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Burma: The Generals’ New Clothes

Senior military officers are resigning ahead of elections. But will it change anything?

Published in: GlobalPost

MAE SOT, Thailand - In Myanmar today, dozens of middle-aged generals are shedding their uniforms.

In the latest round of preparations for Myanmar's multi-party national elections on Nov. 7, senior military officers are resigning their commissions, ostensibly to make way for a new generation of military officers.

Prime Minister Thein Sein and 27 senior officers who are also government ministers have resigned from their military posts to form the military-controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The military is maneuvering to position itself for the elections, and no one should think this means it intends to give up its grip on Myanmar. The military has controlled Myanmar since a coup d'etat in 1988. They were trounced in the last elections held in 1990, losing out to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

The past 20 years has been a gradual process of rigging the next elections to ensure the right result and ensure continued military rule. The constitutional referendum of 2008 produced the unlikely result of 92 percent nationwide approval from a 98 percent voter turnout.

Even with other senior military officers offering themselves up as civilians, the military will still have 110 reserved seats in the 440-seat lower house of parliament and 56 in the upper house, with another 12 - 168 in all - from each of Myanmar's 14 regions or states. So there will be serving officers at every level of supposed civilian, democratic elected assemblies.

But even for the seats not formally reserved for the military, there's no level electoral playing field. Significantly, President Than Shwe, a senior general, hasn't made the sartorial transformation: he has not retired from the military and remains commander in chief of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces). It is uncertain what role he will play in the post-election power structure, but he can and might assign himself one of the reserved seats for military officers and resume his presidency.

Look at which parties have fielded a full set of candidates. The military-controlled USDP, which has absorbed the resources of the 26 million-member social welfare organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), will field 1,163 candidates: every seat at every level. The National Unity Party, aligned with but not controlled by the army, a reformulation of the former ruling socialist party of the 1970s and 80s, will field 994 candidates.

The National Democratic Force (NDF), a splinter group of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, is fielding only 160 candidates and even then the military-controlled Election Commission has forced some of its leaders out of the running. The Democratic Party of Myanmar, consisting of former activists, only has the resources and finances to field 49 candidates. Some ethnic parties may field candidates, but most only a handful, and some of those are actually pro-military government proxy parties.

The Electoral Commission has imposed a $500 fee to register an individual candidate, a prohibitive cost in such a poor country, and there are tight restrictions on campaign activities, including what the parties can say in public and what they can say in print. There are potential prison terms if candidates insult the military, for example.

As for the military itself, some observers have suggested that the new generation of officers may be more willing to compromise with the Myanmar opposition and the international community. But this is wishful thinking. There is little basis to suggest the new generation will be any different than the current military leaders.

If nothing else, the military now holds all of the country's purse strings, and it has lucrative reasons for not letting go. Military officers have used their power to get their hands on much of the country's trade. And extraction of natural wealth, from natural gas, mining, forests and even illicit trade.

Think of the American historical sociologist Charles Tilly's famous dictum of "war making and state making as organized crime," and it's easy to understand the current generation of military officers for the past two decades. The long running civil war has been pushed back to isolated areas in the eastern and western borderlands, the economy has grown, trade with China and Thailand has boomed.

As opportunities for illegal or unfair graft are growing, Myanmar army officers, especially regional commanders, have been the arbiters of rackets from logging, narcotics, smuggling of gems, human trafficking and other lucrative enterprises. In short, the sign of likely advancement in the modern Tatmadaw is not just a proclivity for repression, but how well a general turns a profit.

It is wholly unlikely that a change of clothes will turn a general into a genial democrat. Economic incentives to repress Myanmar's people remain too strong, and without focused international pressure for reform, all the elections are likely to do is refine an existing system of repression.

There may yet be one windfall, and that's to the tailors and boutiques of Yangon, who may soon be deluged with orders from octogenarian strongmen seeking daywear for their new assignments.

David Scott Mathieson is a Senior Researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

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