October 5, 2010 / 5:03 AM / 7 years ago

Can an "election of generals" help reform Myanmar?

6 Min Read

BANGKOK (Reuters) - By holding an election to legitimize decades of military rule, Myanmar's power-hungry generals may have inadvertently created a framework for a democratic system they might not be able to control.

An army-dominated political process will culminate in November 7 polls dubbed an "election of generals" and widely dismissed as a sham, but there is hope that the system could spur reforms and gradually take power away from authoritarian military officers.

For now, few expect any change to the status quo, just more suits and a lot less army uniforms. Most analysts say a transfer of power to civilians -- whether intentional or not -- would be an evolutionary process of at least a decade.

"Of course the election won't be free and fair, but there's a chance here that over time, more political space will be created," said Georgetown University's David Steinberg, a veteran Myanmar analyst who has studied the former British colony since before the generals seized power in a 1962 coup.

"There's potential for improvements to the economy and for the first time in decades, a parliament will convene and normal people will have some voice."

But it's almost certain that voice will be silent at first.

Myanmar's complex and verbose constitution, which few Burmese admit to having read, appears to be a blueprint for cementing the military's grip on power, with recently retired generals poised to win scores of parliament and senate seats, in addition to the 25 percent quota reserved for serving soldiers.

Restrictive election laws and steep registration fees mean pro-democracy parties will present no challenge to two well-heeled pro-military parties, whose lawmakers are sure to choose a powerful army-backed president whose policies and ministerial appointments will sail through parliament.

But even with the generals still at the helm, analysts expect they will initiate some reforms -- perhaps self-serving -- in the resource-rich country's ailing economy after decades of mismanagement, corruption and crippling western sanctions.

Wiser Policies?

"The election might help with the overall civilianization of the government and so lead to slightly wiser economic policies," said Josh Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia expert at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank. He said, however, it was unlikely much would change in the near-term.

A privatization drive is underway, although the process has been extremely opaque and fraught with cronyism, benefitting the junta and its allies among a wealthy civilian elite set to become the country's economic powerbrokers for years to come.

There are now 19 private banks -- four owned by tycoons close to the generals and targeted by western sanctions -- which will provide more branches, cash machines and small loans, although Australian economist Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert, dismissed the banks as "cash-boxes" and "playthings" for their rich owners.

But the mass selloff of about 300 state assets this year in areas like banking, telecommunications, transport and shipping may not be all bad. It has transferred vital sectors away from the direct control of notoriously corrupt and inept generals.

Perhaps of more benefit to the population are plans to improve agriculture, which employs about 70 percent of the population and accounts for more than half of Myanmar's economic output. Under British rule, Myanmar was once the world's biggest rice exporter and is aiming to become a top exporter again. It shipped more than 1 million metric tons in 2009.

Agriculture currently receive only 0.4 percent of credit created, but this is expected to change as efforts are made to improve farming practices, increase output and boost farmers' incomes in what could be early populist measures by the military.

Military Moderates

Most analysts point to the formation of 14 regional assemblies as the best hope for change and perhaps a willingness by the military to loosen its grip and allow more civilian input at local level while still retaining central power.

Others are hoping moderates will emerge in the military who one day start to civilianize the system by bringing on board educated technocrats or pursue their own individual agendas by forming political alliances with powerful public figures.

But Western countries have indicated that substantial reforms will be required before economic sanctions in place because of the government's poor human rights record are lifted.

A first step would be to release an estimated 2,200 detained political activists or opposition politicians including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the figurehead of the struggle against military rule.

Suu Kyi's house arrest term is due to expire six days after the polls and some analysts believe the generals might release her and some other political prisoners when they are no longer deemed threats to what appears to be an transfer of sovereign power to themselves.

But few expect any substantive progress while the wily 78-year-old junta supremo Than Shwe and sidekick Maung Aye, 72, remain in charge either directly, as president and vice president, or as puppet masters from behind the scenes.

"As long as these two guys are around, no one else can have a say in the decision making," said a Burmese academic, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions.

"But after that, things will eventually change for the better. It might be a matter of unintended consequence. The military can't create democracy and take it over forever, lock stock and smoking barrel."

Editing by Andrew Marshall

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