A monopoly of powers in Myanmar

By Maung Zarni 

Beneath Naypyidaw's democracy-promoting rhetoric lies a multi-pronged and multi-faceted strategy adopted by the country’s previous junta leaders and current behind-the-scenes wielders of power led by former junta leader Senior General Than Shwe. 

Myanmar's current nominal head of state, Thein Sein, is bound soon for Britain, where the country’s former colonizer is expected to roll out the red carpet. This will come despite Thein Sein’s official support for 969, a neo-Nazi Buddhist movement that the Myanmar Home Ministry has incubated with blessings from the highest levels of government over the past 20-plus years. 

In light of this irreconcilable gap between the pro-democracy rhetoric coming from Naypyidaw and its international and local spin-masters (including, for instance, the likes of the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Norway's foreign-affairs-peace-oil-Telenor industrial complex) there needs to be a serious rethink about to where and what Myanmar is transitioning. 

The quasi-civilian regime's democratic credentials are nothing if not Orwellian. Months ago Myanmar pundits and foreign media outlets got unduly carried away when the regime's advisors talked about creating the freest media in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Media reforms, they argued, were hailed as one of the most genuinely exciting domains to watch in the country’s democratic transition. Journalist friends from abroad talked wildly about taking up residence in the now extremely expensive but dilapidated old capital of Yangon in order to be a part of the media gold rush. 

The lower house of parliament, however, just passed legislation that will severely restrict the local media, including bans on vaguely defined reporting topics. This should serve as a wake-up call for those with the rose-tinted view about the ruling generals and ex-generals top-down reforms. Myanmar’s local media, with many top outlets linked to high-ranking generals, is far from a liberal, progressive one, seen in its sometimes racist coverage of the recent pogroms against minority Muslims and its ringing endorsement of the rigged elections held in 2010. 

Behind the rhetoric of democracy lies a multi-pronged and multi-faceted strategy adopted by Naypyidaw's still ruling generals, including former junta supremo Than Shwe. Herewith are the contours of the regime's strategy to win diplomatic favor and investment from the West while maintaining the military’s ironclad grip on power. In this direction, Than Shwe Inc has learned to: 

1. Act smarter with business interests.
2. Exploit the West's desperation.
3. Address its own fears of China.
4. Co-opt and/or corrupt dissident elites by dangling the carrot of the 2015 elections and a transition towards genuine civilian national leadership. 
5. Mobilize, as Slobodan Milosevic did in the Balkans, the ethno-religious anti-Muslim prejudices of the majority against the weakest in society with no real support from any foreign power.
6. Outsource ethnic Rohingya genocide to the ultra-nationalist Rakhines who were demanding more revenues and greater autonomy.
7. Tarnish and pre-empt any future political threats from the Buddhist Sangha by incubating Home Affairs-inserted 969 neo-Nazi cells into the monastic order.
8. Facilitate global democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's morphing into a world class hypocrite internationally, and a "kalar" in the eyes of the racist public and Buddhists monks were she to say or act out of any principles, compassion or ethics.
9. Offer the armed resistance elites business and "development" prospects in exchange for federalism.
10. Throw "donors' crumbs" at foreign consultants in the development-peace-NGO industry.
11. Create manageable pockets of instability and regions under Emergency Laws by unleashing ideological attack dogs such as 969 fascists in monk's Saffron robes.
12. Frame rather conveniently every problem in Myanmar as part and parcel of democratization, adopting the 'intellectual' explanations offered by ICG's so-called Myanmar experts and repeated by intellectually dishonest or substandard ASEAN politicians, including, for instance, Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa. 

Naypyidaw has been able to do all this, apparently, while maintaining a very firm grip on most strategic domains of the state and other power centers. In essence, what Than Shwe Inc controls now - and what it controlled before the sham 2010 elections - remains absolutely the same. Herewith is a list of institutions and areas which the military is unprepared to give up its monopoly control: 

1. Propaganda (media).
2. Armed gangs mistakenly referred to as the army.
3. All business sectors.
4. Opposition politics.
5. International relations.
6. State finances.
7. The natural resource sector.
8) All state institutions of any importance, including the judiciary, legislature, bureaucracy, executive branch, and whitewash inquiry commissions.
9. The intelligence services.
10. 'Peace' negotiations. 
11. The entire reform process.
12. Religion. 

With this monopoly of powers intact, how could Myanmar's reforms be viewed as a move towards democracy and rule of law? The timing and setting for Naypyidaw to pursue this multi-pronged and multi-faceted strategy is perfect. The West is too strategically desperate, too corporate greed-driven, too NGO self-interested, too arrogantly ignorant to be a true ally of Myanmar's beleaguered people. 

While this may all sound like one big Naypyidaw conspiracy with international complicity, that's precisely because it is. If anyone thinks the generals have been in power for this long, 50 years and counting, having outlived virtually all their contemporaries around the world, without conspiring, plotting, conniving, demolishing and murdering any credible threats to their power, privileges and wealth, then they have not paid attention to the country's history. 

Many believe that Myanmar is "democratizing" because the generals now hold elections and sit in parliament. Currently one in three humans live under some form of authoritarian/dictatorial regime, while all but five global governments held some sort of election in the past 15-20 years. To put it broadly, elections are a prerequisite for a democracy, but hardly a good indicator of democracy's presence. 

The trappings of democracy - political parties, dissidents, seemingly free media, parliaments, constitutions, nominal separation of the branches of state power, and above all the rhetoric of 'democracy' - do not necessarily mean a country has arrived. Democratic forms and rhetoric do not necessarily translate into democratic essence or practice. Not by themselves, and most certainly not in today's military-dominated Myanmar. 

Maung Zarni is a Burmese activist blogger (www.maungzarni.com) and visiting fellow of Civil Society and Human Security Research at the London School of Economics. 

This article is originally published by Asia Times.


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