The meaning of Burma’s elections

April 10, 2012

Elections on April 1 in Burma, known as Myanmar by its military rulers, produced a sweeping victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The election for a newly formed parliament only involved 45 seats--around 7 percent of the total, but the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats for which it stood a candidate.

Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years under house arrest because of her pro-democracy views. Her first house arrest began even before her party won Burma's 1990 general elections. Since then, she has became one of the world's best-known political prisoners.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai dissident who was accused of "lese majesty"--essentially, not being loyal to the king--and forced to flee the country in 2009. Here, he offers a critical assessment of the Burmese military's attempt to use the veneer of democracy to establish legitimacy for its continued rule.

ELECTIONS UNDER capitalist democracy never lead to state power changing hands because many important elements of the capitalist state are not subject to elections or even accountability. For example, we never get to elect capitalists who make important investment decisions that affect millions of people's lives. In addition to this, judges, military and police commanders, top civil servants and those who control the media are never elected.

But that does not mean that we should ignore elections. Elections are important political events that can be used to advertise policies, can give encouragement, and can be used to mobilize activists outside parliament.

For these reasons, the elections in Burma in April were extremely important for the democratic movement. They were an opportunity for thousands of Burmese, and other nationalities in the country, to show their dissatisfaction and opposition to the military dictatorship by voting for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) and other opposition and ethnic parties.

Aung San Suu Kyi speaking to supporters in March
Aung San Suu Kyi speaking to supporters in March

However, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that these elections are a "first step" in some top-down-designed "road map" towards democracy. Instead, they are a desperate attempt by the Burmese junta to find legitimacy for the continuation of the dictatorship. No doubt the generals were well aware of the uprisings in the Middle East and needed to shore up their own authoritarian rule.

The current constitution, which was written by the military in 2008 in order to protect its power in society, stipulates that 25 percent of the 664 seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament are reserved for appointed military officers. That is even before any elections take place. The military organized dirty elections in 2010 and ensured that its party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, occupied most seats. The elections this year were for only 45 seats.

In addition to this, the government has no power to control the Burmese military (Tatmadaw). The top brass have the right, according to the constitution, to appoint the interior, defense and border ministers and to sack the government and take over, if there are any "threats to stability." Many clauses in the constitution are designed to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies from holding high office, and the militarization of ethnic border areas is guaranteed. There is no room for self-determination by ethnic groups, which make up a sizable proportion of the population.

SO THESE elections were designed by the Burmese junta as a pretend "festival of democracy" in order to strengthen permanent military rule and in order to pave the way for Western governments to find an excuse to end Burma's international isolation. Unfortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi is going along with this charade by stressing the need for "reconciliation" with the military.

In neighboring Thailand, the Peua Thai government, elected by millions of pro-democracy Red Shirts last year, is also singing the song of "reconciliation with the military." This means that the Thai generals will not be prosecuted for killing unarmed demonstrators in 2010, political prisoners will remain in jail, and the government is increasing the use of the draconian "lese majesty" law in order to persecute activists.

Right-wing analysts always state that democratic transition comes from the actions of the ruling elites and Western governments "designing" gradual steps towards democracy. We can see what this means in the case of Iraq or Afghanistan. Western rulers do not give a fig about democracy and human rights. What they, and authoritarian governments like China, want to stress is "stability" for making profits with a thin veneer of legitimacy thrown in for good measure.

Socialists believe that democracy is won by mass movements from below, like the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. Aung San Suu Kyi's election victory is to be welcomed. But it will only translate into a genuine victory for democracy if Suu Kyi and the NLD use this golden opportunity to start to mobilize the pro-democracy activists outside parliament in order to overthrow the military dictatorship.

Unfortunately, Suu Kyi has a history, dating back to the great uprising of 8-8-88, of demobilizing mass movements in order to channel political activity into parliament. The task of organizing a real struggle against the military will have to be carried out by activists independently of the NLD.

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