IHT October 4, 2010
Hong Kong — The elections set for Nov. 7 in Myanmar are a travesty of democracy — but they are welcome nonetheless.
Their main purpose is to dress the military regime in new civilian-looking clothes; a secondary purpose is to appease international criticism by putting on an electoral show. The possibility of real change in the power structure is the last thing the generals have in mind.
Yet the generals are sowing some seeds of change which might in time flower into something more plural and democratic, and provide regional as well as national forums for future debate. Meanwhile money from gas, minerals and privatization of state assets is seeping into a once austere military-socialist system, corrupting it and slowly undermining it.
In short, it is hard to argue that Myanmar will be any worse after the elections than it is now. It might start getting better.
The main opposition group, the National League for Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose victory in the 1990 election was overturned by the military, has good reason to boycott the polls. Its leader is under house arrest and unable to run. The apparatus of an oppressive regime and its captive media makes campaigning — and boycott calls — hazardous. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, including monks held in the wake of the 2007 demonstrations in which many were killed. Government-backed parties, principally the Union Solidarity Development Party and its allies in ethnic minority regions, are destined to win. The military also has 25 percent of the seats allotted to it.
In the longer run the N.L.D. itself may be best served by its boycott. But Myanmar could also be served by the prospect that a few members from other opposition parties will be elected and create a thin democratic wedge.
A comparison can be made between Myanmar and the last decade of Suharto's rule in Indonesia, when some parliamentary opposition became possible and, as the offspring of generals, sought wealth and business through access to government contracts and privatizations. Pluralism and competition began to sprout.
Of course there are many differences, not least that Suharto had a relatively open economy. But in Myanmar the generals are taking off their uniforms to become civilian ministers. Their families and associates are enjoying the fruits of privatization, and opening bank accounts in Singapore.
However badly managed Myanmar's economy and its major domestic enterprises may be, plenty of money will come from new gas, pipeline and power projects to keep many a well-connected ex-officer in the style to which Southeast Asian businessmen have long been accustomed, and there will be many opportunities to acquire state and joint-venture assets. The power of money will be diversified.
Competition is growing for foreign deals after years in which China had a near-monopoly. In response to India's bid for Myanmar gas and American attempts, so far unsuccessful, to engage with the military, China has been further bolstering its ties, most recently by inviting the Myanmar leader Than Shwe to Beijing. China is well aware that the United States is now more interested in limiting China's influence than punishing the generals for repression.
While China officially welcomes the approaching elections, it may well be worried about the weakening of its own influence in the long run, or of a nationalist backlash against Chinese influence. Indians once ran much of Myanmar's trade, only to be expelled, and have their assets seized, following the 1962 military coup.
The ultimate impact of elections on Myanmar's rebellious ethnic minorities is also an issue for China — as it is for the integrity of a Myanmar in which only 70 percent of the population is ethnic Burmese. A semblance of democracy and devolution could start to bring an end to decades of intermittent conflict — or it could be the precursor of more warfare, particularly in the Shan and Kachin states, which abut China's Yunnan Province.
China wants peace in these regions, but preferably through the government's accommodation with rebel groups and not central government control. It wants to avoid crises such as the one in 2009, when 30,000 refugees fled to China to escape an army offensive. Meanwhile the Yunnan provincial government and Chinese businessmen mostly just want uninterrupted trade — which includes drugs and illegal mining and logging.
For Myanmar as a whole, the generals are trying to modernize their control system. But whether in the longer term they can keep control of change is questionable. Therein lies hope.