Burma: Hopes and fears over new political system

Novice Buddhist monks pray in front of the reclining Shwethalyaung Buddha statue in Bago, about 100km (60 miles) north of Rangoon
Image caption The Burmese people are in danger of ending up in the same position under the new political system

The transition of power from a purely military government in Burma to a hybrid civilian-led administration is the final stage in a long road to what the country's military leaders have called "discipline flourishing democracy".

The process has been clouded by controversy, often shrouded in mystery and has divided opinion inside and outside Burma.

Beyond the leaders who designed the new system, there are broadly two schools of thought about Burma's new political landscape.

The first, supported by most Western governments (although there is evidence of divergence within the EU), Burmese lobby groups in exile and the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is that the new system is merely a continuation of the old by other means.

The constitution on which the new political administration rests, the laws by which last November's historic elections were conducted and the rules which govern the new national and state parliaments are all designed to ensure that the central role of the military continues and that the influence of genuinely democratic voices is limited.

Therefore, the argument goes, the same pressure should be applied to the new government as was applied to the old.

Burma Campaign UK produced a briefing paper at the beginning of March, timed to coincide with a meeting of EU member states.

An introduction on the organisation's website includes the following quote from Zoya Phan, campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK.

"Given that human rights abuses and violations of international law have increased, rather than decreased, and that the dictatorship is trying to consolidate, not end its rule, if the EU were to follow its own policy it would be discussing increasing, not decreasing, the sanctions."

The alternative view is that, however much the old military government orchestrated things to ensure a landslide victory for its Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the elections, however unrepresentative of the will of the people the new parliament is, there has been change in Burma, and that offers potential opportunities.

A recent report from the International Crisis Group concluded that "with General Than Shwe handing over power to a new generation of leaders, there is a window to influence the future direction of the country. Western powers need to engage robustly the new Myanmar (Burma) government on a wide range of issues and demonstrate that they are ready to adjust their policies".

Ethnic legislatures

This is more than just a question of glass half empty or half full. It is a question that will shape the political opposition within Burma and international policy towards Burma, not just in the West but also among Burma's neighbours, including China.

Image caption Burma's new parliament has been sitting in the capital Naypyidaw behind closed doors

The incoming government includes three serving military officers, 23 ministers with a military background and four purely civilian technocrats.

The new President, Thein Sein, is a retired general, former prime minister and seen as loyal to Gen Than Shwe (in fact it is widely assumed that, despite the formality of a parliamentary vote, Gen Than Shwe hand-picked him for the job).

One of two vice-presidents, Tin Aung Myint Oo is also a former military man. The second vice-president, Sai Maw Khan, is a civilian doctor from the Shan ethnic group.

The new national parliament is dominated by the USDP, which officially won around 80% of the contested seats in the widely criticised election. Twenty-five per cent of seats were reserved, under the 2008 constitution, for the military.

The business of parliament has been conducted behind closed doors. The public, diplomats and journalists are prevented from observing its workings.

MPs are not allowed to bring mobile phones, cameras or computers into the chamber and have to table questions at least 15 days in advance.

Since its opening on 31 January, parliamentary sessions have lasted about 15 minutes each.

The main achievements appear to have been to approve the list of new ministers and the 2011-2012 budget, which allocates 25% of resources to military affairs and just over 1% to health care.

On the face of it, things do not bode well.

"We might hope that the House of Representatives (Lower House) could with the passage of time become the more vigorous debating chamber," says Derek Tonkin, Chairman of the UK-based group, Network Myanmar. "But we could be looking some years ahead," he concedes.

In the ethnic state legislatures the picture is slightly different. The USDP still has a sizeable block of seats, but it does not have a majority in most.

"This at least gives ethnic parties some influence over their affairs," Mr Tonkin says.

'Retirement plan'

The key question is what role Gen Than Shwe will play in the future.

Whether or not he maintains a formal position of some kind, is almost academic.

Image caption Analysts say the country's most powerful general, Than Shwe, is unlikely to relinquish all power

Most observers assume he will continue to wield considerable influence behind the scenes.

"Structurally Than Shwe is likely to retire from the military," says Win Min, a US-based Burmese academic.

"He has been preparing - moving his home out of the military area to a retirement-style home with a small office close by from where he can call the president, house speakers, party chairman and army chiefs to give orders."

But Win Min cautions: "If Than Shwe's health gets weaker suddenly, things may implode fast."

There are signs that Gen Than Shwe's "retirement plan" may not all be going smoothly.

Reports from Naypyidaw suggest that the some senior military figures who have missed out on top posts in the new system are disgruntled.

That points to one fundamental change in Burma. Under the old system power was concentrated solely in the hands of the generals, with Than Shwe sitting at the top of the hierarchy.

Now there are separate, potentially competing, centres of power: the former military men who lead the new government, serving military officers within the government and those with seats in parliament, and the rest of the armed forces.

Ultimately, like governments everywhere in the world, Burma's new administration will be judged by its actions.

The question then becomes whether or not those actions can be influenced.

"If the new government comes to the conclusion that megaphone diplomacy and sanctions from the West will continue regardless, there will be no incentive for it to try to improve relations," warns the International Crisis Group.

"This will leave the people of Myanmar squeezed between a failing government and the failed policies of an ineffectual sanctions regime."

In other words, the Burmese people are in danger of ending up in the same position under the new political system as they were under the old.

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