For the first time since 1990, Burma went to the polls. Though the final results have
not been released, most regard the election as a sham meant to cement military rule, with complex election rules put in place to exclude opposition candidates as well as interference from the junta
in the campaign and a ban on foreign reporting.
Senior General Than Shwe and his camouflage-clad cohorts are likely to get away with the electoral theft. Nearly all of Burma’s neighbours -– Thailand, India and China included -–
are willing to ignore the regime’s failings to obtain commercial benefits.
As The Telegraph has reported, Chinese investment in Burma
stands at over £5 billion; China is particularly interested in Burmese oil and gas. China also has strategic interest in its neighbour: it wants access to the Indian Ocean and has helped
modernise Burmese naval facilities in return for permitting use of the Small and Great Coco Island, located 18 Kilometers from the Indian Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
India, in turn, has moved from supporting the pro-democracy forces to protecting the junta, lest China (and Pakistan) beat New Delhi to the strategic prize. At the recent East Asian meeting in
Hanoi, only Indonesia and the Philippines were willing to criticise Burma’s regime.
What can Britain do in this case? Amnesty International’s Kate Allen implores the “global community” to “stand together as one and send an unambiguous message to the Burmese
Government”. She lists a range of things that David Cameron should ask the Chinese to demand of the Burmese junta – like freeing all prisoners of conscience and restoring democracy. I too
hope he raises Burma when in China. Keeping external pressure on Burma is key.
But I don’t see the Chinese moving on this or the need for the issue to overshadow the British visit. Britain needs to play a longer game.
Fights inside the regime are unlikely to begin until the deaths of the aging generals Than Shwe and Maung Aye who have nothing to gain by change – but this may not be true of younger military
officers. Some may be willing to usher in change if they are rewarded financially and politically.
In preparation for such a moment, the international community would do well to support the many more centres of formal decision-making created in the constitution. In addition to the national
parliament in Naypyidaw, there will be seven regional assemblies, seven state assemblies, five self-administered ethnically-designated zones and one self-administered ethnically-designated
division. While powerless at first, some of these assemblies may slowly gain influence.
Even the newly-elected legislature may provide opportunities. Twenty-five percent of seats are reserved for military personnel, but some former military officers and even members of the regime’s
own party may not be quite as pliant as everyone now imagines.
Though the military will remain in charge, the truth is that Burma’s political scene is about to become much more dynamic. It is even possible, over time, that a diffusion of power between
the soldiers and the civilians, and between the central government and provincial assemblies will take place and pave the way for real change.
Make no mistake, the Burmese election on Sunday was a sham and Britain is right to denounce it and should lobby China, India, Thailand and Pakistan to change their Burma policy. But new
opportunities for pluralism may open up in the coming years.