The Burmese Junta’s Latest Ruse

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been called Asia’s Nelson Mandela and, like him, is widely respected as a symbol of hope and change. Now many foreign observers are wondering whether her release will bring Myanmar’s “Mandela moment” — the beginning of the end of repression and the first, tangible step toward national reconciliation. But this is a skewed analogy. There are fundamental differences between the transition to majority rule in South Africa and Myanmar’s struggle for democracy.

Mr. Mandela’s release in February 1990 came as part of a political reform process that began when he first met representatives of the apartheid regime in 1985, thus paving the way for a dialogue that eventually led to a general election in April 1994. The African National Congress won that election and, in May of that year, Mr. Mandela became South Africa’s first majority-supported president.

In Myanmar there is no such reform process, and no willingness by those in power to engage in any real dialogue with the opposition. Over the years, a few highly publicized meetings — often involving foreign visitors — have taken place between Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and some of the country’s ruling generals. But those have been for P.R. purposes only — and so was her release from house arrest on Saturday.

The Burmese military is notorious for its own interpretations of the law — the generals could have held her in detention as long as they wanted. But they chose to schedule her release a week after the country had held a highly controversial election. They probably had anticipated what the international reaction to that vote would be: condemnation and lack of recognition.

Only China and Myanmar’s partners in Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have hailed the election as a significant, positive step forward.

Not surprisingly, however, several opposition parties and organizations representing the country’s many ethnic minorities are now calling for meetings with Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi to map out a common strategy for Myanmar’s future. Political parties in several ethnic minority areas were not allowed to contest the Nov. 7 election, and the parties that did are complaining about fraud and vote-rigging. But even if the opposition manages to establish a united front of sorts, it would have to confront a military with its own, uncompromising agenda.

For the regime to make any significant concessions to the democratic and ethnic opposition, it would have to change fundamental principles in the country’s Constitution, which was “approved” by a Stalinesque 92 percent of the electorate. Article 121 in effect bars Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi from holding any political office because of her marriage to a foreigner, the fact that her two sons are “citizens of a foreign country” — and because she has, as the clause says, “been convicted … for having committed an offence.”

Apart from giving a quarter of all seats in the bicameral legislature to the military, Article 396 of the new Constitution ensures that M.P.s-elect can be dismissed for “misbehavior” by the Union Election Commission, which will remain indirectly controlled by the military. And, if the “democratic” situation gets really out of hand, Article 413 gives the president the right to hand over executive powers to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Weeks before the election, observers were reporting that the military wanted to make the election credible by producing official results that showed 70 percent voter turnout with 80-percent support for its own party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. That was exactly the announced outcome. Why then would the military, or the new “civilian” government that is expected to be formed shortly, be willing to call a new, free and fair election that would satisfy domestic and international opinion?

It should also be remembered that this is not the first time Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest amid high expectations for change and democratic progress. She was first placed under house arrest in July 1989 and released six years later, in July 1995. After an initial period of relative freedom, she was prevented by the military from traveling around the country, and, in September 2000, was back under house arrest. She was released again in May 2002, and, in May 2003, placed under house arrest for “her own protection” after her entourage was attacked by a government-sponsored mob in Depayin in northern Burma and scores of her supporters were killed.

Meanwhile, one U.N. emissary after another has visited Myanmar to encourage a “dialogue” that has never materialized and never will. Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi made her first appeal for a dialogue in August 1988, but there is nothing to indicate that the military has ever contemplated serious discussions.

So why would anything be different this time? Has the international community learned nothing from recent Burmese history? The Nov. 7 election was designed to institutionalize the present order. The release of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has diverted all attention from that fraudulent election. Change will come only when someone within the ruling elite turns against the top leadership — as happened in the Philippines in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos lost the support of his military, or in Indonesia in 1998, when General Wiranto refused to storm the parliamentary buildings in Jakarta that had been occupied by pro-democracy activists, or in South Korea in 1979, when the democratic transition was set in motion by the assassination of President Park Chung-hee.

It remains to be seen what Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi is going to do — and how the authorities are going to react to, for instance, her pledge to investigate election fraud. But she will not be able to push a pro-democracy agenda without the support of at least some elements within the armed forces. This is the bitter reality that will have to be faced once the euphoria over her release has settled.

Bertil Lintner, a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of seven books on Burma.