Without Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s say-so, Burma can’t make a move. That was the subtext of his message to the nation on March 27, Armed Forces Day. It was a sobering reminder to the world and the Burmese people that this is a general who sees no need for compromise, and who expects the whole country to fall in line with his plans with the same unquestioning obedience as the 13,000 troops who paraded past him in a display of military might.
In his 17-minute speech, delivered at his new “royal” capital of Naypyidaw, Than Shwe rejected calls from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) for a review of a new constitution approved last year in a referendum widely denounced as a sham. There will be no review, the general said, because the “constitution [was] adopted by the people.”
In defiance of diplomatic pressure to engage with the NLD and other pro-democracy forces, Than Shwe has made it abundantly clear that he is in no mood for reconciliation. After nearly twenty years of relentlessly persecuting the winners of the last election in 1990, he now believes that he is close to achieving his ultimate victory: an electoral outcome that guarantees his perpetual grip on power.
So far, the junta has disclosed few details about the election it has promised to hold sometime in 2010. No date has been set, and no candidates have been named. But in his speech, Than Shwe left no doubt about his intention to keep a firm hold over the proceedings. Political parties that carry out “mature party organizing work will receive the blessing of the government,” he said, implying that those who are “immature” enough to question the military’s right to rule as it sees fit can expect to be sidelined, or worse.
The regime has made no secret of the fact that “disciplined democracy” is essentially an extension of the current political arrangement, which elevates the armed forces above all other institutions.
Under its new constitution, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces—currently Than Shwe—is entitled to appoint military officials to 25 percent of the seats in each of the country’s two legislative assemblies, the 440-seat People’s Parliament and the 224-seat National Parliament. And if this is not enough to guarantee that other political forces march to his tune, there is another provision which permits the commander-in-chief to reinstate direct military rule at his discretion.
It was not surprising, then, to hear in Than Shwe’s speech this year a note of growing confidence that was absent from his last Armed Forces Day address, in which he reassured any who cared to listen that he was not power hungry and would, in due course, hand over power to an elected successor.
A lot has changed since then. A year ago, Than Shwe was still under intense international pressure following the brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in late 2007. But by May, he had successfully pulled off a rigged constitutional referendum that delivered more than 90 percent approval. And while this farce was playing out in the background, the world’s attention was transfixed by a humanitarian catastrophe that also, ultimately, played directly into the hands of the generals. Unlike the killing of untold numbers of monks in 2007, the regime’s callous disregard for the suffering caused by Cyclone Nargis was easily redeemed by belated and grudging cooperation with international aid groups.
This year, there was no need to talk about transferring power. Instead, Than Shwe used his speech to issue a series of warnings. Politicians should “refrain from inciting unrest [and] avoid personal attacks and smear campaigns against other parties.” And, most importantly, candidates must not follow the example of another, unnamed opposition group that went astray because it looked to foreign countries for “guidance and inspiration [and] followed the imported ideologies and directives irrationally.”
At the moment, Than Shwe seems quite certain that he will achieve his goal of legitimizing perpetual military rule. But if his plans hit a snag, don’t be surprised if the election is suspended indefinitely. Even as he approaches his moment of triumph, he appears to be wary of raising expectations. That is why he quoted a well-known Burmese proverb—“a recently dug well cannot be expected to produce clear water immediately”—and concluded his speech with these words: “Democracy in [Burma] today is at a fledgling stage and still requires patient care and attention.”
Keeping the hopes of the Burmese people at bay while satisfying the international community’s perfunctory calls for something resembling democracy in Burma are all part of the delicate balancing act that Than Shwe has had to perform over the past two decades. Now, however, he appears to be reaching the end of his tightrope. But one small misstep—or a sudden gust of outrage from a nation that is more at the mercy of economic forces than almost any other—and he could soon find that the heights that he now commands are not as unassailable as he imagines.