By Francis Wade
Her boycott of parliament now over, Aung San Suu Kyi enters a decision-making arena that is by turns hostile, dynamic and full of surprise. Although the standard depiction of a hall dominated by military-backed MPs is generally correct, there are small but important divergences within the 80 percent-plus ruling faction that Suu Kyi will hope to capitalise on in the three years before general elections in 2015.
That faction isn’t as tight as some may think: earlier this year the pre-appointed military MPs, who make up a quarter of seats, broke rank and did not vote as a bloc on a number of issues, a move that surprised those who thought their presence was an effort to create some sort of multi-headed parliamentary whip for Burma’s elite.
Analyst Min Zin wrote a strong piece in Foreign Policy Magazine earlier this week that highlights a candidness (rhetorically at least) among the military MPs when dealing with foreign dignitaries that many hadn’t expected. This, he suggests, is likely aimed at encouraging the west to continue its courting of Burma’s government.
“Whenever senior U.S. officials meet a Burmese military chief or defense minister and raise the issue of human rights violations committed by the army in ethnic areas, the military doesn’t deny it,” he quotes a US source as saying. “They admit that things are not very pretty on the ground, and ask for U.S. assistance, including training for the Tatmadaw [Burma army] officers.”
The self-serving element is no doubt the driving force behind the changing attitude (at least for those who consider Burma’s reform programme a means for the elite to hold onto power), but it does mean that Suu Kyi and the NLD (and the scores of opposition/third force MPs who have been forgotten over the past six months) has something to work with.
Min Zin cautions, however: “This toleration [of the reforms] will likely continue so long as the reform process does not challenge the military’s veto-wielding political supremacy and economic interests.”
This is a key point to raise – at what point will enough be enough for the elite (i.e. those who have profited from military rule)? When western governments talk about taking things step by step, the general understanding is that approaches to the government must be done cautiously so as not to jump the gun and about-face prematurely. But it must also not push for a change so rapid that it frightens the powerful (the business-military-political nexus), who then close ranks around their own interests.
For all the talk of corruption and debasement, Burma’s army is actually a rather complicated beast. Abuse is institutionalised, few would doubt that, but its make-up does give cause for hope in that it comprises two factions: those who saw entrance to the military as a means to plunder the country, and those who joined for their own survival (i.e. through strategic, greed-driven choice, or through force). Both sides are present in parliament, and it is the latter that Suu Kyi et al must focus their energy on – they will be more flexible, more likely to accommodate change, and if she can draw them towards the light, then she can start to develop a more progressive and coordinated voice in parliament.
Min Zin says that the reshuffle of military MPs, seen by many as a means to consolidate a stronger anti-Suu Kyi faction, in fact shows it is attaching importance to parliament as “more than a rubber-stamp leglisature that simply endorses decisions made elsewhere”, and with this we may (but, indeed, may not) actually see more wholesome debate as both sides work to engineer their own futures.