Burma's authoritarian upgrade: 1990-2010

The Burmese junta’s sophisticated and ruthless project of reinvention - “SPDC 2.0” - is preparing the way for an extension of its rule in civilian guise, says David Scott Mathieson.

The twentieth anniversary of Burma’s last elections on 27 May 1990 was recalled by many Burmese inside and outside the country as a defining date in the country’s political history. It is also an opportunity to measure the prospects for the elections scheduled by the country’s military rulers to take place sometime (perhaps 10 October) in 2010.

It is worth recalling the scale and impact of the events of 1990. The election took place two years after the Burmese military in August 1988 massacred more than 3,000 protesters, part of a huge popular uprising that called for an end to military rule and a transition to democracy. In this context the election itself was a surprisingly free and fair process which delivered a resounding defeat for the military regime, as the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won more than 60% of the popular vote and 80% of parliamentary seats. Yet the stunned regime recovered its balance, refused to hand over power, and restored its security; in the process it reinvented itself from the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

In the 2000s, the regime started carefully to draft a new constitution and prepare the ground for the next elections. But this time, Burma’s military junta is not steering any sort of democratic transition; it is upgrading to a more sophisticated authoritarian model - SPDC Version 2.0. The generals learnt a valuable lesson in 1990: elections must not be left to the people’s free choice, for we may not get the result we want (see Joakim Kreutz, “Burma: sources of political change”, 27 August 2008).

The military’s reinvention

The elections may produce a more user-friendly civilian parliament, one that other countries may feel more comfortable engaging with (which indeed is part of their purpose). But the new parliament will remain tightly controlled by the same military that has turned Burma into a political and economic abomination. There is little hope that the so-called “roadmap to disciplined democracy” will produce any semblance of a genuinely open society, or even begin to address the dire ills of contemporary Burma: a major health and poverty crisis, a wrecked education system, and continued social divisions based on wealth, ethnicity and to a lesser extent religion. Burma has been a divided society for decades, and the military has exploited and profited from such divisions in order to justify its oppressive rule (see “Burma: A Disastrous Taste of Democracy”, Bangkok Post, 2 May 2010).

The Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, has spent the past twenty years preparing for this upgrade through marginalising the political opposition; rewriting the constitution; drafting electoral laws that leave nothing to chance; and exploiting the economy to redistribute assets in favour of the officer-corps. Some observers contend that this upgrade will benefit the country if Burma becomes more like Vietnam, China, or even Singapore - all authoritarian states with thriving economies.

The military leadership and their close business associates control key sectors of the economy and have benefited from recent government “privatisations” of state assets. For instance, in February 2010, the junta began to sell off a network of government-controlled gas-stations, shipping-ports, factories, cinemas and other assets. It is suspected such sales may in part provide a source of electioneering finance for the Tatmadaw’s friends and allies who contest the elections.

Burma’s military government also controls nearly $5 billion in foreign reserves, accumulated thanks to lucrative natural-gas sales and the use of an accounting trick: for domestic purposes, gas revenues are recorded at the official exchange rate ($1 to 6 Burmese Kyat) but actual payments are made in US dollars (worth $1 to 800-1,000 Burmese Kyat at the market rate), the difference being deposited (it is suspected) in offshore bank-accounts.

At the same time, thousands of military officers are taking off their uniforms in order to take positions of authority in the civilian government. These former officers will want to be compensated for the loss of rank and privileges; the result could be the emergence of a new, more sophisticated patronage system.

The new parliament will ensure this patronage system functions effectively. More than thirty political parties, many with links to the military, have already applied to Burma’s electoral commission to be registered. In late April 2010, prime minister Thein Sein and more than twenty other senior generals resigned from their military posts and - in a move was long expected as part of the authoritarian-upgrade script - registered the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This could make the party supremely powerful, for it will utilise the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass-based social-welfare organisation created by the regime in 1993, which currently has more than 26 million members, and offices and economic interests throughout Burma.

The 2008 constitution reserves one-quarter of lower-house seats to serving military officers, and one-third of upper-house seats. The most important ministerial portfolios reserved for the military include defence (control over their budget and military justice), home affairs (domestic repression), and border affairs (cross-border trade, access to illicit rackets such as drugs, logging and smuggling, and license to conduct ongoing offensives against ethnic minorities). In other words, the military’s interests will continue to be safeguarded without civilian oversight, and free from the drudgery of everyday governance.

The prospect of power

The release of long-awaited electoral laws in March 2010 has set the ground-rules for the elections. The laws exclude serving prisoners from being members of political parties or electoral candidates: a cruel provision that neuters more than 2,100 political prisoners, including dissidents and people who won seats in the last election in 1990. Many of the prisoners, such as famous student leaders Min Ko Naing and Htay Kwe, and leaders of ethnic-Shan political parties, have been detained because their peaceful, popular and conciliatory style poses a challenge to the military government.

An estimated 428 members of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy are in detention. The laws prescribe that the party, if it chose to re-register with the electoral commission, would then have to expel these individuals - including the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house-arrest. On 29 March, the NLD decided that these legal provisions were unjust and announced it would not contest the elections.

Some of the already registered parties competed in the 1990 elections; they include ethnic-based parties (such as the Pa-O National Organisation) and new configurations of elites. An optimistic view (to which some analysts subscribe) is that the election may be part of a slow but inevitable process of change - not a mere SPDC 2.0 upgrade, but a new SPDC 2010. They expect the new version to bring about real democratic progress, if not overnight but in the years ahead. The coming months will reveal more about the machinations of the process, but the optimism seems sadly unwarranted. The basic configurations of power in Burma are unlikely to change, regardless of the electoral results. It is hard to imagine the military is devoting all this effort only to transfer its inheritance to civilians it has long repressed. The next two decades may well be the same as the past two, but with the disguise of a less overt and near-caricatural regime.

The prospect, then, is that the authoritarian upgrade ushers in a new era of military rule in Burma with a civilian face. The best way to avoid this fate is for the international community to speak with one voice and refuse to endorse the flawed process in any way, either through election monitoring or cynical paeans of progress just because polls are being held.

The next step would be to strengthen the targeted financial sanctions against senior members of the military government; and combine this with principled diplomacy that calls for the release of political prisoners, an inclusive political process, and more humanitarian assistance directly to Burmese communities.

These are the vital ways to exert pressure on the SPDC. Only if they are followed will there be hope that the military’s more outwardly sophisticated control of the country can be exchanged for a genuinely democratic package.

About the author

David Scott Mathieson is senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, specialising in Burma

Read On

Human Rights Watch

Thant Myint-U, The Making of Modern Burma (Cambridge University Press, 2001) 

National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)

Irrawaddy

Mizzima

Democratic Voice of Burma

The New Light of Myanmar

Michael W Charney, A History of Modern Burma (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

More On

David Scott Mathieson is Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch