Burma’s junta leaders delivered what could probably be the political masterstroke of 2010 in the South-east Asia region: Obscure the continuing military dictatorship in the country by releasing from detention a global democracy icon and conducting nationwide polls.
Despite its new name (Republic of the Union of Burma) and the inauguration of a new republic with its elected parliament deputies, Burma is in reality still the same old Burma where democracy, freedom and human rights are rigidly defined in favour of the interests of the ruling junta.
But the old generals were wise to adorn the rebranded republic with some democratic trappings since they can use the image of a new Burma to convince the international community—especially the business sector—that substantive positive changes are finally taking place in the country.
Through this genius political maneuver, the generals and their favoured cronies could continue hoarding the nation’s wealth and silencing the organized opposition while proclaiming to the whole world that Western-style democracy is beginning to work again in Burma.
What happened in Burma in 2010—or, to be more precise, what appeared to have changed in Burma last year—was a smart repackaging of an old and discredited political order. The ‘old’ was remodeled to become the ‘new old’. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her house prison so that she could enter a bigger prison. Election results were pre-determined by the same people who stole Burma’s democracy more than 20 years ago. The elected parliament members were high-ranking members of the military.
It was as if Burma's citizens were forced to choose between two bad options in 2010: Continue to suffer under the military-backed regime or elect the candidates appointed by the junta so that the people of Burma can at least suffer under a government with some semblance of democratic aspirations.
And the junta’s deception succeeded for two reasons: One, Suu Kyi’s decision to boycott the elections fragmented her party, which crippled the chances of the opposition. Second, the political strategy adopted by the junta is a popular tactic in the playbook of political parties and politicians, especially in South-east Asia.
If Western critics were to expose the sham democracy in Burma, the junta leaders could always claim that their brand of democracy is no different from the other democracies in the region. In Burma, there’s no freedom of the press; there’s no genuine opposition party; and there’s no accountability of public officials. But these democratic deficiencies could also apply in some degree or other to Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia. Singapore has, after all, been dominated by a single party in the past 50 years, censorship prevails in Cambodia and political accountability is weak in Malaysia.
In previous years, Burma couldn’t easily brush off accusations that it doesn’t uphold democracy because there was a clear military dictatorship in the country. But today, a military that continues to dominate the government can reason that democratic institutions are actually already in place. Furthermore, the elections that were held were monitored by foreign observers and diplomats. The country’s most famous political prisoner is now free. And even the flag of the republic is new.
So how should the international community deal with Burma? Should it welcome the new republic and christen it as the newest and youngest democracy in the world? Or should it support the pro-democracy movement both inside and outside Burma as it continues to struggle for real reforms?
These questions are not difficult to answer since it’s obvious that nothing fundamental has really changed in Burma other than the fact that the situation there has deteriorated because of the two strong typhoons that hit the country in 2008 and 2010.
But maybe what the consistent critics of Burma should also reflect upon is the valid objection raised by the junta about our eagerness to punish the country for betraying the democratic enterprise while pretending to be blind to the similar crimes of Burma’s neighbours. Maybe it’s time to stop designating the Burmese government as some kind of supreme evil that must be fought so that we can objectively redistribute our rage to other anti-democratic governments in the region.
That said, showing solidarity to battling Burmese citizens should remain an urgent political task for all pro-democracy advocates. And this means, first of all, unmasking the real power behind the newly elected government of the Republic of the Union of Burma.