equal-footing in political arena.
On 4 April, RFA filed a report that USDP Secretary General, Htay Oo said that Aung San Suu Kyi's plans to push for amendments to the country's constitution is premature and expressed reservation, stating that it has only been in operation for a year. He stressed that the constitution was drafted and endorsed by over 1,000 selected representatives of the public, political parties, including ethnic groups and some ethnic armed groups.
Htay Oo also said that the military quota of unelected 25 percent in parliament was agreed by a "majority" in a constitutional referendum held in 2008. Of course, he failed to acknowledge the fact that from the drafting of constitution, constitutional referendum to 2010 nation-wide elections were manipulated, stage-managed and rigged to achieve the desired result of installing a military dominated government.
Likewise, Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hliang, on 2 March, armed force day, had vowed to protect the military’s leading role, which has been ingrained in the 2008 Constitution.
But astonishingly, President Thein Sein’s demonstration of political will to go beyond the military supremacy constitution is remarkable and should be encouraged. He reportedly said, during his meeting with the Karen national Union (KNU) delegation on 8 April, in Naypyitaw, that he considered the KNU as his brethren than enemy and that the constitution could be amended to give a fair share of political decision-making power for all the non-Burman ethnic groups. This is a far cry from the successive military regimes’ unspoken “total elimination” doctrine, which is deeply rooted in the military mindset.
Without doubt, President Thein Sein’s overtures and “political will” will certainly win over the trust of KNU, if the peace initiative is not disrupted or derailed by the so-called hardliners within the regime, who want to dominate the Burma’s political arena as usual.
In a similar developing trend with the KNU, Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) on 27 March filed a report titled, “SSA South to help rebuild Union” writes:
Clearly as a signal that the group is still going along with the peace process, despite 14 clashes with the Burma Army during the past 3 months, Loi Taileng, the main base of the Shan State Army (SSA) South, last week issued a statement outlining its 6 point policy on the current ceasefire with Naypyitaw.
The Restoration Council of Shan State / Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), as the movement is formally known, in its statement that came out on 21 March in Shan, promises:
• To help forge Shan State unity and help form a genuine Union
• To struggle for equal rights for each ethnic nationality
• To inform and cultivate the people of Shan State on the practice of parliamentary system as well as human rights
• To cooperate with the Thein Sein administration to eradicate drugs
• To stand firmly on the path of peace and to struggle on by political means until the goal is reached
• Not to resort to military means unless necessary
Clearly, President Thein Sein is winning a lot of allies, particularly with the non-Burman ethnic armed groups, although the ongoing armed conflict with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) still needs to be resolved, besides Aung San Suu Kyi’s trust of his sincerity to reform. But he still needs to go an extra mile and push for a nation-wide ceasefire.
The Karen News, on 8 April, reported on what the KNU’s general secretary, Naw Zipporah Sein said as follows:-
“We raised with him issues about a nationwide ceasefire and he [U Thein Sein] urged the KNU to talk to other ethnic groups for them to make peace and for the KNU talks to be the role model. U Thein Sein is not yet agreeing for our call for a nationwide ceasefire, but agreed the making of peace for the whole country is important.”
Perhaps, the reluctance from the part of the President could well be the fact that he doesn’t command enough authority on the reigning military top brass. His directive to the commander-in-chief to refrain from conducting offensive against the KIA a few months ago was totally ignored and as a result, the war rages on in the Kachin and Shan states to these days.
On Sunday, 8 April 2012, New Straits Time reported that a US senior administration official said that the military appeared to be an outlier in the reform process as troops defied orders by Thein Sein in December to cease fighting in northern Kachin state.
“I think there is reason to reach out to the military and bring them in and make sure they see they have a stake in reform,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Aung San Suu Kyi, on her part has outlined three campaign promises of constitutional amendment, establishing rule of law and resolution of the ethnic conflicts. And it seems, the President is not against them, even if he fails to spell out in a concrete term.
All in all, the prospect of democratisation and achieving peace have never been so good for the past few decades.
In practical terms, as many analysts have pointed out, the smooth process of democratisation will hinge on whether the newly elected MPs will be treated fairly in USDP dominated parliament, continuing reform process leading to a free and fair election due to be held in 2015, ethnic conflict resolution and the degree of press and opinion freedom of expression be further improved to an accepted international standard.
And if progress could be made along the line mentioned above, even though not comprehensively as desired, Burma may be slowly but firmly transforming itself from electoral authoritarian to a full fledge democratic regime, which the people have been aspiring for so long.
The contributor is the General Secretary of Shan Democratic Union (SDU) - Editor