Why Myanmar’s elections will work

YANGON – Any recent repeat traveller to Myanmar would have noticed the change. Compared to just a few years ago, there are more paved roads, including a modern tollway connecting the central city of Mandalay to the newly built capital of Naipyidaw. On the new roadways, travelling vehicles’ license plate numbers, make and model are captured digitally and stored to a centrally maintained computer system.

Meanwhile, mobile telecommunications have become cheaper and more widespread, with disposable SIM cards costing US$20-$50 widely available in urban areas. Internet cafes have sprung up and do booming business across the country, although technically private proprietors must keep records of all those who log-in at their shops.
Within the old capital of Yangon, modern buildings have sprung up, including serviced apartments for expatriates and high-end hotels. Shops have more goods for sale, while the average age of the reconditioned Japanese vehicles that ply the local roads is now much younger than previously.

Then there are the nouveau rich, who frequent the few modern cafes and high-end hotel bars in the big cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Many are of Chinese origin, whose children are being educated at top-notch universities overseas. Others are the offspring of top generals. There is also a new group earning an international standard of living through work at the various development organizations increasingly active in the country. These are the often overlooked economic fruits of Myanmar’s development authoritarianism, still modest, but similar to those touted by other repressive regional regimes that have based their political legitimacy on maintaining economic growth. Although Myanmar remains mired in poverty and suffers from chronic economic mismanagement and official corruption, certain recent economic gains are noticeable.

If this phenomenon is not taken into account, as it has been by sections of the local population, the long running efforts towards democracy promotion in Myanmar will be in vain. Myanmar’s authoritarian, economic growth-driven allies, including Singapore and China, have encouraged the country’s military leaders to stay the course of democratic elections scheduled for 2010, even as Western critics prejudge the polls as a sham.

Nominally democratic, in practice highly repressive, Singapore understands that regularly-held elections provide procedural and international legitimacy to its heavy-handed and sophisticated authoritarian rule. The symbolic move towards democracy will also bolster Myanmar’s regional standing, where its institutionalized repression will not be checked by the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) new human rights body anytime soon.

It’s become increasingly apparent that Myanmar and its strategic allies in China and Singapore believe that local sentiment is shifting in the junta’s favor, due to growing on-the-ground evidence of economic progress. Although the scale of that progress is debatable – particularly in light of the 2007 mass protests against the regime that the military violently repressed – after decades of uninterrupted and corrupt military rule the population could well be primed to accept China- or Singapore-style development authoritarianism.

Grudging acceptance
The turn in economic momentum, which cannot be captured by looking at often doctored GDP (gross domestic product) growth figures, is best witnessed and felt on the ground. It has led some here to grudgingly adopt a different tune about the junta’s leadership. In interviews with local people, many said that the regime could be accepted if generals and their affiliated officials did not pocket all the profits from economic activities, including natural resource exports.

Some went as far to say that if the regime took only 50% and redistributed the other half towards broad-based economic development, then the regime would still be acceptable. This perception could be informed by popular opinion about the region’s faster growing authoritarian regimes, including China, Singapore and Vietnam, which are often portrayed favorably in Myanmar’s state-dominated media.

Many Burmese strive to work in Singapore, which they tend to view as a comparatively modern and developed city. That despite the island state’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) regime does business, including facilitating arms deals, with their repressive government.

The PAP-led government doesn’t release official figures of Burmese nationals working in Singapore, but the numbers have increased so much that every year it is increasingly difficult for Burmese working there to get air tickets back to Myanmar during the peak seasons of Christmas, New Year and the Chinese Lunar New Year. Many share similarly positive views of China’s extraordinary economic transformation, even though Beijing is the repressive junta’s main economic and political supporter.

Although perhaps anecdotal, these emerging sentiments – some suggest the vanguard of an important political shift – have been overlooked by democracy and reform promoters, including in the United States and European Union. Both Western powers maintain harsh economic sanctions against the regime, which some argue has hurt the grass roots population more than the ruling generals.

Thus US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer this week of new United States investment for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi caught many Myanmar analysts by surprise. Any such investments, they note, would only help to bolster Myanmar’s emerging military-led development authoritarianism.

Big Western democracy promotion agencies have for decades supported externally based Burmese pro-democracy groups, often to the neglect of grass roots activities inside the country. The recent surge in foreign aid in the wake of Cyclone Nagris, distributed by a wide range of international organizations, claimed to advocate the development of “civil society”. However, few of their actual activities are even remotely related to democracy promotion.

This international neglect, compounded with a very justified fear of persecution or imprisonment for political activities, has created suitable conditions for Singapore- or China-style development authoritarianism to take root. Most of the strategies deployed by anti-regime political activists inside the country are limited to organizing welfare activities, signing petitions and meeting on junta-approved days and locations.

These activities have had little, if any, impact and are behind the times when compared to the moves the military is taking towards a development authoritarianism model, which includes the holding of next year’s elections. There is a prevailing opinion among political activists inside the country, including among Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, that their activists will be arrested and detained in the run up to the polls.

That would pave the way for military appointed parties and candidates to capture a thumping statistical mandate at the elections, as the NLD did at the annulled 1990 polls. Myanmar will soon be a “discipline democracy”, but one the development-starved population might – to the chagrin of many outside the countries – willingly embrace.

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