Two sides to Burma's elections

Aung San Suu Kyi.

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Turn Left Thailand

April 3, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Elections under capitalist democracy never lead to state power changing hands because many important elements of the capitalist state are not subject to elections or even accountability. For example, we never get to elect capitalists who make important investment decisions that affect millions of peoples’ lives. In addition to this, judges, military and police commanders, top civil servants and those who control the media are never elected. But that does not mean that we should ignore elections.

Elections are important political events that can be used to advertise policies, can often give encouragement and can be used to mobilise activists outside parliament. For these reasons the elections in Burma in early April were extremely important for the democratic movement. They were an opportunity for thousands of Burmese, and other nationalities in the country, to show their dissatisfaction and opposition to the military dictatorship by voting for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and other opposition and ethnic parties.

However, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that these elections are a “first step” in some top-down designed “road map” towards democracy. Instead they are a desperate attempt by the Burmese junta to find legitimacy for the continuation of the dictatorship. No doubt the generals were well aware of the uprisings in the Middle East and needed to shore up their authoritarian rule.

The current constitution, which was written by the military in 2008 in order to protect its power in society, stipulates that 25% of the 664 seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament are reserved for appointed military officers. That is even before any elections take place. The military organised dirty elections in 2010 and ensured that its party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), occupied most seats. The elections this year were only for 45 seats.

In addition to this, the government has no power to control the Burmese military (Tatmadaw). The top brass have the right, according to the constitution, to appoint the interior, defence and border ministers, and to sack the government and take over if there are any “threats to stability”. Many clauses in the constitution are designed to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies from holding high office; the militarisation of ethnic border areas is guaranteed. There is no room for self-determination for ethnic groups which make up a sizable proportion of the population.

So these elections were designed by the Burmese junta as a pretend “festival of democracy” in order to strengthen permanent military rule and in order to pave the way for Western governments to find an excuse to end Burma’s international isolation. Unfortunately Aung San Suu Kyi is going along with this charade by stressing the need for “reconciliation” with the military.

In neighbouring Thailand, the Pheu Thai government, elected by millions of pro-democracy Red Shirts last year, is also singing the song of “reconciliation with the military”. This means that the Thai generals will not be prosecuted for killing unarmed demonstrators in 2010, political prisoners remain in jail and the government is increasing the use of the draconian lese majeste law in order to persecute activists.

Right-wing analysts always state that democratic transition comes from the actions of the ruling elites and Western governments “designing” gradual steps towards democracy. We can see what this means in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan. Western rulers do not give a fig about democracy and human rights. What they, and authoritarian governments like China, want to stress is “stability” for making profits with a thin veneer of legitimacy thrown in for good measure.

Socialists believe that democracy is won by mass movements from below, like the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory is to be welcomed. But it will only translate into a genuine victory for democracy if Suu Kyi and the NLD use this golden opportunity to start to mobilise the pro-democracy activists outside parliament in order to overthrow the military dictatorship. Unfortunately Suu Kyi has a history, dating back to the great uprising of 8-8-88 of demobilising mass movements in order to channel political activity into parliament. The task of organising a real struggle against the military will have to be carried out by activists independently of the NLD.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who watch Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. His website is at]