Burmese plays: Igor Blaževič outlines the scenarios following the landslide elections

Aung San Suu Kyi, photo: CTK

Burma’s National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, had secured a landslide majority in recent elections. But the transition to full democratic rule does not look easy with the military still holding onto many of the levers of power. Chris Johnstone talked with Igor Blaževič who, has just returned to Prague after several years helping the Burmese political opposition prepare for power. The first question was what he had been doing in Burma for the past few years.

Igor Blaževič,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I have been working the last five years in a small Burmese civil society organisation called Educational Initiative, based in Thailand the first two years and the last three years I have spent in Burma, in Rangoon and the country around. And I have been providing comparative political science courses for activists from civil society and the political parties.”

What exactly are you trying to teach them?

“I was focused on the experience of transitions to democracy in countries around the world, successful and failed. And I was trying to draw the lessons from other places to help activists understand the dynamics happening in Burma. I was analysing constantly what is the dynamic happening in Burma, what are the main risks and opportunities which are emerging and then I am trying to bring some comparative experience for them to understand what is happening. Many of my students have been former political prisoners, meaning people who have spent 15-20 years in jail, so politically they are very mature but in terms of knowledge about history and recent developments they have a big lack of knowledge.”

And the Czech Republic, or former Czechoslovakia, did you use that as an example, a positive or negative example?

“When you go away from military dictatorship you don’t lead necessary to democracy but that you can go into the hybrid regimes.”

“The Czech experience is not too relevant for Burma. Let’s say that for Burma the experiences from the former Yugoslavia and the way how nationalism was used by the former Communists in former Yugoslavia to win elections, I have in mind [Slobodan] Milosovic, that has been very relevant experience for Burma because the post-military regime also tried to use religion and nationalism to win elections. Then the developments around the world which started to stop being dictatorships but turned not into democracies but into hybrid regimes, like Azerbaijan, like Russia, has also been very, very relevant to Burma to try and understand that when you go away from military dictatorship you don’t lead necessary to democracy but that you can go into the hybrid regimes.”

Coming back to the recent elections in Burma, the results that are coming through show the likelihood that the NLD will have more or less a landslide victory. Was that clear to you? You were in the country as recently as recently as a week or two ago. Did it look like that would happen or were there still some doubts?

“It was pretty much obvious for anyone who has spent much time in the country that NLD would have an overwhelming victory. We had not, and even the NLD had not, expected that it would be such a sweeping victory. It is almost a total victory that we have witnessed. And it is really impressive how the NLD has shown determination and confidence and how they have been able to mobilise not just their own support base but also mobilise broader society.”

Aung San Suu Kyi,  photo: CTK
What problems do you now envisage for them? They win an election victory and will probably get a majority in parliament but the army is still there isn’t it?

“Yes, the army is still the most powerful institution in the country. There is a constitution which has been imposed by the military which puts a lot of constraints on any new parliament and government. So what the country needs now is a reasonable deal between the military and the winning NLD. If there is no reasonable agreement between these two political stakeholders then the country will not be able to go forward. So this is priority number one: a reasonable negotiated pact between the military and the NLD. The second problem is that the country is a deeply divided society and for any government it will be very, very hard to manage these deep divisions and this unsolved problem of the civil war. So the peace process is the next big priority and a hard challenge, a really hard challenge.”

The army is entrenched, it has 25 percent of the seats already in parliament guaranteed. It is entrenched in most of the economy and has a series of key ministries as well, for the defence, interior, and the borders. Do you see the NLD being able to cope with that scenario?

“It will be a really, very, very complex cohabitation between the very entrenched military, which as you said as 25 percent of the military MPs, has three strong, powerful ministries under their control, and is very deeply entrenched not just in the economy but all state institutions. On the other side we have the NLD with an overwhelming majority in parliament and able to form the government. So it will be a very complex cohabitation and it will basically depend on whether the military will now support reasonable cooperation with the NLD or will enter into a war of attrition. If the military starts obstructing the government then we will have ongoing instability in the country. If there can be a reasonable deal, let’s say how they can mutually guarantee each other some basic interests for the winning NLD the ongoing democratisisation and the military preserving some of its prerogatives at this moment then the country can move forward.”

“It will basically depend on whether the military will now support reasonable cooperation with the NLD or will enter into a war of attrition.”

And are there discussions in the army? Is the army divided, or there some moderates or reformers or not?

“I would say the military, that is to say, all the people in the military were allowed to vote then an overwhelming majority of them would vote for the NLD. I think that 90 percent of the people in the military, that means the ordinary soldiers, are basically in favour of the NLD. The top leadership of the military and the institutional structure of the military is a problem but there are cracks. There are cracks and there are reformers within the military but it is still very much a black box what is the real thinking of the military. What the military planned is to change the former repressive military dictatorship, which was very dysfunctional, into a new political system in which the ex-military will run the show, run the government. That’s how they planned the transition and they failed. They now have a very different situation and I think that the military is now recalculating what should be their next move.”

What some people said happened in the Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, is that the former Communists, the former military leaders maybe, had to give up their former parliamentary predominance but that they became successful in the economy. Is that maybe what will happen in Burma?

“I think that in Burma the military will play a much bigger role than the former elites played in the Czech Republic. In the Czech Republic, yes, they moved from politics and went into the economy, many of them or some of them. In Burma, we will probably have something more like the situation in Indonesia which for a prolonged period of time the military played an important political role and this exit of the military from politics will be much, much slower than the exit of the Communists from political power in Central Europe.”

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State,  photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office,  OGL
One problem in Burma is obviously the civil war with the minorities on the border. The other is the Moslem minority, which if I gather correctly did not even have the right to vote in the recent elections. Is the NLD in a position to hold out an olive branch to both the minorities and do something about the Moslem problem?

“Let me just make one slight correction, the Rohingya Moslem minority were not allowed to vote and they are denied citizens’ rights. The Moslems, which is a much bigger group in Burma, have been allowed to vote but they have not been allowed to be elected. So there have been no Moslem candidates because the united electoral commission blocked Moslems from being candidates but they have been allowed to vote because the majority of Moslems are citizens., only the Rohingya minority has been denied. The question of the Moslems and Rohingya is a very complex problem and I think that the most important thing is that the outgoing government of Thein Sein and the military behind it instigated the hate and the communal violence and they activated this nation and religion protection agenda in order to win the 2015 elections.

“It will take time before anybody in Myanmar can solve the very deep prejudice of the Buddhist majority against the Moslem minority and particularly against the Rohingya.”

“This agenda is potentially present in the country because the racism is deep, the discrimination is deep, but the political activation of this hate and violence has been activated with very clear political intentions. That has now been defeated in elections by the people and that is really remarkable how people have rejected the fear and hatred by voting for the NLD. So I am expecting now that from the top of the government we will now have a different politics which will calm down the situation. But it will take time before anybody in Myanmar can solve the very deep prejudice of the Buddhist majority against the Moslem minority and particularly against the Rohingya, which are not just the Moslem minority but which are seen as the underdogs, the social underdogs, and as the social untouchables who basically do not belong to the country. They belong to the country but the prejudices are very, very deep.”