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Observations of an Expat: A Sad Burmese Tale

Observations of an Expat - A Sad Burmese TaleThe military claimed the election had been “stolen”. They tried to bully the electoral commission into reversing the result. When that failed they marched on parliament. Sound familiar so far? Backed up with tanks and guns, the generals arrested the NLD politicians and returned Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest.

By Tom Arms

This week’s coup in Myanmar (aka Burma) is a warning of the dangers of Faustian pacts between politicians and the military.

To be fair, the political maneuverability of human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi was severely limited. Her country had been under a brutal military regime for nearly half a century when she started talks with the generals.  And she was negotiating while under house arrest.

But the government which eventually resulted in multi-party general elections in 2015 and again last November was neither political fish nor fowl and thus inherently unstable. The Tatmadaw (the military’s name for itself) called the result a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”

The new constitution allowed multi-party elections, but 25 percent of the seats were reserved for the military’s political vehicle the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); which had a blocking vote because major legislation required a three-quarters majority.

In addition, the cabinet portfolios of defence, border security and home affairs were held by serving military officers.  The military also appointed two of the vice presidents. Ms. Suu Kyi was specifically barred from the presidency by constitutional clause which said no one married to a non-Burmese citizen or who had non-Burmese children could hold the top job. Aung San Suu Kyi was married to a British subject and had British children.

The generals were the real power in the land. The problem was that they craved political legitimacy; and Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) repeatedly thwarted them by winning landslide victories.  The latest was in November when the NLD secured 86 percent of the elected seats in parliament. The USDP won a derisory seven percent.

The military claimed the election had been “stolen”. They tried to bully the electoral commission into reversing the result. When that failed they marched on parliament. Sound familiar so far? Backed up with tanks and guns, the generals arrested the NLD politicians and returned Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest.

The generals had hoped that blocking Ms. Suu Kyi from the presidency and her lack of government experience would lead to her failure that would strengthen the USDP. She started by confounding them over the leadership issue. Barred from the presidency, Ms. Suu Kyi created the post of “state counsellor” which she said was above the presidency.

But the generals appeared to be right in Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of government experience. She failed miserably to negotiate an end to the long-standing civil wars which has plagued the country since 1948, with several ethnic factions fighting the dominate Burmese-speakers for autonomy or outright independence.

The ethnic problem was highlighted by Ms. Suu Kyi’s failure to control the Tatmadaw from waging virtual genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. Her defence of the Burmese military before the International Court of Justice caused Ms. Suu Kyi to fall from the human rights pedestal on which Western liberals had placed her.

Suu Kyi’s handling of the economy was too little too late. Under her government the economy grew at about 6.5 percent a year, but it needed growth of well over 10 percent to make up for decades of mismanagement.

Before independence in 1948, Burma was one of the richest countries in Asia. The country was—and still is—awash in oil, natural gas, minerals and precious gemstones. But its long and repressive military dictatorship resulted in sanctions, lack of foreign investment and international isolation which destroyed the colonial economy. Myanmar’s per capita income is £1,298 per annum compared to $6,502 in neighboring Thailand.

All this led the military to believe that they had a chance of at the very least making a substantial dent in the NLD’s substantial majority in the elected parliamentary seats. But the November elections only increased the NLD’s position. Democracy had failed the generals, so they staged their coup, put Aung San Suu Kyi back under house arrest and returned to the tried and tested military dictatorship.

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About the Author

Tom Arms Journalist Sindh CourierTom Arms is the London-based American foreign affairs journalist. He has nearly half a century’s experience of world affairs, and has written and broadcast for American, British and Commonwealth outlets. Positions he held included foreign correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, foreign editor, editor and founding CEO of an international diary news service. He is the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War,” “The Falklands Crisis” and “World Elections on File.” His new book “America: Made in Britain” is expected this year.
{The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Sindh Courier}

 

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