Burma: the eye of the needle
The Guardian: When authoritarian rulers embrace reform they almost always do so in the hope of retaining power rather than transferring it. At most, they are ready to share it only so long as they can keep ultimate control behind the scenes. Real change comes, if it does, when events later slip out of the grasp of those trying to manipulate them. That was the story in South Africa, in post-Franco Spain, and in Russia and eastern Europe, for example. It seems to be the story, too, in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, and it is the story in Burma today.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s clean sweep in a raft of byelections at the weekend could come to be seen as the first step toward a full democratisation of Burma. Or it could turn out to be part of yet another attempt by the Burmese elite to co-opt and use the opposition. This is not necessarily to decry the sincerity of President Thein Sein. He seems to be an intelligent man who has understood that Burma under the generals has failed to deal effectively with its problems of ethnic division, unbalanced development and corruption. In addition, the country has drifted into an overdependence on Chinese aid and investment that offends patriotic Burmese. The government faces a discontented and disillusioned population angry at the lack of freedom and the extent of poverty in a country rich in natural resources.
Most Burmese have withdrawn from the sham that political life had become, and a pseudo-democratic makeover 18 months ago made things, if anything, worse. Freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and bringing her back into politics was an attempt to repair this situation. If Thein Sein wants to go further, with Suu Kyi’s help, so that by the time Burma goes into a general election in 2015 it will be a real contest, he will have to disturb vested interests that have grown ever more entrenched since the original military takeover a half-century ago.
Out of the Burmese officer corps was born a new class that dominates not only the armed forces but the government, the civil and diplomatic services, and much of economic life. It includes many who have blood on their hands and many who have systematically raided public funds and expropriated national resources. These people want both to retain their privileges and to avoid retribution. Naturally, they want Thein Sein to secure their privileges rather than to reduce them.
The question before Thein Sein and Suu Kyi is thus whether there can be, in Burma, a negotiated revolution of the kind that in, for example, South Africa or Poland brought fundamental change without serious violence. Western countries should thus send a signal of approval by ending minor sanctions but keeping in place the major ones, notably on the use of the US dollar, until very much more progress has been conclusively demonstrated.