Emerging State-Society Relations in Burma: A Chance for Reform?

June 27, 2011

Washington, DC

In November of 2010 Burma’s long-ruling military junta held the first multiparty elections in two decades.  The previous elections in 1990 witnessed a roughly two-thirds vote in favor of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the 1988 student demonstrations opposed to the previous regime of General Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).  The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), then in power in Burma, denied the NLD a transfer of power and imprisoned countless opposition leaders.  The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, formerly SLORC) hailed the 2010 elections as a path forward to “discipline flourishing democracy” under a civilian government, though Western observers and Burmese exile groups largely decried the elections as a ruse to keep Senior General Than Shwe in power[1].

The 2010 elections was a highly ordered process of regime consolidation vis-à-vis a partial withdrawal of military officers from direct political power.  The shift to a new political apparatus represented an “elite collective action,” to borrow Dan Slater’s phrase, most importantly one that was non-threatening to those with a concentration of power and resources at the state center.[2]  The 1990 elections had left an indelible mark on state-society relations in Burma, and the outright NLD victory was a mistake the military was unwilling to repeat by allowing any genuine space for political opposition.  Moreover, the enduring institutional links created by nearly half a century of military rule had a large impact on the process and outcome of the 2010 elections.

Burma has had numerous elections of different types and at different times in its political history.  To say that Burma does not have a strong historical precedent for free and fair elections would be simplistic and dismissive of past examples.  To point to a trend line—have elections gradually become more transparent? have they extended access to power to more people? or have they concentrated power in the hands of a few?—is more complicated, however, especially considering the more uneven political terrain in Burma under military dictatorship since 1962.

On the one hand, authoritarian elections are a way to contest the powers that be and open up a degree of power sharing to other political parties (access to power); on the other hand, the authoritarian regime strictly controls the electoral process and the rules of the game (exercise of power).  The rules surrounding power and the conception of power itself thereby change during and through the electoral process.[3]

The SPDC forced a constitutional referendum in May 2008 to establish the framework for the next elections and subsequent transfer of power on their terms.  The 2010 electoral laws made sure both to invite electoral participation by political parties and to undercut mass mobilization by any significant coalition against the USDP.

The regime navigated the 2010 elections along with a forced constitutional referendum in such a way that neither event would pose a serious challenge to the authority of the state elites, whose security remains more or less guaranteed by enduring political loyalties and economic links to key power holders.  At the same time, the generals had to put on just enough airs of democratic intentions to gather a degree—however slight—of international credibility.  In the most cynical sense, it appears they succeeded brilliantly in this guided political transition.

As the regime began to privatize the economy in the 1990s/2000s, power and resources began to decentralize while forging connections between military and civilian elites who are able to find common ground in developing their nation’s economy.  At the same time, the military has ceded some local authority to civil society actors with a humanitarian agenda as long as they are willing to engage with the regime and operate within the system.  This nascent elite network has grown from the election’s transition to parliamentary government as well as the spur of foreign investment from the likes of China and Thailand.

The new parliamentary government has yet to demonstrate substantial political reforms, but subsequent elections will no doubt reflect 2010’s precedent and build on the coalitions that are now operating.  It is therefore critical to understand the power dynamics and stakeholders in contemporary Burma in order to know what developments to expect on the horizon and to identify responsible partners for engagement.

[1] Conversely, China and Russia (not surprisingly) abstained from a UN resolution to condemn Burma’s elections as unfair, and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan defended the elections as “credible and transparent”.  BBC, “UN Condemns Burma’s Human Rights and ‘Unfair’ Elections,” Nov. 18, 2010; Saw Yan Naing, “Burmese Elections Expected to Be Credible: Asean Secretary,” The Irrawaddy, Feb. 24, 2010.

[2] Dan Slater, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[3] In Burma, the military regime withheld the dissemination of election laws until March and closely managed the registration of political parties and media coverage, thereby creating favorable conditions for the incumbents.  See Ashley South, “Burma’s Electoral Dilemmas,” The World Today (2010), 27.

This entry was posted in Burma/Myanmar, Civil Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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