Two days ago on The Diplomat, resident Southeast Asia analyst and leftist Filipino congressman Mong Palatino wrote about how the recent changes in Myanmar– the promulgation of a new constitution, the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the election of a new parliament– were nothing but a charade. “Burma’s junta leaders delivered what could probably be the political masterstroke of 2010 in the Southeast Asia region: Obscure the continuing military dictatorship in the country by releasing from detention a global democracy icon and conducting nationwide polls,” he said.
Indeed, it is obvious that the ruling generals are the biggest winners of this political kabuki. One, they were able keep their hold on power by having their own dummies elected to the new parliament and by constitutionalizing the status of the military as a major political player. Two, by releasing Suu Kyi and by promulgating a new, dummy Republic– the country was given a new Constitution, a new flag and a new official name– the Junta was able to get some, if only a few, amount of political capital. On the other hand, the opponents of the regime, both local and international, have lost vital ammunition.
But what Palatino failed to emphasize, and what many critics of the regime in Nyawpyitaw don’t seem to understand, is that this political victory of the Junta is, to a very large extent, partly a product of Suu Kyi and her NLD’s shortsightedness. They shouldn’t have boycotted the 2010 elections.
In 1984, a year after the assassination of her husband, Philippine democracy icon Cory Aquino decided to join the parliamentary election that everyone knew would be rigged by the Marcos machinery. “I was warned by the lawyers of the opposition that I ran the grave risk of legitimizing the foregone results of elections that were clearly going to be fraudulent,” shesaid. “But I was not fighting for lawyers but for the people in whose intelligence, I had implicit faith. By the exercise of democracy even in a dictatorship, they would be prepared for democracy when it came.” This should have been Suu Kyi’s principle as well when the Junta called for elections last November.
Proponents of Burmese democracy must understand that not everything should be in black and white. Their ends would be better achieved if they learn to operate out of pragmatic considerations. As Nyunt Shwe, a former member of the NLD who opposed the election boycott, wrote seven months ago: “Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues have suffered much abuse and confinement. But just having the courage to bear and confront the oppression cannot define the leadership. Politics is never static.”
Of course, it would be best if the Junta would selflessly give up their position and establish a functioning democracy right away. But we should be realistic here; no military regime has ever given up power and instituted outright democratization out of pure altruism. The only exception was the National Salvation Junta of Portugal, but that junta was composed of idealistic young officers, not corrupt generals, and it came to power through the popular Carnation Revolution. In the case of Myanmar, its generals will institute democratization only if they can ensure that they would have room to save their faces. Or their asses and their assets, for that matter.
This doesn’t mean, however, that whatever openings any military regime allows would not help the cause of democracy. Far from it. If a military regime decides to replace itself with a parliamentary dictatorship with democratic facade, it usually means that that regime is ready allow liberalizations that are at first limited but could eventually help usher in a real, albeit long, transition to democracy.
Take the case of Chile for example. When Augusto Pinochet promulgated a constitution in 1980, many pointed out that it was, like the new Myanmar constitution, undemocratic. But it did provide for a framework that allowed the anti-Pinochet opposition to consolidate itself politically. When Pinochet finally called for a referendum on his regime in 1987, the opposition won and he had to step down. Today, Chile is a functioning democracy, something that would not have happened had the anti-Pinochet opposition decide to stick to civil resistance instead of adopting a dual-track policy of civil opposition on one hand and political engagement with the Pinochet regime on the other.
Joining the elections last November could have been win-win for the NLD. True, Suu Kyi wasn’t allowed to run; but she could have appointed deputies that could have ran on her behalf. Should the Junta rig the vote, the NLD can still show that it has at least the goodwill to offer the Junta, which would earn it more points from a propaganda point of view. And even if the party loses an election seen as illegitimate, it can still hold some seats in parliament and from there challenge the ruling establishment through legal political means. This would have ensured that the NLD would be in a better position to be a player in Burmese politics, both through civil resistance if it still sees it fit and through the framework of party politics.
This would have ensured that even though the generals would still call the shots, they would not be the only player in the new government set-up. The NLD would have a voice, however small, within the process.
The reality is that, as our Chile example proves, democratization doesn’t always happen the way the Western media wants it to happen: through a velvet revolution. Though these kinds of revolutions are always desirable, they can be elusive. For them to come about, several variables must be present. These variables include the powder keg and the spark. The powder keg are those that can be indirect causes of a velvet revolution while the spark would be the direct cause- that one defining moment that would cause spontaneous outrage among the people strong enough for them to overcome their fear of the regime. In the Philippines, for instance, the abuses of the Marcos regime were the powder keg while the assassination of Ninoy Aquino was the spark that led to the Edsa People Power Revolution of 1986. In Myanmar, the Junta doesn’t seem to be stupid enough to have Suu Kyi assassinated.
As Nyunt Shwe said: “The mutual trust now lacking between the military regime and civil politicians can only be developed by engagement. This is the only option we have now.”