New Parliament, same story

After more than two decades, Burma convened its new Parliament on January 31, 2011, led by former Prime Minister Thein Sein as President. Though Mr Sein retired from the military in April 2010 to contest elections as a “civilian”, he is still strongly backed by the military, and his party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is backed by the military junta.

This shift, therefore, does not indicate critical leadership change that was expected after the elections in November 2010.
Although the convening of Parliament and the fact that Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi continues to engage in her official work can be seen as a microstep forward for a system that has remained opaque for over four decades, its real impact is negligible. It does not highlight in any way a willingness on the part of the junta to relinquish the reins of power and allow a democratic transition.
The elections that resulted in the USDP winning about 80 per cent of the seats hardly had any Opposition. Opening up elections to multiple parties did not produce any effective challenge to the USDP as the only party that could have challenged the junta was Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) which boycotted the elections. In fact, the question of participation in the elections itself led to internal division of the NLD. The faction that supported participation merged with five other smaller parties to form what came to be known as the National Democratic Front (NDF). This loose knit grouping today has little voice as the Opposition in Burma. Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD was barred from elections. And since her release in November 2010, there has been little clarity on how she plans to take on the junta and press for democratic changes in Burma.
The elections and the new Parliament raise several questions for the international community. The West, particularly the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, have adopted sanctions as a method of dealing with the intransigence of the military junta. However, it is evident that the sanctions have had little impact on the Burmese rulers. If sanctions have had an impact at all, it has been on the Burmese people who remain impoverished. In fact, it is the junta that initiated opening up of the economic front. Burma’s integration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and closer ties with both China and India have pushed the development agenda in Burma and this brought in investment from the region. Southeast Asia has several examples where a rigid political system has coexisted with a liberal economy.
Today, however, the West is beginning to question the validity of sanctions. Sanctions have rarely worked in altering the domestic scenarios, forget initiating a transition to democracy. In fact, dictatorships and authoritarian regimes thrive even with the imposition of sanctions.
The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which strongly favoured sanctions, is now divided because countries like France and Germany have begun to have economic engagement with Burma. And the message from the Obama administration is that sanctions must be re-evaluated and options to engage with Burma need to be explored. 
At the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Lombok (Indonesia) last month, the ministers took a positive view of the November elections in Burma and stated that the time has come for sanctions to go. Leaders stated that the elections and release of Ms Suu Kyi critically demonstrated the seriousness of the junta to bring about political transition.
But, interestingly, neither of the two groups — the ones that advocate sanctions and those who talk of engagement — have made any headway with Burma’s military junta.
The impact of both these groups on the junta’s ability to bring about change is negligible. If any option can work, it has to be one that does not support sanctions. Only engagement with the junta can create space for an economically viable middle class which can then demand political participation. Real change in Burma must, and will, come from within, from an empowered Burmese society and polity. It is only then that the change will be enduring and long term.
After the elections, there is a division between Burma’s older and newer leadership as they hold divergent views on reform and political change.
This new development is being spoken of as a “civilianised” military. This is a first step towards evolving a new framework for transition and is indicative of a minute change. If this can cause some degree of split within the military and the USDP, it will challenge the cohesiveness of the military. Such a split will be critical in realigning the priorities of the younger leadership. This has happened in other military regimes in Southeast Asia. In fact, in Indonesia this critical factor led to the collapse of Suharto in 1998. Burma, which draws heavily from the Indonesian example, could well follow suit if this schism were to deepen.
Also, the 2008 Constitution, which is seen as regressive by many and reserves 25 per cent of the seats for the military, needs to be revised. It currently allows for Parliament to be dissolved and Emergency powers to be declared with just consultation between the President, the Commander in Chief of the armed forces and the ministers for defence and home affairs. So despite the Constitution, the authority remains vested in a few hands. 
The NLD in its current state can do little to challenge the junta. Since her release, Ms Suu Kyi has spoken of national reconciliation and the need to negotiate with the junta. However, she and the NLD remain debarred from political processes. While she asked the international community at Davos to responsibly invest within Burma, especially in the fields of technology and infrastructure, domestically her continued political response has been towards achieving national reconciliation. Creating a space for her pleas must come from within Burma.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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