Myanmar: Microshifts Of Power


Ian Wilson

Myanmar’s military rulers, having driven a once-prosperous nation close to bankruptcy, had nothing to celebrate in the year’s end economic balance sheet, but they have posted gratifying political results. Not only have they retained power since seizing it in 1988, but they face a greatly weakened opposition. The only credible challenger, Aung San Suu Kyi, has spent six of the last eleven years under house detention and has been effectively cut off from her followers for even longer. Although she was prevented from participating in the 1990 election, her party and its alliance partners won over 80 per cent of the vote and 485 seats, an overwhelming mandate to govern. But power was not transferred and by 1999 only 129 of her 392 National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentarians remained. Death had claimed 26, 82 had resigned, 38 had been disqualified, and another 95 were no longer eligible due to legal breaches, including some who had fled into exile and others who were in gaol. 22 more now describe themselves as ‘independents’. The regime now queries the legitimacy of the 1999 mandate.

A similar toll has been taken among the rank-and-file NLD supporters. The regime has created a large and well-funded mass organization to counter the opposition at the grassroots level. The NLD local branches, operating openly and effectively four years ago, are closing and the members are drifting away. Unable to bestow patronage through contracts and jobs or to provide protection against arbitrary official actions and persecution of its followers, the NLD is in serious decline. There is now criticism of Suu Kyi’s policy of steadfast non-cooperation with the regime because it has not produced real benefits. A fresh election, under new rules and a new constitution giving the military a privileged role in politics, is unlikely to repeat the landslide for democracy of 1990. Other centres of opposition remain but mostly among disgruntled national groups, sections of the sangha (clergy) or millenarian, offbeat groups like the teenage ‘warriors’ advocating sporadic violence.

The generals are also looking forward to a more benign international environment, one which will pose fewer threats to their independence to conduct their affairs without interference. Strong statements against Myanmar’s denial of human and democratic rights from the United States, and penalties from the IMF for lack of transparency and reform appeared to be made with appreciation of the fact that this system once denied outside aid voluntarily and survived. China, looking forward to a reduced American presence and influence in Asia, backs Myanmar’s views on non-interference.

Together, however, the ILO’s imposition of sanctions for the first time and Europe’s threat to boycott trade meetings with ASEAN in December produced a small concession. Malaysia intervened with Rangoon and one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s remaining supporters, was released from gaol. This was no light at the end of the tunnel: merely a flicker in the surrounding gloom.

WATCHPOINT: Can the military junta maintain its united front against reform or will internal economic necessity and conflicting external pressures produce an environment in which democratic change might again find room for expression?


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