May 10 was supposed to be a big day for Burma’s military, the day that it legitimated itself through the ballot box. On that day, millions of eligible voters were supposed to come and freely express their approval of a constitution that would guarantee the army a quarter of seats in parliament and reaffirm its role as the leading state agency in a “discipline-flourishing” democracy, with a constitution of the generals, by the generals, for the generals.
That was the plan. In reality, the military’s legitimacy has been decided upon by something else entirely. Cyclone Nargis not only obliterated hundreds of coastal villages and with them prospects for a trouble-free poll, but also any chance that the regime can now or at any time in the future obtain the credibility at home or abroad that the referendum was intended to secure for it. Never mind the widespread claims of vote rigging, bullying and miscounting. That the referendum was held at all, that almost two weeks on cyclone victims have received no help and are dying in makeshift huts of cholera, that rivers and fields are still full of bloated corpses and that officials are selling or hoarding relief supplies delivered from well-meaning donors abroad all speak to the regime’s barbarity and its absolute want of legitimacy.
The junta’s store of legitimacy, to the extent that it existed at all, was already greatly diminished by the events of September 2007. The putting down of the latest popular uprising was in some respects even more shocking than the crushing of protests in 1988, albeit less bloody, because this time around Buddhist monks were in the forefront of rallies. Not only do the majority of people in Burma venerate the monks but the generals too, in the absence of any singular unifying ideology of old, have used them as a central plank in the platform upon which they have stood for the last two decades. By pressing on since then and presenting themselves as pious leaders on a righteous path, the army leaders have instead consistently reminded the public of their sins rather than of any advertised virtues.
The other main element in the propaganda, leaving aside the state stability humbug, has been national development. New roads, bridges, dams, weirs, universities, schools, hospitals and crops are the stuff from which the military has sought to build a legacy. People can travel more easily, grow more plants more often, study harder and get better medical treatment than ever before. Or so the story goes, thanks to the government’s benevolence. It is a story that was never true, but in the aftermath of the cyclone has been shown to be so horribly wrong that even the most skeptical of citizens has been shocked that the regime would stoop to the point of blocking international aid from starving villagers and stealing from the small amounts that it has allowed in. Even the most cynical of observers has been alarmed that boxes of supplies from Thailand have had the names of senior officers plastered over the top of the kingdom’s labels, only to be taken back from dazed ostensible recipients anyhow after the television cameras had been turned off. And that is just a little of what has happened in the past week and a half, a week and a half in which the ruling clique has really shown its true colours, their unsurpassed ugliness.
The ballot boxes from May 10, and those from the remaining 47 townships where the vote was postponed to May 24, will be full yet empty: full of little papers that will one way or another be taken as an endorsement of the army’s continued rule, but empty of substance and devoid of meaning. The referendum was not a sham, as so many commentators and political opponents have said so many times in recent weeks. It just wasn’t anything at all. Whatever it was supposed to be it was not; whatever it was supposed to decide has been decided elsewhere: a great cost for absolutely nothing.