‘A Virgin Soil Upturned’


By convening the new ‘Hluttaw’, Burma enters a new era of ‘democratic terror’, which will see many errors in implementation as well as the manipulation of power. The new cabinet is appraised as a coalition in US federal government style in some news journals from Rangoon. For me, it is handpicked bunch of managers for the army state. My former professor from medical school, together with a crony contractor and a peanut oil trader will now sworn in as union ministers among ex-generals-turned-MPs. Even at the level of local government, there is hardly any difference from the days of the bygone junta’s ruling clique. The battles with the remaining ethnic armed forces will be resumed again as the new puppet state heads in ethnic areas are so figureless. There is no political space achieved for confronting ethnics like Karen, Kachin, Kayah and Wa; polling could not proceed in many areas. We are witnessing an implantation of Deng’s succession line in volatile Burma, rather than symptoms of General Franco’s departure.

Not even a single sign of democratic achievement is visibe as yet. Instead, the focus has been on the arrest of an Australian journalist who owned part of the Myanmar Times, an outlet of the regime media. The new republic of the Union of Myanmar resembles the first republic of Burma in the 1950s, except that the head of state is a puppet president with a power base in the army. Looking closer, you may see the kind of vote rigging and manipulation by pro-government militias in the recent elections as having worrisome resemblance to the parliamentary era. Filling the cabinet posts with ex-generals and loyal civil officials also reminds me of the forming Caretaker regime in the 1958 ‘constitutional coup’ by the Burma Army. The army seems to have as little faith in power-sharing as in the 1960s and to have therefore decided that political proxies should take over. Meanwhile, Burmese technocrats are easily manipulated.

Recent rumours of a (limited) reshuffling of the top brass in the new cabinet and the following rise of both the gold price and the US dollar exchange rates suggests that what we see is not a decent regime change. At the same time, it is difficult to know how long Than Shwe will hold the reins of power. Though we can see exile websites listing news on Facebook of the generals’ kids and daring Rangoonians, it is too early to say whether a democratic dawn has broken. Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers are targeted in the state media on a daily basis but any internet-based revolution is too abstract given the mighty army. People are counting the remaining days of her outside activities and the junta’s mercy is measured in terms of fostering new business with the regional neighbours. The case of Burma is an example of failing western theories on democratisation. The Burmese people are still on their Odyssey to Democracy, while envying Facebook revolutions in the Middle East.


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