Monday, February 11, 2008
BURMESE JUNTA PLANS A VOTE
ver last weekend, the military rulers of Burma decided it was time to take the pressure off a bit and toss a little sweet to their critics. After staging a publicity show at the end of January (by letting democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest for photo ops with her junta liaison and a few members of her party) which garnered them little more than cynical jeering both inside and outside the country, the regime and its cronies were hit by yet another strengthening of targeted sanctions by the Bush administration. The EU is likely to soon follow suit, and charges are being prepared at the International Criminal Court.
I have written that the generals must be coming under some behind-the-scenes pressure from China (and likely India as well) to actually do something other than the continued manhunts for, and jailing of, more and more democratic dissidents. China is very worried about losing even more national face by the actions of their client dictatorship, in the few months remaining before Olympic opening ceremonies.
The close time frame of China's anxieties have made it possible to expect something unexpected from the regime. A further impetus is the drive within ASEAN to ratify the group's new charter -- something the Philippine president has reaffirmed will not happen until the Burmese democratic leader is set free. While that card remains held close to Than Shwe's medal-festooned chest for future use, the alternative surprise dropped on Saturday night (via Burma's military-controlled media) will not have the desired effect. For the first time ever, the generals have mooted the bare outline of a timetable for "democratic" transition. Their secretly-drafted new constitution will be put to the people in a referendum in about 3 month's time. A national election under that constitution would be held at least two years later.
Just for comparison purposes, Thailand had a military coup in September '06, assembled a reasonably broad-based constitutional drafting commission to work openly and publicly, finalized the document in mid 2007, had it ratified by national voting in October, and democratic elections in December. The new government is now sworn in and functioning.
Can anyone guess why the Burmese junta will need two years to accomplish what Thailand's military-installed government arranged in two months? If there's one thing these thugs know how to do, it's buy time. An optimist might say that their score (two years vs. two months) has improved a bit if we look at the earlier part of the process. Thailand got from coup d'etat to ratified constitution in 13 months, while the same procedures in Burma have taken 18 years.
The elections which gave Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy a landslide victory in an internationally recognised fair election, took place in May 1990 (which the military ignored by claiming the vote was to elect a constitution drafting body, and this is why it's only fair to start the clock from that date, rather than years later as the foreign media does).
Some cynics wonder how the generals are so sure the constitution will be passed in the first place, a necessary precondition for an election to be planned at all. Why would they be so confident that the people will love it, since nobody knows precisely what is in it, and public debate over it is basically illegal. Anyone who questions the undemocratic drafting process is liable to disappear into the bowels of Insein Prison, with scores of other democracy lovers. How can they ask the public to accept or reject this document in a couple of months' time, when they are still jailing people today for doing so?
Perhaps a "no" vote will actually be illegal too.
The word from inside Burma seems to indicate that the Big Cheese (Than Shwe) doesn't quite have a firm grip on things -- including himself. Longtime Asia journalist Larry Jagan reports:
Senior General Than Shwe is sinking fast, according to sources close to him. "He's losing his mind – forgetting who has been cashiered in the past, becoming increasingly reclusive and trusting no one around him," said a senior military source in Naypyitaw, Burma's new capital – four hundred kilometres north of Rangoon.The State Peace and Development Council (SPADCO) has not even met since before the uprising against them began last August, "due to Than Shwe's health and mood swings." With the Big Cheese's disengagement, absolutely nothing can happen -- which explains why the liaison with Aung San Suu Kyi is good only for photo ops, and no substance.
"There's total inertia in Naypyitaw, no one dares make a decision, even in regard to the smallest matters, without approval from the top, which is rarely forthcoming," a senior government official confided to a Western diplomat recently.The picture of Than Shwe at the top of this post was taken about five weeks ago.
"Nothing is happening at all, everyone is waiting for Than Shwe to die," according to a senior Asian government minister, who recently met his Burmese counterpart at an ASEAN function outside the country.
Than Shwe's health is rapidly worsening, according to diplomats, who have seen him recently. "He may be getting Alzheimer's – he periodically forgets things; he recently asked where several officers were, all of whom were sacked last year during the mass retirements of middle ranking officers," according to a government source in Naypyitaw.
"He's rapidly going senile, and now has increasing heart problems," according to another government source. He already suffers from chronic diabetes and has regular bouts of hypertension. Several years ago he also suffered a mild stroke. Now with heart coronary problems and dementia, he is becoming increasingly incapacitated.
He is expected to travel to Singapore this month for heart surgery, after Singaporean doctors had been travelling to remote Nay Pyi Daw in recent months to keep him going (he doesn't trust Burmese doctors). Fittingly perhaps, the Singapore government has been the only one to gush over the great progress of the referendum and election announcement. He evidently doesn't even trust Tyrants Number Two and Three of his own SPADCO, with mutual suspicion and jealousy fueling an ongoing three-way feud between them.
An anonymous "major Burmese businessman" told Mizzima that "Burma remains a social volcano about to erupt." If there is a campaign for the military's new constitution over the next few months, and if it contains what their "guidelines" have said it will -- permanent military control, military veto over anything, a quarter of parliament reserved for the military, and Aung San Suu Kyi banned from participating because her late husband was an Englishman -- then this campaign may well be the trigger to set off that volcano. Again.