With Burmese business and military leaders under trade sanctions and an arms embargo by the United States and the European Union, the junta generals orchestrated a transition to a civilian government that functioned as a front organisation, not an opposition party.
The Burmese military junta that has run the country since 1962 pulled off a masterful public relations extravaganza in November 2015 when Aung San Suu Kyi was elected the head of a new civilian government. She was a democracy icon known as “the Mandela of Asia” and the holder of dozens of international honorifics as a champion of human rights, including the Nobel Peace Prize. The transition to an apparently quasi-civilian government was in the works since 2010 when the junta had Thein Sein—the country’s fourth highest-ranking general—resign his military post to run as a civilian in their new political front group called the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The reason for the electoral charade is that Burma and many of its generals and business figures were under trade sanctions—the US had an entire list of individuals which it kept adding to—and an arms embargo by the United States and the European Union. To get the sanctions removed, the junta generals orchestrated a transition to a civilian government that functioned as a front organisation, not an opposition party. It wasn’t a particularly believable transition with General Thein Sein running the show but the US and EU chose to play stupid for the junta, because it served their economic and military interests. The military was introducing neoliberal scorched earth economic policies in mining, oil and gas exploration as well as other industries—and the US and EU wanted in on the operations. During the sanctions, Burma was forced to rely on China and Russia for arms, and had also developed extensive joint enterprises with China in mining and oil exploration in Burma. This was a time when, on one hand, the US was building up its forces and military collaborations in South Asia as a counterbalance to China; on the other hand, it was facing growing competition with China and Russia in Venezuela, Syria, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
Going along with the charade, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama both paid high-profile visits to Burma, during Thein Sein’s presidential tenure, including pilgrimages to Aung San Suu Kyi, to legitimise the so-called transition to civilian government. Clinton was there in November 2011; Obama in November 2012 and again in November 2014. When Obama visited in 2012, it was during the height of a military onslaught against the Rohingya in the Arakan state. When he was criticised by human rights advocates, he responded: “If we waited to engage until they achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.” The issue, of course, was not a perfect democracy but genocide, which the US and EU turned a blind eye to, in order to cash in on the neoliberal plunder of Burma impoverishing most Burmese. The US began lifting sanctions piecemeal beginning in 2013, and, by 2016, all that was left was the arms embargo. The EU removed all sanctions in 2013, except for the arms embargo but European countries continue to play military footsie with the junta, touring the generals through arms factories while the UK is engaged in military training of Burmese troops.
As the 2015 candidate for the National League for Democracy party (NLD), an “opposition” party formed in 1988 by former military officers, Suu Kyi rendered legitimacy to the transition that was heralded or at least hoped would be a reversal of everything military rule had stood for since 1962: political repression, the gulag, civil wars with ethnic groups, religious persecution and apartheid policies towards the Rohingya, forced labour, mass rapes by the military, land confiscations, and so on. The candidate she opposed was the incumbent, retired general Thein Sein. There were many problems with these “free and credible” elections. One is that the NLD, Suu Kyi’s party, would not allow Muslim members to run as candidates. But the biggest problem, other than their fraudulence, is that the junta excluded nearly five-million Burmese from voting, including all of the 1.5 million Rohingya Muslims denied citizenship and all civil and democratic rights in Burma, and 2.5 million people from other ethnic groups. Suu Kyi and the NLD won in a landslide but, of course, if the junta had wanted her to lose, she would have lost in a landslide. They could have stolen the election just as easily as they did the one in 2010, according to international observers. There was nothing democratic about the elections. They were an elaborate bait and switch operation to get rid of sanctions because direct military rule jeopardised foreign investments.
Suu Kyi and the NLD are not locked in a power-sharing relationship with military officials. The junta is still in full control. It is impossible to eliminate military rule in Burma without overthrowing and dismantling the military establishment down to the last foot soldier, along with most the government bureaucracy and civil service. The junta controls everything in Burma. When the military took power in a coup in 1962, it not only took control over the government but also the economy. That’s why it can be called a fascist dictatorship. There are no enterprises operated independent of the military. From banking to drug trafficking, timber, mining, oil and gas exploration, import and export, construction, the military is directly in control—or indirectly—through businessmen and tycoons related by family or sycophancy to the generals. Most of the projects Burma has with China, India, or other countries are joint venture partnerships with the military. The capitalist economy of Burma is completely militarised. It’s impossible to do business or function politically in Burma if you don’t have connections to the junta.
After the military took over, it also replaced the old civil service with an extensive, centralised bureaucracy called the General Administration Department (GAD) controlled, of course, by the army. It has not been reformed under the civilian government charade and is still controlled by the military through a cabinet position headed by a military officer. The GAD is the very apparatus of military administration because it is where the Tatmadaw (army) cannot be. Its extensive reach includes coordination between 36 government ministries and civil service operations in about 64,000 villages in the country where it serves many functions, including land management, but, most importantly, surveillance and political control of the population. One cannot hope to overcome military rule without dismantling the GAD down to the last operation in the smallest village.
During the six-year tenure of President Thein Sien, his cabinet comprised almost entirely of military officials. The few that were not were associated with the military in some way—either through family or business. The present cabinet of Suu Kyi and the NLD is comprised mainly of civilians with several places reserved for and chosen by the military—like the ministry that controls the GAD. But if you go through the personnel, starting with the civilian president and two vice-presidents, there are no degrees of separation from the junta.
President Htin Kyaw, handpicked by Suu Kyi, is a civilian but his father-in-law was one of the military officers who formed the NLD. Myint Swe, the First Vice President was a general for nearly 40 years and notoriously one of the most corrupt and ruthless figures in Burmese politics. Henry Van Thio, the Second Vice President is also a former military officer. Suu Kyi herself is the daughter of Aung San who formed the Burmese army and of Khin Kyi who served as a foreign diplomat for the junta in the 1960s.
The real body that controls Burmese politics, the highest authority in the government is the eleven-member National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) headed by Senior General and Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. He’s the key figure in the Rohingya genocide and has been since 2011 when he took over the military. He presides over one of the largest military forces in the world: 425,000 army and navy personnel combined with a population of 51.5 million. The only civilian members of the NDSC are Suu Kyi and two lawyers who belong to the NLD—unless one considers the two Burmese vice presidents, both former military officers, to be civilians. When Rohingya activists and Burmese dissidents say Suu Kyi is a partner in genocide with the generals, they are referring to her place in the leadership councils of Burma.
Burma is a fascist dictatorship and there is no reforming such a regime. Suu Kyi is a part of that and one of the most masterful strokes in the charade about the civilian government is persuading millions that she was a human rights icon.
She can not only kiss her glory days goodbye, but should consider herself busted.