Burma's Authoritarian Avatar

David Scott Mathieson
Published in:
Bangkok Post
February 13, 2011
If Burma's newly formed parliament seems eerily familiar, that's because most of its members are. As the new national and regional assemblies formed last week, many of the generals who have ruled the country for years assumed nominally civilian roles in the new power structure. All are from the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won more than 77% of the votes in the November 2010 elections widely derided as completely rigged. The new president is former Prime Minister Thein Sein, also party leader of the USDP. His two vice-presidents are General Tin Aung Myint Oo, chosen from the quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for the military, and Dr Sai Mauk Kham, a party member from the upper house of parliament
The speaker of the Lower House is Thura Shwe Mann, a highly decorated former army chief of staff, who retired to run as a governing party candidate from the capital, Naypyidaw, whose residents largely consist of military personnel and civil servants. The speaker of the Upper House is also a retired general and former culture minister, U Khin Aung Myint, once the head of the military psychological warfare department. The governing party is essentially the avatar of the soon to be defunct State Peace and Development Council, a parliamentary puppet of the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw. Standing in reserve is the all-powerful Senior General Than Shwe, having no clear formal role in the reshuffle but widely believed to maintain total control over Burma's authoritarian system.
Where did the USDP come from, and why did the military create it? The new party was originally formed as a mass-based organisation by Than Shwe in 1993, and called the Union Solidarity and Development Association. It was registered as a ''social-welfare'' movement to skirt laws against civil servants being members of political parties. The membership grew to 26 million by 2008. Many civil servants, teachers, students, and local elites joined _ not all of them willingly. By the late 1990s, it was the chief organisation in a sprawling military controlled complex of ''government organised non-governmental organisations'' (aka GONGOs), which also include the Myanmar Women's Affairs Federation, the Myanmar War Veterans Association and others. Than Shwe was its official patron, though it was led by U Htay Oo, a general who also happened to be the minister of agriculture and irrigation.
The organisation amassed considerable financial power, investing in _ or in some cases, merely seizing or expropriating with local military help _ land for farming, market spaces, bus routes and other purposes. Such investments enabled it to buy legitimacy by giving local branches both income and the ability to bestow concessions and favours on local communities. The organisation has taken credit for building roads, and conducted training for journalists and bureaucrats, often thinly disguised indoctrination. In 2008, it claimed credit for disaster relief after Cyclone Nargis, when in fact it was Burmese civil society groups that did most of the difficult work.
The group's philosophy and aims mirrored the military's word for word. Its symbol, the temple guardian dragon, or chinthe, became the central picture on Burmese banknotes in 1995, replacing Aung San Suu Kyi's father, the independence hero General Aung San. Members throughout Burma were corralled into surreal mass rallies, all in white-shirted uniforms, to criticise Western sanctions, denounce Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters, and raise funds for local development that the military controlled.
The movement rapidly developed a dark side: its paramilitary groups were involved in violent attacks against opposition members in 1996, and in 2003 hundreds of its cadres staged a violent assault on Mrs Suu Kyi's motorcade in the upper Burma town of Depayin, killing about 70 of her supporters. In 2007, during the demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in Rangoon, the group's thugs assisted military and riot police forces to quash the marches and arrest thousands of activists.
It was no surprise when the group was transformed into the new party in March 2010 as the military prepared for elections. Prime Minister Thein Sein took control, and scores of senior generals resigned to run as candidates for the party throughout Burma. The party also inherited the majority of the group's membership, all those of voting age, and the association's infrastructure: offices, staff, business interests and bank accounts. Military-crafted electoral laws made it almost impossible for opposition parties to run, and prohibitively expensive to register a candidate. The party was the only one to field candidates in almost all of the 1,160 electorates. It is a bespoke political wing of the military, carefully crafted to assume parliamentary control. In the unlikely scenario that the party deviates from the Tatmadaw line, the 2008 constitution grants the military the authority to take over the government _ effectively a constitutional coup d'etat _ a threat reportedly made by Than Shwe in a secret meeting of senior military commanders in late January.
The Tatmadaw have crafted a methodical fix of democratic illusion. That great chronicler of Sicilian politics, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, wrote in his classic novel The Leopard that in order for everything to stay the same, everything had to change. The Burmese military have adopted that credo wholeheartedly, and the new party is their avatar for presenting a more palatable image to Burma and the world.
David Scott Mathieson is a Senior Researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.