In civilian garb

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

The country gets a new civilian President who has the backing of the junta .

in Singapore

MYANMAR'S long-entrenched military powers that be may well have laughed up their sleeves on February 11 when Egypt's beleaguered Hosni Mubarak resigned as civilian' President in an intended transfer of authority to the country's armed forces. Two aspects of the latest Egyptian crisis would have struck the Myanmar military leaders as having some relevance to them.

In the immediate afterglow of the installation of a civilian President in Myanmar on February 4, Senior General Than Shwe and his ruling military cohorts felt confident of striding along the halls of power in the administrative capital Nay Pyi Taw. They must have felt gratified that they had engineered a transfer of power to a civilian head of state in Myanmar without detecting signs of an immediate backlash in the form a genuine people power revolt.

The Nay Pyi Taw generals could pat themselves on the back that Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's celebrated democracy campaigner whom they freed from prolonged detention in November last year, had not galvanised a people power revolt against them, as reckoned on the day after the Egyptian denouement. From their own perspective, after all, Suu Kyi was not short of examples that could have inspired her soon after she was set free.

Myanmar itself had witnessed a mass uprising against a previous band of generals in the 1980s and a revolt by Buddhist monks as also a number of pro-democracy groups just a few years ago. In addition, Myanmar's democracy activists are familiar with two other movements in their own South-East Asian neighbourhood the vintage Filipino people power movement and the vibrant pro-democracy campaign in Indonesia over a decade ago.

For the present band of Myanmar generals, another pleasing aspect was that Mubarak, even while gracelessly accepting his downfall, remained defiant to an extent by wanting to hand over national affairs to the country's military. From the standpoint of the generals, there could not have been a greater crowning irony in a successful popular revolt against a tyrant.

However, it will not be easy to ascertain whether Than Shwe and his lieutenants have perceived the crucial lesson in statecraft that Mubarak's downfall signifies. The simple but profound message is that no ruler, from either the military or the civilian spectrum, can hope to fool all the people all the time in this age of cyberspace communications. In a limited sense, and unsurprisingly too, the Myanmar generals have so far not allowed Suu Kyi's recently deregistered National League for Democracy (NLD) to have its own website in the general public domain.

For now, the generals may be inclined to congratulate themselves on being able to keep their country as a whole on the outer fringes of cyberspace. However, they cannot be oblivious to the fact that the relatively recent revolt by Buddhist monks and sundry other groups was, in part, kept going, for a while at least, through the Internet by some activists or their external supporters.

It is in this overview about a possible impact of Mubarak's downfall on the political psyche of Myanmar's generals that the February 4 election of a civilian President in Nay Pyi Taw can be meaningfully judged. Like Myanmar's new civilian leader Thein Sein, Mubarak, too, was once a protg of Egypt's overall military establishment.

The general-turned-civilian leader was chosen Myanmar's head of state by the new Presidential Electoral College under the country's 2008 Constitution. The basic statute, ratified in a popular referendum when Myanmar was still reeling under the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, was promulgated shortly before the Presidential Electoral College was convened on February 4.

The college was made up of newly elected representatives of the people and nominees of the junta. In a sense, the constitutional mandate of the college could be traced to the results of the controversial democracy-restoring general election the junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), held in November last year. Significantly, the by-then-deregistered NLD stayed away from that poll.

As a matter of strategic intent, the NLD did not ask the general public to boycott the election. Suu Kyi, still under house arrest at the time of polling, was obviously keen on assessing the people's response in the election. In the event, the generals, satisfying themselves that her moral stature did not deter sizable sections of the people from casting their ballot, finally set her free not long after.

Given her harsh circumstances for well over a decade, Suu Kyi needs time to chart a new pro-democracy path forward. Unsurprisingly, the SPDC's Presidential Electoral College chose Thein Sein (65), until recently a ranking general and Myanmar's Prime Minister, as the country's new President. Before the 2010 general election, he shed his military uniform and took command of the pro-Than Shwe Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was formed in time for that poll.

And, as per the junta's script, Thein Sein led it to a landslide win. Another party, backed by a section of the military with fading but recognisable ideological links to the old Ne Win school of praetorian politics, lost the race to the USDP.

In this new political scene, Than Shwe and his loyalists faced no opposition in getting Thein Sein chosen as the new head of state. The final configuration of power under Thein Sein, including the exact role of Than Shwe himself under his hardly defined brand of new praetorian politics in a civilian setting, is far from clear. Some regional experts expect Thein Sein to reveal his real political self in course of time.

At the other end of this new civilian political spectrum, the rapturous reception that Suu Kyi got in Yangon on her release from house arrest is testimony to her continuing popularity as a non-violent colossus of the pro-democracy movement.

However, the SPDC, even if rattled by the spontaneity and scale of the reception for her, chose to stay the course of a predetermined political action plan. The 2010 poll itself was denounced in many quarters of the international community as a notional exercise stage-managed under the hawkish eyes of Myanmar's military establishment. Moreover, few external observers doubt Suu Kyi's power to sway the masses her way in a free and fair general election.

Alongside this assessment is a finer counterpoint by some seasoned Myanmar watchers in the current context of the country's military-orchestrated political system. Taking into account the ground realities as long manipulated by the SPDC, Robert H. Taylor and others with his line of thinking emphasise that the NLD's chief achievement in over two decades of existence was the 1990 election result.

Suu Kyi's political profile in courage as a democracy campaigner had ensured the NLD's landslide victory in that now-bygone election. These observers tend to believe that Suu Kyi has failed, admittedly owing to her harsh circumstances, in erasing the impression that the NLD still wants to cling to its glory of the 1990 poll.

Suu Kyi is just beginning to trim her sails to the new realities by seeking a role in trying to get Myanmar freed from the Western economic sanctions which, in any case, had failed to punish or tame the junta. For Suu Kyi, as a free but un-empowered person, the litmus test of leadership may not be far off.

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