Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Chaos After Burma's Election?

Burma's anticipated experiment with limited democracy with an election this year may lead to political instability, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the situation in that country. I had the opportunity to interview this source this week just after democracy activist Aung San Suu Ki's party the National League for Democracy decided to boycott any election as it expects the process to be "unfair" and "unjust."

The military-ruled country is expected to hold an election (of questionable credibility) this May or October. Citing the general's superstitions, some believe the election will be held on the auspicious date Oct. 10 (or 10/10/10). But given that the junta is so unpredictable, it is difficult to pin down a date.

Two scenarios are possible after an election, the source told me. One is that the military junta holds an election, it is condemned by the West as a sham, and Burma closes down, remaining a military regime but "without the uniform." The second is that the junta actually wants change in the country and we are seeing an incremental move toward change. But the country is controlled by three to five people and such a small group will be unable to keep control if some freedoms are granted to the people, according to the source.

"I don't think you can give people just a little bit of freedom," the source told me yesterday. The Burmese press is already enjoying much more freedom to report on stories on human rights in Burma. These stories are government-approved. The junta is working on worker representation, as well as freedoms of assembly and speech; so the change seems real, the source said. Meanwhile, the junta is struggling to control the Burmese Internet, and satellite TV is giving people access to news from China and India. While sim cards are prohibitively expensive in Burma, monthly cell phones have recently become available in Burma for about 20 dollars per month. That's still too expensive for most Burmese but access to information is dramatically increasing.

Political instability after elections could occur in a number of ways. One of which would be that more junior military officers begin to see their fortunes disappear as government spending on defense falls, the source said.

What is motivating the junta to seek change in Burma? One might be that the generals to not want to end up in prison so they are trying to bring about positive change before they retire. Another might be the general realization that the country needs to open in order to provide any economic development or that the junta in under pressure from China, India, or the United States. The source told me that "all of the motivations hold some truth." The source saw China as providing the best leverage with the regime since Beijing doesn't want Burma to be seen as a pariah. ASEAN is also important symbolically and for access to international trade; the ASEAN human rights body has created just enough discomfort on the junta by opening up the discussion on human rights in Burma, the source said. The junta is sick of being beat up on human rights on the world stage and international sanctions do hurt, so if you add all of these factors together, you do get the drivers, the source said.

Whatever the motivation, the source recommended that the world take this opportunity. "Who cares what the motivations are, let's put our foot in the door," the source advised.

Photo by break.things.

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