Than Shwe's 'Discipline Flourishing Democracy' Fools No One

The release from house arrest of the 83-year-old co-founder and Deputy Chairman of Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD), Tin Oo, has failed to impress the international community or the Burmese opposition, who view it as a calculated act of regime “magnanimity.”

One of Tin Oo's first acts after his release was to appear on the Voice of America's Burmese Service, discussing the NLD's official stance on the planned general election.

Tin Oo said the NLD is sticking with its Shwegondaing Declaration, adopted as its forward-looking, official political platform in 2009, which inter alia calls for the release of all political prisoners, a substantive review and amendment of the 2008 Constitution, and a solution of the country's long-standing political problems through a process of dialogue and reconciliation.

It's widely known that rights violations and systematic political repression are not confined to the heartland of Burma. The day after the UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana's arrival in Burma this week, Amnesty International released a 58-page report entitled “Myanmar: End repression of ethnic minorities before elections,” in which it highlights the continuing, systematic political repression in predominantly minority regions.

Drawing on accounts from more than 700 activists from the seven largest ethnic minorities, covering a two-year period, the AI report is the latest in the long series of indictments against Than Shwe's regime.

Understanding how the regime attempts to play pro-democratic change elements at home and abroad requires adopting a “big picture” perspective while remaining attentive to seemingly isolated political events across the country.

Than Shwe and his leadership may be suffering from delusions of national and personal grandeur, with the despot and his immediate family displaying royal pretensions. But they are certainly adept at stringing along various parties at home and abroad that are pushing for change.

The tactical moves that Than Shwe has employed since coming to power nearly 20 years ago include: well-publicized and well-timed prisoner releases; facilitating important foreign visitors such as UN human rights envoys to visit prisons in far-flung places; permitting UN officials and senior western diplomats and politicians to meet with jailed or detained prominent dissidents, most specifically Aung San Suu Kyi; issuing strategically placed foreigners such as Joseph Stiglitz and prominent Burmese expatriates entry visas and giving them VIP treatment; playing different western governments and organizations against one another—and so on.

Fortunately, the NLD leadership sees through the fog of regime deception when it calls for the release of all political prisoners, not just NLD members. Considering that Burma has a total of more than 2,100 political prisoners who are being released at an excruciatingly slow rate of 20-30 a year, Than Shwe's regime, as well as the next generation of military rulers, can keep on using this strategy of “prisoners as bargaining chips or public relations tools” well into the 22nd century.

The generals also reserve for themselves the right to restock and recycle this pool of human bargaining chips in the land where the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, not the elected institutions or leaders, has the final say over the issues that matter most.

Indeed, no self-respecting dissident, at home or in exile, is prepared to swallow the junta's plan to replace the existing crude and semi-feudal rule of Than Shwe with its new “electoral authoritarianism,” the primary purpose of which is to ensure smooth transition from one military regime to the next while keeping the aging despot's power intact until his death.

Tin Oo may be on the verge of losing his sight in one eye, but he was certainly not blinded to the junta's old tricks by his regained freedom. As the former highest ranking soldier in the land, Tin Oo obviously knows that, whatever the form and justifications, the “Nargis Constitution” and the promised election this year are designed to institutionalize a two-class system which will be established with one set of rules, privileges and rights for the ruling military elite and another for the rest of the society—considered by the former as a “lesser breed” and treated accordingly.

Nor will ex-General Tin Oo buy into the faddish but well-worn legitimizing discourses, bordering on sycophantic apologias, which assert, without any empirical basis, that theTatmadaw, or armed forces, under Than Shwe's leadership, have remained statically nationalistic, operating with an old sense of “honor, duty and country.” Aung Naing Oo's “Why the 2008 Constitution is the Junta's Holy Grail (The Irrawaddy online, 1 Feb 2010) springs to mind.

Talk to any military officer with a strong conscience and independent mind in private, and one quickly learns that the Burmese armed forces have taken a tragically regressive evolutionary path under exceedingly self-serving generals who wrap themselves in the flag. Once a distinct source of national pride amongst the Burmese majority, theTatmadaw has long since degenerated into a mafia-like organization rotten to its core, as the officer corps has allowed itself to be used as a personal instrument of power, wealth and repression by the top generals. 

Today's Tatmadaw is held together by neither patriotism nor “sense of dual duty to rule and defend,” but rather by a mixture of factors including complex patron-client ties, personal power, economic privileges, fear of severe punishment for disloyalty and Pavlovian conditioning, which guarantees “complete and total obedience” on the part of the subordinates in the chain of command. But that's a story for another day.

The crucial issue here is that democratic change in Burma is not about the falsely constructed binary opposition between normative expectations versus pragmatic considerations regarding the anticipated electoral process. Democratic values and practical (and immediate) interests of the electorate in Burma are not mutually exclusive. 

In fact, pragmatism is not devoid of norms. The current system of despotic rule under Than Shwe displays ideological elements and governmental practices which can only be described as neo-fascist and neo-totalitarian in that only one national vision is acceptable to the ruling military junta and only one national institution is constitutionally entitled to rule the country. Pragmatism in the face of such neo-fascism and neo-totalitarianism all but amounts to collaboration.

As Than Shwe's regime force-marches the country towards a “discipline flourishing democracy,” western governments are, for heaven knows what reason, hesitant to delineate benchmarks against which anticipated “democracy” in Burma may be assessed. Regarding democratization, a mountain of literature, theoretical and empirical, has been generated since democracy's defining days of the French Revolution in 1789. 

One need not wait until Than Shwe's “democracy” (or more accurately, “electoral authoritarianism”) merges from Naypyidaw in order to imagine, and articulate, what a real democracy for the Burmese voters should look like.

In his essay, “Our Incredibly Shrinking Democracy,” TruthOut, 2 Feb 2010), a former secretary of labor under ex-President Bill Clinton and professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley argued succinctly that any political system that describes itself as a “democracy” requires at least three things:

1. That important decisions are made in the open;
2. The public and its representatives have an opportunity to debate them, so the decisions can be revised in light of what the public discovers and wants;
3. Those who make the big decisions are accountable to voters.

Whatever its shortcomings in other areas of policy and politics, by sticking with its Shwegondaing Declaration, the NLD leadership has demonstrated that it is not allowing itself to be fooled by Than Shwe's regime.

Most important, democratization in Burma is Doh A-yay or “Our business, not foreign governments' business.” It would be a grave historical error for us, the Burmese who clamor for genuine change in our own country, to allow western powers to define democracy's benchmarks for us or formulate the solutions to our society's challenges. The duty, the honor and the country are all ours and ours alone.

The “Nargis Constitution” and the 2010 elections may be “the only game in town.” But the NLD and the electorate are not required to play the game. 

Under the grinding wheel of history, Burma's feudal, colonial, fascist and military regimes of the past, including Ne Win's 26-year disastrous rule, have all vanished. Than Shwe's “discipline flourishing democracy” will in due course also be buried in his neo-fascist capital known as “the Abode of the Kings.”

We Burmese may not be known as capable nation-builders. But we certainly are capable of burying tyrannies, foreign and domestic. That's a start.

Dr Zarni ( is a columnist for The Irrawaddy and a research fellow on Burma at LSE Global Governance, the London School of Economics.

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