Towards “disciplined democracy”: A cartoon of the National Convention
The news that Burma’s government will hold a constitutional plebiscite this May, followed by general elections in 2010, has captured interest and caused some confusion abroad.
That the army is intent upon cementing its power in any future government there is beyond question. It has never pretended otherwise. Nor is it necessary to read the long and tiresome accounts of the recently completed national convention to know that the country’s as yet unwritten charter will have this express purpose.
So the argument caused by this latest announcement is not over whether or not the military intends to stay on top. Rather, it is about whether or not the upcoming poll might signify something more.
For the regime’s opponents and its many detractors, it does not; the referendum is just another ruse. For its backers and a few apologists, it does, if for no other reason than that any hint of reform should be encouraged.
Although this divergence in views is apparently caused by the peculiarities of Burma and its dictators, it is as much a consequence of differences in opinion about the qualities of referenda, as well as about the nature of social and political change anywhere.
Those persons who have already described the upcoming vote as a sham rightly point out that Burma remains home to thousands of political prisoners, and that the authorities will certainly stage-manage the electoral process.
But the proposed use of a ballot to legitimatize the military leadership’s grip on the country is neither uncommon nor fraudulent.
Referendums are called not to reveal public opinion but to endorse official plans. Autocrats from Hitler to Marcos, Pinochet to Ne Win, have used them to good effect. Sometimes they backfire, as almost happened in Thailand recently. But in any event, it is wrong to associate a plebiscite with democracy.
As for the persons who prefer to give this latest announcement the benefit of doubt, they stress that for anything to happen in Burma something must move somehow, and like it or not, movement depends upon army acquiescence of one type or another.
This is common sense. But to go from that point to imply that the army is a stimulus for change is nonsense. Twenty-first century dictators routinely entrench their authority while pretending the opposite. This has been one of the constants in Burma over the last decade or so, and elections, conventions, committees, subcommittees, roadmaps and pretended dialogue have all played their part; now a referendum.
Change will not come to Burma from its generals, because it is not in their interests. It will not come from the formalities of referenda or constitutions, because these things can at most be the embodiments of change, not its originators. It will not, for that matter, come from the visits of United Nations representatives and self-appointed mediators, because it is neither within their means nor their understanding.
Change is extraneous to all these. It will come to Burma in the spilling out of pent up demands for food, rights to speak freely and the basic human need to be treated with simple decency, as it did last September. How and when that happens next remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the vehicle for protest should not be mistaken as the cause of change, and the opponents of change must not be mistaken as its proponents.