Monday, May 18, 2009

Democracy and historical lessons from Burma's colonial past

by Matthew Santos

(Mizzima) -In 2010 Burma will become a sub-standard federal union formed in accordance with the military-influenced Constitution of 2008. As of this writing, debates are raging as to whether or not to contest or boycott elections based on the Constitution.

Dissidents such as National League for Democracy's (NLD) U Win Tin , 88 generation student leaders and Ludu U Sein Win, who believe democratic change is possible only through a mass struggle, cannot accept the provisions in the military’s unilaterally drawn Constitution. In their strategic calculations for change, Senior General Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are factors that can be varied/altered, but genuine democracy as a mission goal is fixed and immutable.

However, the ‘third force’ seems to view the positions of Senior General Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as unalterable in the equation of power struggle while treating the goal of democratization as if it were a point on a sliding scale.

And for its part, the great majority of Burmese public view the democratic goal, Senior General Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as unchangeable facts of life, having convinced themselves of the utter absence of any resolution to the conflict.

In order for Burma to realize a Federal Political System reflective of the 1947 Constitution, she will likely need to go through different politico-administrative phases not dissimilar to the “Diarchy,” “91 Departments Administration,” and so on. Such colonial era administrative experiments were crafted by the British in order to gradually permit the entry of politically minded elements amongst the native population into politics under British rule. One should not fail to note the fact that the military’s 2008 Constitution, designed to gradually infuse Burmese civilian politicians into official politics closely resembles the diarchy of the bygone colonial era.

In the diarchy model, implemented by the British in January 1923, there were two types of cabinet members who served under the British Governor. The Governor handpicked those cabinet members who would be in charge of the most important portfolios such as home affairs/security, judicial affairs and treasury, while the remaining cabinet departments or portfolios were headed by elected natives who were then appointed by the colonial parliament.

Likewise, according to the military’s 2008 Constitution of the Union of Myanmar, the Burmese military will have exclusive power to select and appoint cabinet members for such vital ministries as defense, home affairs and border area affairs, while filling the remaining and less significant cabinet posts through parliamentary approval.

In his historical critique of the diarchy under the British rule, late Burmese historian Dr. Than Tun argued quite rightly that under diarchy the colonial rulers were simply allowing the natives to manage autonomously their unimportant cabinet portfolios within imposed budgetary restraints, while retaining exclusive control over portfolios deemed vitally important.

A cursory look at the 2010 Constitution reveals that Burma's present military government appears quite fond of the approach to political plurality espoused by the colonial rulers of the 1920s.

Out of a total of 103 members in British Burma's diarchy legislature, only 22 legislators and 2 cabinet members (23.3 percent) were appointees of the British Governor, leaving the remaining 79 seats to be filled through a popular electoral process. By contrast, according to the Burmese military’s 2008 Constitution, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces will fill 25 percent of Parliamentary seats with hand-picked military officers. As a matter of fact, there is little difference between the current military’s political set up and that of British colonial rule.

The regime’s current design to grant local states all judicial, legislative and executive powers is not even close to the pre-independence federal arrangement of 1947. Dr. Than Tun additionally wrote of diarchy that with good intentions alone, elected natives would not be able to push the politico-administrative envelop because the British retained exclusive control over the country’s finances.

This comparison between the current military’s 2008 Constitution and its federal arrangement and the diarchy of British colonial rule has not been made for the purpose of instigating a popular boycott of the 2010 election. As was the case in 1937 during the “91 Departments Administration” in colonial Burma, the possibility of a government headed by a genuinely civilian president does exist, especially following the 2015 election.

In spite of some resemblances between diarchy and the 2008 Constitution, there are also differences in the emerging scenario. Although the 'third force' could be likened with the “Party of 21(colonial-era legislators)” they are saying they are not engaged in party politics. In contrast to the British which did not set up their own party, today’s military in Burma will.

With a view towards securing the best possible outcome, some practical advice can be offered to both the NLD and those pro-change elements which are loosely referred to as constituting the ‘third force'. Those Burmese citizens who work under the banner of the ‘third force’ should form a political party while the NLD should maintain a principled stance by not contesting the elections but continuing its public relations campaign to better inform on the principles and position of the party.

There should be little doubt that Senior General Than Shwe will attempt to ensure the post-2010 emergence of a political arrangement whereby a hand-picked President and Chief-of-Staff of the Armed Forces will run the affairs of the country from Naypyitaw in complete accord with his diktat and will. Whether or not the actual landscape of Than Shwe’s choice emerges post-2010 will be contingent upon how coordinated, tactical and strategic the pro-change social forces conduct themselves.

Lastly, the British instigated a case against General Aung San for a murder during the Japanese era. But in the end, they provided a pardon to General Aung San as they realized he was an essential partner for dialogue in Burma's politics. Let’s see if today's military can act on a similar understanding of political and national necessity.

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too