Lack of Integrity in the Burmese Military an Obstacle to Peaceful Elections
In Burma, journalists avoid topics that can lead to criticism of the military or government. Ma Thida describes the factions that are dividing the military-controlled Burmese parliament.
At midnight of August 13, a day before the deadline for the registration of parliamentary candidates, the Burmese ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) removed its chairman, Thura Shwe Mann, and his associates after police forces and military vehicles blockaded his house and USDP headquarters. People in Burma suspect that this quiet military coup of the USDP is the result of conflicts inside the USDP.
- Literature is an echoing voice of people’s thought. Myanmar literature and media have suffered a lot along with people during five decades of censorship. The majority of Myanmar’s population are voiceless, and many untold stories are yet to be discovered by local or international writers and journalists. Here let’s try to find and listen to what problems people are feeling, thinking, and facing regarding freedom of expression in everyday lives in Myanmar.
- Ma Thida is a Burmese human rights activist, writer, medical doctor, and former prisoner of consciousness. In 1993, she was sentenced to twenty years in Burma’s Insein Prison for actively supporting the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She served six years of her sentence, largely in solitary confinement and was released through the efforts of Amnesty International and PEN International. She has published nine books in Burmese and English, including The Sunflower (1999), The Roadmap (2011), and Sanchaung, Insein, Harvard (2012), a memoir. Ma Thida is currently president of PEN Myanmar.
As Chairman of the USDP, Shwe Mann selected a list of candidates for the upcoming election. The list included those who are against the current president and party chairman, Thein Sein, as well as candidates from the military’s top officials. The military has accused Shwe Mann of “betrayal” when he, as the speaker of the parliament, spearheaded the impeachment of members of the constitutional tribunal over lack of legal recognition. Writing under the penname “Eike Nge,” a military officer disclosed details of the military’s disappointment towards former army members in the current parliament, including Shwe Mann, in a July 15th article published in The Voice, a local daily newspaper. One of the reasons for the military’s disappointment in Shwe Mann is his cooperative relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi. Shwe Mann worked with Aung San Suu Kyi to achieve constitutional reform, an effort that eventually failed because the military holds 25 percent of the votes in parliament. “Eike Nge” also said the USDP manipulated votes in the Union Election Commission to win the 2010 election.
A lot of people in Burma see the midnight ousting of Shwe Mann as the split of the USDP. Indeed, it is the result of the Burmese military’s failure. Throughout its history, the military rule has boasted that it is the only single institution which never fails in its integrity. However, when it decided to become the leading institution in the country’s politics and future, it introduced two big forces: 25 percent of the votes in parliament belong to current military officials, and the USDP is a party of former military men. Burma’s 2008 constitution favors a military presence in the top decision making positions: the elected president, speakers of the house, and supreme judges. Because of this, military is always against any constitutional amendment. But this decision itself creates factions inside the military.
When a military authoritarian state tries to reform as democratic, the first step should be the withdrawal of military presence from positions of power and influence in all the pillars of that democratic government. In Burma, the military withdrawal from the government is still lacking, both in the laws and the military’s intent. The Burmese military has tried to split itself into three branches: the military itself, the USDP political party, and executive staff. After 2010, leading military officials — especially those who either owned or had family members who owned successful businesses — became leaders of USDP. Some of them, like the presidents and ministers, became key players in the executive branch. Additionally, since 1962 some mid-level military officers have been assigned to civil servant administrative staffs. In our language, Burmese people call former military members baung-be-choots (without pants) and current military members baung-be-wuts (with pants). (The civil servant uniform is still a traditional Burmese suit – different from what an international businessperson would wear – so the term derives from the fact that former military civil servants do not need to wear their military pants anymore.)
Over the years, most baung-be-choots have remained loyal to the military. That is why the vote for a constitutional amendment by Shwe Mann and some of the ministers from the USDP felt like a betrayal: baung-be-choots believe all other baung-be-choot should remain loyal to military as long as the military exists. However, the conflict is not only between the baung-be-choot and baung-be-wut. It is also among the baung-be-choots inside the USDP. Some baung-be-choots who became members of the executive staff — like Thein Sein, Aung Min, and Soe Thein – try to avoid acting against the military, especially in the ongoing peace process.
After the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won some seats in the parliament, the baung-be-choots in parliament needed to work together with ministers from the NLD. That was when we saw cooperation between Shwe Mann and Aung San Suu Kyi over some legislative issues, as well as between other baung-be-choot ministers, ministers from the NLD, and ethnic party ministers. The conflicts became more obvious as the executive and legislative branches began to fight for some issues like the budget and constitutional reform. Sometimes, the ministers’ reactions to the executives’ decisions made the military believe its former members did not share a single team spirit, like the NLD and ethnic ministers. The military perceived this as an act of betrayal, too.
Since late 2012, conflicts between baung-be-choots in the executive and legislative branches have become bigger and deeper. Apart from President Thein Sein, all senior former military members own several huge, successful businesses, making the competition amongst themselves and their families are that much more intense.
The fight between the baung-be-choots is multi-dimensional and serves many purposes. Although the soft coup at first sounded like a political mercy killing, later events revealed it was commercial suicide. The day after the soft coup, the Union Daily newspaper, run as the party paper of the USDP, stopped and declared that it would be published under a new name and new owner. Cherry FM, the radio station owned by Shwe Mann’s son, had difficulty in its transmission; all FM stations go through the Ministry of Information’s transit station. Shwe Mann’s son said that the Ministry of Information had asked Cherry FM to a submit letter voluntarily withdrawing from its services. Cherry FM denied submitting the voluntary withdrawal, but said that it needed to stop its current service in order to negotiate with the Ministry of Information again in order to receive a good frequency transmission from its station.
People thought that the upcoming election in Burma would be very intense. Some religious groups, like the Ma Ba Tha, acting out of extreme nationalism, had already fueled up the fight between the USDP and NLD. On top of that, five suspects are believed to have attempted to murder the CEO of a daily newspaper on July 15; the publisher’s daily newspaper is well-known for reporting on the executive body and its members. Only a month later, one of the suspects has been arrested: he is a soldier, and the military brought him for investigation in its own court. The result is that people feel, as they have always felt, that their lives or property could be in danger and the executive branch and army would be of no help to them.
Between the baung-be-wuts and baung-be-choots, and even among the baung-be-choots themselves, the military is failing in its integrity. The peace process is still standing in the way of destiny. Much less than a free and fair vote – which the people cannot hope to have – these events lead to doubt as to whether the upcoming elections will even be peaceful.