Sunday, July 8, 2012

Slow Motion Revolutions - Burma and Egypt

Burma and Egypt are both experiencing snail’s pace revolutions and yet both seem to be on the right track. There’s always the danger of reverting to past repression and autocracy but still their paths to democracy and basic rights seem irrevocable. After tasting the freedom to speak their minds, I doubt if the citizens of those countries can ever accept those kinds of restrictions again.

After 50 years in control, Burma’s military rulers have decided to cede power, albeit slowly and grudgingly, to democratic forces. A few years back they wrote a constitution that gives themselves permanent control over 25% of the legislature and at least initially stacked the rest in their favor. More recently the country held by-elections for 45 seats in the parliament in which Ang San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 44. The NLD is almost certain to win a majority in 2015 when the next national elections are held; that is, unless the generals abruptly change their minds and try to revert to the past. Suu Kyi’s party won 89% of the vote in 1989 which was then ignored by the military. Not long after they also reportedly killed about 3000 people demonstrating for power for the NLD (compare that to 300 killed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square around the same time).

When a country’s leaders are willing to commit mass murder to stay in power, the people have no choice but to retreat and bide their time, and so a whole generation has waited for the military’s change of heart. There are several possible reasons for the movement forward. For one I think they just got tired of being pariahs, of being ostracized by almost the entire world community. While they always lived lavishly, they’ve also watched while their policies and stubbornness brought their country down from one of the wealthiest, most advanced societies in Asia to one of the poorest.

It’s even possible that their impetus for allowing the slow transition to democracy - even while they continue to hold many of the reins of power - is based in large part on greed, since there’s a lot more money to be siphoned off of a growing, advancing economy than one strangled by sanctions. Cambodia provides a good example: half of all the private vehicles and 3/4 of all luxury cars in the country are owned by people connected to the government. When you see a $170,000 Lexus or Range Rover SUV pass by it’s nearly always a bureaucrat’s or public official’s car. That’s in spite of official salaries that are so low - the chief justice of the supreme court earns $640 per month - that  there isn’t a single one of them that could even afford a 10 year old Camry on their salaries alone.

Part of the Burmese military’s change of heart must also have come from the reverberations of the Arab spring and their fear of being on the wrong side of history. The people will eventually demand their rights and in that case autocratic rulers basically have three options. The first is to resist and then when unrest becomes too great to counter with force without killing large numbers of people, either flee or give up, as in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. The second is to fight to the death as in Libya and Syria. This will result in ignominy and the likelihood of a messy unceremonious death. The third is what the generals in Burma and Egypt are doing; that is, gradually devolving power to elected leaders. In that way they become good guys, if not quite heroes, and save their own necks in the process.

The situation in Egypt is a bit different than Burma. The military there control 30% to 40% of the entire economy and so they have an especial need to cling to power and have been walking a tightrope between that need and the desire to be seen as democrats and not unnecessarily inflame passions from opposing forces in the country. They set up a legislature and held a free and fair vote but the outcome wasn’t to their expectations so they had the legislature disbanded. It was set up with 2/3rds of legislators coming from proportional representation, 1/3 from individual districts. They weren’t happy that the Muslim Brotherhood, who’ve been the enemy of the military for close to a century, won most of the individual seats.

Before that they had disqualified several leading candidates for the recent presidential election. Voters were left with a choice between Shafiq who had ties to the previous government and Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood who actually was MB’s second choice. The election was very close, though MB poll watchers counted 51.5% for their candidate. It was close enough for the military rulers to contemplate stealing the election for Shafiq but in the end decided that the storm of protest that would’ve erupted would’ve been uncontainable. Besides only a few days before they had stripped the presidential office of most of its powers, so they let Morsi’s win go through.

Morsi won’t have a lot of real power, but he will speak out for the people and the military will have an impossible time resisting when the people are behind him. So, similar to Suu Kyi he will be biding his time and pushing gently but firmly for true democracy. He’s an Islamist but he’s spoken very clearly that he plans to represent all of the people of Egypt and will appoint women and members of Egypt’s minorities to his cabinet. Morsi was trained in the US as a rocket scientist and two of his children were born in the US and are American citizens. So it’s a good chance that he understands democracy and liberal society

There certainly has been backsliding or resistance to change on the part of the generals in both countries. There are still more than 300 political prisoners in Burma; the Egyptian generals are still arresting people under martial law. Still, considering how harshly American demonstrators have been treated lately, it’s hard to single Burma and Egypt out as not going in the right direction and it still seems that real transition is happening.

As long as the only alternative to gradual change is civil war and/or widespread bloodshed, the democratic leaders of both countries are probably making the right decision to hang back and set aside for the present their impatience for change and the hostility they must feel towards the military in both countries that have made life hell for their people for generations. A little patience seems a worthy tradeoff to prevent the unnecessary loss of life.