On April 1st, the new parliament in Burma convened with a huge majority of representatives from the National League for Democracy (NLD) and could potentially bring about important changes for the people of Burma. After 50 years of vicious Army dictatorship, during which the country’s name was latterly changed to Myanmar, the NLD swept the polls held last November.
The Generals had been clinging on to power by various methods after they put down a countrywide month-long uprising in 1988. An election was held in 1990, in which the NLD - only set up out of the uprising itself - won a clear majority. The Generals refused to recognise the N.L.D.’s victory and instead declared that the vote had only been to approve the setting up of a commission to draft a new constitution.
The Army is, by their own laws, guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the Parliamentary houses. With 386 - all of them unelected – they are the main opposition. The N.L.D. needs a 75% majority to make any changes to the constitution.
The Generals have been using the so-called ‘period of negotiating’ since the election to send their overwhelmingly male representatives to their own educational academies. They, alongside some key Army Majors, will replace the voting fodder they had in the last rigged parliament. As the Irrawaddy News Service puts it, "The Army Chief, Min Aung Hling, and his cohorts are now preparing for a new battle, not in the conflict-prone hills of the north, but in the nation’s parliament". So, despite the Generals’ own Party, the U.S.D.P., being smashed in the election, they still have the power to control.
Already in the division of the cabinet posts, generals have the key three:- Ministry of Defence, Border Control and Home Affairs. The N.L.D. has also conceded that the Army has a majority on the National Defence and Security Council. It is clear that the only force keeping the Generals in check is their shock at the huge popularity of the N.L.D. Also they know that people around the world are watching them and that outside investors have to take their people’s views into account.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the overwhelmingly popular leader of the N.L.D, has been barred from being President of the country by a special clause in the Generals’ constitution (59f) because she has two sons of foreign nationality (British). The son of one of the leading Generals was pressured to give up his Australian citizenship just to be consistent – keeping her out, and safeguarding his father’s position.
Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi will assert her leadership. She still leads the party and the new president - Htin Kyaw - is a long time close confidant of hers. Originally she was to take over the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Electric Power and Energy, plus the President’s Office. But she has since given up two of them, retaining Foreign Affairs and the Presidents’ Office. No reason has been given for this, but, on its second day, the Upper House agreed that Suu Kyi, be appointed ‘State Counsellor’ – a position which could give her much more executive power.
Burma, with a 52 million population, stretches from snow-capped mountain peaks, through arid central plains to tropical rain forests and the vast Irrawaddy delta flood-plain. There are between 70 and 90 ethnic groups and nationalities, many of which have been at war with the regime for decades and still continue their armed struggles for elements of self-determination.
The group that has come to international prominence recently are the Rohinga Muslims in the west of Arikan who are being persecuted by an extremist Buddhist movement. They have been driven into ghettoes and hundreds have drowned, trying to escape and find a home across the Indian Ocean.
Suu Kyi has not done her human rights reputation any good over this issue. She made no statements about it to support the rights of this minority and there was not a single Muslim among the N.L.D.’s over 1,000 candidates. Also when asked by a prominent television interviewer about it, she apparently responded with: "I was not told I was being interviewed by a Muslim"! She has not put a Muslim in as Premier of the Arikan Division (area) and the Religious Affairs Minister has referred to all non- Buddhists as merely “associate citizens”. He is one of the former army generals in the Cabinet and a member of the U.S.D.P.
The N.L.D. government has inherited an unhealthy economy, but with much potential. The Stock Exchange opened its first listings recently, but the uncertainties of the economy were shown in January last year when less than half the 50 billion Kyat (US $48.83 million) trading cards on offer in its first auction were sold. This is despite Burma’s huge natural resources of gas, timber, jade and other precious stones.
The Generals already have their fingers in these pies, if not actually owning the businesses. In one of the last acts under the previous government, the Myanmar Investment Commission - in what ‘Eleven Media’ calls “a bumper final meeting” only five days before the handover - approved 48 projects. Twenty seven of them involved local companies, sixteen foreign and five joint ventures. This body, which oversees large-scale investments, has been dominated by ministers in the close circle of friends of the previous president, Thein Sein. Since the new government came in, the Tourism Ministry has been handed to the retired chief executive of the prestigious Resort Hotel and the Minister for Planning and Finance is a man who has survived since 1972 under the generals’ regime in their National Planning and Internal Revenue Departments.
The Army has acceded to the requests of the major capitalist powers to introduce some democratic measures in order to give a respectable face to their desire to trade with Burma. But they are not reaping really big benefits for the economy. In spite of trade visits from the British Conservative Government and Barak Obama plus other world leaders, all it has produced is an inflow of modern goods to Burma. It is estimated that around 70% of the population is still unconnected to the electrical grid, so such goods are not for the people generally. Sixty per cent of imports are raw materials for building "Special Economic Zones".
Although the volume of trade has increased since the appearance of more democracy, any improvements in the wages and living standards of the people look unlikely. Even though Foreign Direct Investment reached a record $8 billion for 2013 - 14, international businesses are still more interested in other countries in South East Asia. The N.L.D. government has inherited a $5 billion trade deficit.
Suu Kyi has no intention of moving to oust big business or take any of the country’s industries into public ownership. She is no socialist. One popular move she has made is to reduce the number of ministers in the government from 36 to 18. She has also proposed that her party’s MPs donate between 25% and 50% of their 1million Kyat a month salaries to party funds and other position-holders 50%.
In February, in the new atmosphere, peace agreements were signed between the Army and some of the smaller ethnic armed groups. The larger armies in the north and east are insisting on negotiating together as the ‘United Nationalities Federal Council’ (UNFC), rather than running the risk of being picked off one by one or left in an isolated battle with the army.
In December of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi met the previous Army Chief and declared she is able to work with the Army. They have spoken about a ‘Government of National Reconciliation’ and a ‘Road Map to Disciplined Democracy’. On present evidence it is more like what is called a‘Guided Democracy’, which usually means a government ‘guided’ by the army tops.
On the other hand, the huge popularity of the N.L.D. and its leader have to be reckoned with. Also, the people have a tremendous tradition of struggle and even of support for socialist ideas.
Some time ago, out of fear of a revolt from below, the Generals built themselves a completely new seat of government in Naypyidaw - well away from the centres of population. This will not save them when the people begin to move decisively into action. In the mass movement of 1988, elements of the Army and Air force even joined the demonstrations. New movements from below will develop. They need to adopt clear strategies and a programme of socialist demands in order to achieve a lasting victory.