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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 95-108

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How Burma Could Democratize

Andrew Reynolds, Alfred Stepan, Zaw Oo, and Stephen Levine

In June 2001, Burma's long-ruling military regime began to intensify its on-again, off-again talks with the leader of the country's largest democratic opposition party, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Observers have split over the meaning of this move. Some see the renewed dialogue as potentially the most important opening in a decade, while others dismiss it as little more than a ruse to forestall further sanctions and perhaps to get some of the current sanctions lifted.

At the request of the Burmese democratic opposition, we recently met with some of its leaders in Thailand. 1 Drawing on our knowledge of comparative politics, we discussed three questions: 1) What has, and has not, been accomplished in the Burmese talks so far? 2) How do military regimes give way to democracy, and how might that happen in Burma? 3) What sort of electoral system and federal arrangements will work best to ensure that free and fair elections are held and honored in Burma? This article is a report and a reflection upon these discussions, out of which emerged both new problems and surprising possibilities.

The military has ruled Burma continuously since 1962. From 1988 to 1997, the junta called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a name it changed to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in the latter year. Currently, the SPDC has 19 members. All of them are high-ranking military officers, mostly army generals. The armed services (collectively called the Tatmadaw) are led by Senior General [End Page 95] Than Shwe, an army officer who is also the SPDC chairman, head of state, prime minister, and defense minister. Than Shwe may be ill, and on occasion has expressed a wish to retire.

The talks with Aung San Suu Kyi would not have happened without a minimal consensus among the top five generals of the SPDC. However, the talks seem to be under the control of Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, who is an SPDC member, the longstanding head of military intelligence, and the head of the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) charged with political and international affairs. Khin Nyunt, who historically has been seen as close to the dying Ne Win (the longtime armed-forces chief), is the leader of what is reputed to be a "soft-line" faction within the upper echelons of the regime. The 12 major generals who are regional commanders are ex officio members of the SPDC. Most are close to a reputedly "hard-line" faction led by army commander-in-chief General Maung Aye (who himself, however, has also met with Aung San Suu Kyi).

The military's dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi appears closed, but with two top generals possibly leaving the scene, it may in fact be partly open.

Institutionalized oppression, ethnic fragmentation, and political dis-trust have been facts of life in Burma ever since it won full independence from Britain in 1948. 2 Indigenous rulers, invariably presenting themselves as the embodiment of "the State," have adopted and refined the old British-colonial strategy of divide-and-rule. Electoral democracy lasted for just 12 years before the military swept away the civilian government in March 1962, but even during the years of multiparty competition, ethnic issues were never entirely laid to rest. The military has always seen itself as the mainstay of the state's integrity.

Burma's minority "nationalities" have never been truly assimilated into the polity of this land of 48 million, as many as 68 percent of whom are thought to be ethnic Burmans. Aside from the Burmans, there are at least eight identifiable ethnic communities based on linguistic, religious, and regional divisions. The Shan represent roughly 9 percent, with the rest of the ethnic breakdown more or less as follows: Karen, 7 percent; Arakanese, 4 percent; Chinese, 3 percent; Mon, 2 percent; Indians, 2 percent; and Chin and Kachin...


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