Absolute power lives on in BurmaBy Francis Wade Apr 11, 2011 1:42PM UTC
Long before Burma’s polls in November last year, observers had warned that little would change in a country ruled by the military for nearly half a century; they claimed that events had been carefully choreographed in order to ensure the new system, albeit superficially civilian, would remain absolutely watertight. Yet there was still a vocal contingent of individuals, activists and policymakers who saw signs of promise in the new political landscape, pointing to “cracks that can be exploited” and the presence of civilian MPs in parliament who would become the vessels on which progress was carried.
Five months later, however, and that school of thought has dwindled. As details of the first parliamentary sessions leaked out, it became apparent that although the new system may allow for a greater degree of transparency, the real decision-makers remained the same clique of strongmen who could legally deflect, override and direct parliamentary opinion.
There were also a couple of key issues that remained off the radar as speculation about the “new Burma” circulated. One that only came to light last week was the vast array of unilateral powers (30 in total) granted to President Thein Sein, for which he needs no parliamentary consent. The domestic Weekly Eleven news journal, citing a supplement of the parliamentary law text, listed some of these as follows:
“…ban on nuclear research, granting asylum, extradition matters, preventing terrorism, preventing plane and ship hijacking, matters concerning protection of war refugees, air and sea travel, communication (postal, fax, telephone, email and internet), cultural exchange, mining of natural resources, distributing electricity, cooperation and providing assistance for economic and technological skills…”
The wording is typically vague, but ominous: the former military general has control over communication systems and therefore the ability to shut them down at the drop of a hat (as has been done in the past to great effect); he has the rights over distribution of electricity in Burma, where only 20 percent of the population have regular power access; he can execute anti-terrorism initiatives without requiring any input on what constitutes a ‘terrorist’ (a charge that has been used in the past to jail peaceful activists). Moreover, awarding a key architect of the former junta’s campaign against ethnic armies the ultimate power to decide the fate of refugees will also trigger concern.
What was also kept silent in the run-up to the polls is the 11-member National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), a new body in name but really only the solidification of the top brass into a more visible unit. Included in this is new the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, his subordinates, and Thein Sein. It will likely become Burma’s most powerful tangible body, to which parliament will play second fiddle.
Buffeting this military stranglehold even further is the Special Funds Law, which gives the commander-in-chief supreme authority to allocate unlimited additional money to the army without any notice, and without parliamentary consent.
What becomes of former junta chief Than Shwe and his deputy, Maung Aye, is anybody’s guess, but it is traditional in Asia for leaders to take on a venerable advisory role after they ‘retire’. Than Shwe will do at least this, for despots do not orchestrate their own downfall. He has never enjoyed the spotlight, meaning that a powerful, yet backseat, role is the perfect realm for him to operate in, while the clean, bespectacled Thein Sein becomes the military’s public face.