Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Burma's Leadership Change to Nowhere

The junta's new generation: Same as the old generation.


Some in Asia have looked to recent events in the Middle East for clues about whether similar uprisings against unpopular authoritarian regimes could happen in places like China or Burma. But that's not the only point to consider from Asia's perspective. Those stories also offer a warning about the nature of change within such regimes, a red flag that is particularly relevant for Burma right now: A younger set of leaders is not always as liberal as outsiders hope.

Thein Sein

Burma's military junta is in the midst of a political transition to a new generation. Long-ruling general Than Shwe, 78, has stepped aside, replaced by Thein Sein, a "youthful" 66. Since his appointment, Thein Sein has made some seemingly conciliatory remarks regarding freedom of expression. The European Union in particular has greeted this change with cautious optimism, slightly easing its sanctions against the regime.

Diplomats hope that a new generation may be more liberal-minded—that the next round of elections will be freer and fairer than last November's rigged polling; that the release of pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from her long house arrest will be lasting; and that recent media opening and better access for international aid agencies are the start of a trend.

But if the Middle East teaches something for Asia, it's that the new generation isn't always what it's cracked up to be. In Libya, Moammar Qadaffi's son Saif al Islam was educated at the London School of Economics and was once hailed as a reformist influence. Syrian ruler Bashar Assad is a doctor once greeted as a reformer when he took over power from his father. Both are now leading bloody crackdowns in their countries.

Sure enough, Burma's new leaders follow this pattern. Gen. Thein Sein is no closet liberal. A former major general, he served as chief of the army's Golden Triangle command from 1997-2001. As prime minister he visited North Korea in August last year, heaping praise on Kim Jong Il and saying that Burma would "strive to strengthen and develop friendly relations" with the Pyongyang regime.

And despite recent signs of openness, other signs show the regime is busily entrenching itself for another generation. The Burmese military did not implement a new constitution and hold "elections" last year because the generals wanted to change the system that has kept them in power for half a century. Those "reforms" were meant to institutionalize the present order with the aim of perpetuating it.

For instance, the new constitution gives the commander in chief of the armed forces the power to directly select one-fourth of all parliamentary seats, and allows the president to hand over power to the army in the event of a "national crisis"—a term so vaguely defined it could mean a popular pro-democracy uprising. There is no indication Gen. Thein Sein has any intention to change this.

Likewise, recent openness in other areas should not be viewed as a sign that newer leaders are more liberal-minded. Rather, this suggests that the new generation is perpetuating the same cycle of repression, openness and then repression again that the older generation perfected.

Consider 1988, when a massive uprising started after years of repression and economic mismanagement. After gunning down thousands of demonstrators in a crackdown that would make Syria's rulers blush, the Burmese military encouragingly moved toward reform. It abolished the one-party system and announced that free elections wound he held. For almost a year, Burma experienced an unprecedented openness. Political rallies were tolerated across the country.

But in July 1989, the army moved in when democracy grew too popular. Hundreds were arrested and Ms. Suu Kyi placed under house arrest. A year later, elections were held, and they were surprisingly free and fair. Foreign journalists were allowed to cover the event. But the people made the mistake of voting for Ms. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, and another crackdown followed. The elected National Assembly was never convened. The international community was outraged—but mellowed when the military announced that a new constitution would be drafted and fresh elections held.

Since first being put under house arrest in 1989 around the time of the election, Ms. Suu Kyi's fate has tracked the junta's cycles. She was released in 1995 and allowed to hold political meetings and rallies. Then the military cracked down , and by 2000 she was under arrest again. And so on—released in 2002, re-arrested in 2003. Given this record, it would be premature to consider her latest release, in November last year, as a sign of permanent change for the better in the regime.

Nor is the international community's optimism itself a new phenomenon. When the original strongman, Ne Win, ruled from 1962 till 1981, Burma watchers used to say that things would change once he was gone from the scene. But the next generation turned out to be just as brutal, and perhaps even more so. Similarly, the new crop of military leaders under Gen. Thein Sein might turn out to be just as repressive as Gen. Than Shwe—or worse.

Burma is not immune to the democratic winds of change. Sooner or later, real change will come. But that will not be the type of "incremental improvements" some observers, especially in the European Union, think they're seeing now. Rather, it will be when those within the system turn against it—in other words, a crack within the ruling elite.

So far, there are no signs of such a crack in Burma. And by misreading current signals, outsiders could delay the arrival of that moment. Easing sanctions as a reward for false openness, for instance, removes a stress factor that could eventually cause some within the military to rethink the wisdom of the current regime.

Until the international community, and especially the EU, learns these bitter lessons of history, they will only encourage the junta to continue as it always has. That can only prolong the sufferings of the Burmese people.

Mr. Lintner is a Thailand-based correspondent for the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and author of several books on Burma.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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