Since democratic reforms began in Burma, political observers and pundits in the country have struggled to determine who are the genuine reformists and remaining hardliners in the ruling party and government.
But now, after three years, things are finally becoming clear. It appears the political situation has reverted to a more familiar black and white, as key officials begin to show willingness to cheat during the political race ahead of the 2015 elections.
Perhaps this clarity is for the better.
This week, Tin Aye, a former general and now chairman of Burma’s Union Election Commission, said that the involvement of the army in Burmese politics is necessary to prevent a military coup. “The military MPs make up 25 percent of Parliament. To be clear, we have them because we don’t want a coup. The military is in Parliament not because of power, but for negotiation,” he said.
He added to his condescending view that the military will leave politics “only when democratic standards are high in the country.” Unsurprisingly, the perception that Burmese people do not deserve to have democracy is still widely held among the former military leaders.
Tin Aye was a lieutenant-general and top ranking leader of the former State Peace and Development Council and a protégé of ex-junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe. He is also close to the current President Thein Sein.
The general turned national election commission chairman addressed the issue of the 2015 elections—which is supposed to Burma’s first democratic elections in 25 years. He assured reporters, “For the 2015 election, I promise it will be systematically free and fair.”
Tin Aye, however, then went on say he wants to hold a national election in “disciplined democracy style,” a term used by the army to describe its intention to tightly control the pace of Burma’s democratic transition.
His election commission, he said, will only allow politicians to campaign in their own constituencies, a move that will significantly affect opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
The hugely popular leader has been touring the country in recent months, rallying people to support her call for amendments to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution and shoring up popular support for her party.
The NLD won a landslide victory during the by-elections in 2012, when the party contested seats in 44 of 45 constituencies up for grabs. Before the election, Suu Kyi traveled to those townships and campaigned on behalf of her party members, who then won 43 of the 44 seats.
The idea behind Tin Aye’s new measure is simple: To break the leg of a rival ahead of the marathon—that is, the 2015 national election.
That’s how the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) also won the rigged election in 2010; there was no one else running against them. After the election, former dictator Than Shwe handed over power to USDP candidate Thein Sein, who formed a nominally-civilian government.
Tin Aye himself won a seat in the Lower House of Parliament, representing Mandalay Division’s Tada-U Township as a member of the USDP. Conveniently, President Thein Sein nominated him as chairman of the election commission in 2011—so all is set up for a repeat of the 2010 elections.
As if his announcement wasn’t enough to indicate his disdain for the Burmese voters, the election commission chairman went on to remark that the NLD campaign for the 2012 by-elections—which were praised United States and the European Union—resembled an unruly public demonstration.
NLD rallies that year that saw thousands of people in NLD T-shirts come out to show their support, often waving the party’s flag to welcome Suu Kyi in the first exercise in free democratic campaigning in more than two decades.
Yet Tin Aye saw these events differently. “Those campaigns were so free that they looked rather like the ’88 uprising revisited,” he said, referring to the 1988 pro-democracy uprising against the dictatorship of Gen. Ne Win, which was brutally crushed by the Burma Army.
With his remarks, the former general in charge of overseeing the all-important 2015 elections has shown his true colors.
If he doesn’t want to hold the national elections, it is better that he simply asks the military to take over power and shut the country’s democratic process down again. But if he wants all political leaders to play fair, he shouldn’t put crippling restrictions on the opposition.
Tin Aye’s remarks are a telling sign of this government’s insincerity towards the democratic reforms, in spite of all the praise that the international community has heaped on President Thein Sein and his cabinet.
Tin Aye’s planned measure and crude remarks are not the only steps this government has taken to tip the political balance in their favor.
It is suspected that the violence against Muslims and certain international aid groups working Burma’s conflict zones are engineered by some powerful elements in the establishment.
Thein Sein recently proposed asking Parliament to consider approving the interfaith marriage law, which would restrict women from marrying those with other beliefs. These campaigns are designed to pave way for security forces and army to play a key role ahead of the elections, as well as to garner support from radical Buddhist clergy and Buddhist nationalists.
The message that Tin Aye has sent is clear: the political game will not be played fair, they will seek to injure a rival ahead of the game—cowards.