Asia Program

Legitimizing the Illegitimate? Burma's Political Dilemmas

Jun 08, 2010

On May 25, the Asia Program hosted four Burma experts who collectively concluded that the upcoming elections in Burma later this year will effect little political change, despite mounting international and domestic pressures on the nation's ruling junta. The experts also agreed that discussions on Burma should not be dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the now-disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD).

Burma experts have been "asking the wrong questions," said Mary Callahan, associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington. She said it is time to "rethink the way we view Burma's military," known as the Tatmadaw. No other Southeast Asian military has survived as many purges intact as the Tatmadaw. Many of the assumptions experts make about the Tatmadaw may be inaccurate, as they are frequently based on scarce and unproven data. The assumption that the Tatmadaw operates by creating an environment of fear is questionable, Callahan argued. The regime has, in recent years, been receptive to the International Labor Organization and the United Nations on issues of forced labor and trafficking. It has even allowed for the creation of a "parallel state" within the country, where international aid donors are able to systematically dispense aid. Callahan also noted that the widely held view that the military is on the brink of an implosion is inaccurate. She explained that any member of the military deemed sympathetic towards the opposition is immediately purged. Nonetheless, the Tatmadaw's control is not absolute. It has failed to disarm ethnic militia groups along the border, or co-opt them into becoming border guards. At the same time, land grabs by the Chinese in neighboring Yunnan and by Burmese factions loyal to the Chinese have prompted local populations to turn to the Tatmadaw for protection, and offer support for the regime-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Association or the National Unity Party. Assumptions that all democrats in Burma are NLD supporters should therefore be viewed with caution.

In exploring the evolution of Burma's democracy movement since 1988, Min Zin, teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California-Berkeley and a former student democracy leader in Burma, noted that the prospects for an NLD victory are bleak. He said that the political opposition in Burma is emboldened by anticipation of "political realignment" in the run-up to the national elections. Although resilience is a key strength of the NLD, the party lacks the willingness and capacity to diversify its support base. In terms of tactics, the NLD has relied too heavily on acts of protest and confrontation led mostly by students and monks, both of whom have less leverage than workers and peasants. The party is further weakened by China and Thailand's support of the regime, and by narrowly focusing on public loss or injustice instead of addressing the broader interests of the general public. To realize its goals, the NLD should focus on diversifying its support base, on co-opting other opposition parties, and on applying an "interest-based" approach in its endgame strategy.

Jürgen Haacke, senior lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, spoke about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)'s views on Burma's upcoming election. ASEAN considers Burma's elections as partially legitimate because Burma has exhibited good behavior as an ASEAN member. At the same time, ASEAN's response to Burma's elections has always been mixed. Each member state acts in accordance with its own political goals, norms, geopolitical interests, and priorities. For instance, Indonesia has been critical of Burma's "lack of inclusiveness (of other parties)" and Thailand has called the electoral laws "discriminating." Then, at the 16th ASEAN summit in Hanoi, ASEAN states issued a collective statement which was more forgiving, omitting any mention of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, or the terms "credibility" or "transparency." The omission was a sign that some ASEAN states (like Singapore and Malaysia) wanted to avoid drawing attention to their own harsh or controversial laws. As much as ASEAN states admire the courage and principles of Aung San Suu Kyi, they view her as insufficiently pragmatic and combative, and believe that she will potentially undermine the unity of ASEAN. Despite a lack of trust between Naypyidaw (Burma's new capital since 2005) and other capitals in the region, Burma is not a threat to regional security. In the context of ASEAN, Burma's problems are mainly transnational (drug trafficking and smuggling), or relate to human rights. Naypyidaw subscribes to all the key texts of the ASEAN Charter and is open to practical cooperation within the organization. Thus, Burma is less likely to undermine the association's efforts in the region than are its more powerful neighbors, Indonesia and Thailand, which are both potential flashpoints for conflict.

Assessing possible U.S. responses to Burma's upcoming elections, David Steinberg, Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, concluded that both the United States and Burma's junta, "bound by their own domestic priorities and political expediency," face heightening tension in their relations. The United States has little leverage to effect change in Burma. It has viewed Burma's politics through the lens of the NLD, making Aung San Suu Kyi "the main determinant of how Washington formulates its policy on Burma." In Steinberg's view, this election is more "nuanced" than the previous two (held in 1960 and 1990). The western media has failed to mention how vote-counting will no longer be "centralized," but will instead occur in local precincts and more importantly, in the presence of various political party members. It has also ignored the formation of hluttaws (parliaments) at the state and regional levels and in minority areas. Though these parliaments have little political influence, they allow opposition voices to be heard. Furthermore, the emerging role of nongovernmental organizations should not be overlooked as they are still outside of state control.

By Sue Levenstein
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

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