By David Henry Poveter >>>
The new nominally elected government of Myanmar has made recent headlines by freeing and trying to accommodate previously jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. President Thein Sein's government is clearly trying to legitimize his "democratic" regime by showing to its people and international observers that he is willing to work with the pro-democracy leader and trying to ameliorate the country's reputation as a serial violator of human rights.
Although these changes are recent and might be another facade of openness to gain international support for its new government, there is great potential for Myanmar to actually move toward its own style of democracy. Indeed, if Myanmar continues its transformation and normalizes its behavior enough to be recognized as the sole legitimate authority in the country, it could actually one day become a "real" democracy.
After the international outcry of the "Depaying massacre" in 2003, when a group of thugs attacked Suu Kyi's convoy and killed many of her supporters, Myanmar's military government revealed its "seven step roadmap" toward democracy, which was meant to serve as a transitional guideline from military to civilian rule.
The roadmap outlined seven stages, namely:
1. The establishment of a National Convention to draft a new constitution.
2. Proposal of steps needed to establish a democracy after the National Convention was concluded.
3. Drafting of a constitution based on the principles laid down by the National Convention.
4. A national referendum to approve the new charter.
5. Election of a democratically representative government.
6. Convention of parliament.
7. Building of a modern, developed and democratic nation by the newly elected parliamentarians.
After the 2008 constitutional referendum, stage-managed general elections were held in November last year. The military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won 883 (or 76.5%) of the 1,154 seats at stake. This majority, combined with the 25% of the seats reserved for the military as stipulated by the 2008 constitution, means that the military's USDP dominates the newly convened parliament, known as the Hluttaw, and has the numbers to unilaterally amend the constitution. All that is left is the seventh and arguably most difficult step, to build a modern, democratic nation.
With six of the seven steps now accomplished, it is important to elaborate on a few points. Firstly, the 2008 constitution establishes a set of new institutions, including a parliamentary elected president, a bicameral parliament, and 14 regional governments. It also calls for regular elections and the presence of several political parties to contest them. In theory, at least, the interplay of these institutions differs substantially from the previous centralized military regime. Since these institutions are still very much new, it will be interesting to see how the new balance of power is established.
Secondly, the government has shown certain signs of reconciliation. A week after the November 2010 elections, the junta released pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi after having detained her for 15 of the past 21 years. Furthermore, Kim Aris, one of Suu Kyi's sons who lives in the United Kingdom, was issued a visa allowing him to visit his mother for the first time in over a decade. In May 2011, Thein Sein's government freed 14,600 prisoners, among them a small number of political detainees. (Rights groups estimate there are still over 2,100 political prisoners being held in Myanmar.)
Moreover, in July, Suu Kyi was allowed to visit the ancient city of Bagan on a private pilgrimage. A month later, she made her first political trip outside Yangon to Bago, about 80 kilometers north of the old capital. During her trip, she delivered a speech to more than 600 people in which she proclaimed cooperation with Myanmar's government by stating that "unity is strength, unity is needed everywhere and it is needed especially in our country". A week later, Suu Kyi met for the first time with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the new capital.
Seeing Suu Kyi free and travelling around the country is an image that seemed unfathomable only a year ago, when she was still under house arrest. But even if these changes are only a facade and the new opening is quickly closed, for now it appears that Myanmar's new government has broken somewhat from the previous junta's iron-fisted approach.
These gestures have established a new platform from which democratic changes could become a reality and democratic ideologies could grow. Morten Pedersen, a research fellow at the Center for International Governance & Justice in Australia, argues that "formal institutions, once established, have a tendency to change the interest of the people involved, to become new power centers, and ultimately become 'real'." Taking that analysis forward, the newly established institutions combined with a more reconciliation-minded government is moving towards a unique, Myanmar-style of democracy.
At the same time, the government is looking outward and trying to legitimize its regime to the international community. In this direction, the government has expressed its desire to take up the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, a prestigious position that would bolster the country's credibility not just among regional neighbors but also the wider international community as well.
Now that its political party has been nominally elected, the previous junta is bidding to normalize its behavior in regard to both internal and external issues. Even if these changes prove more cosmetic than substantive, the fact that Suu Kyi has been liberated, that her son has been allowed to visit her, and that she is holding political meetings means for now change is in the air.
If Myanmar's "democratic developments" continue to gain international credibility and legitimacy, then the positive momentum could eventually push the country towards genuine democracy. If Myanmar manages to establish a democracy that can bring peace and stability within its own borders, the governments of the world will have no other choice but to recognize and accept Myanmar's unique roadmap toward democracy.
David Henry Poveter, a pseudonym, is an independent strategic analyst based in Shanghai.
Credit : Asia Times