New Name, Same Regime

Little will change in Burma until leaders work with opposition

Burma's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) recently dissolved itself, announcing that the country would now be ruled by the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC.

While the new name sounds less repulsive, the old acronym is more appropriate. The SPDC's top four leaders are the same as SLORC's, though there are 15 new high-ranking military officers. The renaming of the regime and the military reshuffle is a reflection of an economy in shambles, pervasive corruption, and a poor standing in the international community because of the regime's appalling human rights record.

On Sept. 18, to commemorate the ninth anniversary of SLORC, the regime cited its special achievements in the state-run media. Articles highlighted Burma's full entry into ASEAN in July and its success in negotiating cease-fires with 15 of the country's 16 main ethnic groups. SLORC categorized its formation as an "act of salvation" for the country.

Whether called the SPDC or SLORC, the military hierarchy's "act of salvation" has come at a serious price for the peoples of Burma (also known as Myanmar). Inflation is high, foreign reserves are at an all-time low, and credit to bring in minimum imports such as fuel and fertilizer is drying up.

Although SLORC instituted measures to liberalize the economy, foreign investment has slowed. SLORC was quick to point out that the government approved more than $6 billion in foreign investment since 1992. Yet, only one-third of the approved investments were implemented. Moreover, many are linked directly with business ventures where senior military officers have a significant financial stake. This arrangement allows the military regime (no matter what its name) to sustain and perpetuate its power.

Money goes to military

Economic mismanagement under SLORC has been very costly. Statistics indicate anywhere between 39 and 50 percent of the government's national budget is spent on the military. High military spending has come at the expense of the country's social services, particularly health and education. Figures on military expenditures have varied because of SLORC's unwillingness (and perhaps inability) to produce a transparent budget. It is questionable whether the SPDC will be more adept than its predecessor at improving Burma's economy and investing more in human-resource development.

Compounding Burma's economic problems is the political stalemate between the government and the country's most formidable opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD is headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. From 1989 to 1995, Ms. Suu Kyi was under house arrest. For months after her house arrest, she was able to make speeches from her home, touching on Burma's needs for democracy, peace, transparency, and honesty in government and calling for dialogue with SLORC. During the past year, SLORC made it increasingly difficult for Suu Kyi to meet the public by banning such meetings and limiting Suu Kyi's movements in Rangoon.

A promising gathering

In late September, SLORC allowed the NLD to hold a party congress at Suu Kyi's compound. The meeting was significant, since two prior attempts to hold a party congress were thwarted by SLORC. It may be that SLORC perceived that splits in the NLD would become apparent and differences in party policies pronounced.

After a couple of meetings between Suu Kyi and NLD youth groups, the regime put an end to such gatherings and again restricted her movements. Shortly thereafter, Burma's state-run media denounced Suu Kyi as "confrontational" and "uncompromising" and said her actions block the path to democracy.

With the dissolution of SLORC, the SPDC has developed a new phrase in its lexicon: "disciplined democracy." By retaining SLORC's core leadership, and bringing in powerful, younger regional commanders, the SPDC may indeed strengthen its rule. The SPDC might even call for a multiparty system with elections. But this will be a multiparty system the SPDC feels it can control.

And what of Suu Kyi? Burma's military is terrified of her political potency, but wary of international reaction if she is crudely isolated. If the regime is to achieve economic prosperity and eliminate its pariah status in the eyes of the international community, it will have to work with Burma's political opposition, including Suu Kyi. Whether the SPDC will attempt to establish such a dialogue is unclear.

Any reform the SPDC might be amenable to will likely come at a snail's pace. The move from harsh, authoritarian military rule to democracy will not be easy. Clearly, military rule is no longer acceptable to the Burmese people. Still, given the role of the army in modern Burmese history, it will be necessary to have the military play a role in the country's development. Suu Kyi does not discount this. She has said the military should have an honorable role in state affairs. Though she has never defined what "honorable" means, it is safe to say Suu Kyi does not believe the military should dominate state affairs.

Any political transition will require educating and training civilians as well as military officials. The country's development will never be realized unless the military makes a genuine effort to work with the political opposition and ethnic minorities toward national reconciliation. If that were to happen, it truly would be an "act of salvation" for the peoples of Burma.

* John J. Brandon is a Southeast Asia specialist for The Asia Foundation. The views expressed here are his own.

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