Burma conservatives overthrow reform rivals in military party

Here at Arsenal For Democracy, beyond my general interest in government transitions, we’ve recently been keeping an eye on the rickety Burmese political transition to democracy ➚, on the not-so-off-chance ➚ that the Myanmar military would eventually decided to overthrow its own party and scrap the transition (or water it down ➚ to pointlessness). Some version of that appears to have begun this week. At the very least, an internal coup of some kind occurred, with coercive shakeups in the ruling party and cabinet.

It’s still unclear whether the active-duty military brass or rival ex-military politicians ordered the action by security forces, but the military-aligned USD Party found its top leaders removed from party positions at gunpoint on Wednesday:

Sources within the headquarters of the USDP – which is effectively a political extension of the military – said Shwe Mann, party chairman and speaker of the parliament, had been deposed and was under police guard.
“Police entered the party compound last night. Since then no one was allowed in or out,” Toe Naing Mann, Shwe Mann’s son, told Agence France-Presse. “So-called guards” were also outside his father’s residence in the capital, Naypyidaw, he said.

Several trucks of soldiers and police officers arrived at the compound at about 10pm on Wednesday, sources said. “We have not been allowed to move around since late yesterday,” said one party member.

The USDP general secretary, Maung Maung Thein, was also forced from his post. “They called me and told me I don’t need to come to the office anymore,” he told Reuters.
Christian Lewis, a political risk analyst for Eurasia Group, said a faction in the party loyal to [President] Thein Sein appeared to have finally moved decisively against Shwe Mann after a long-running power struggle.
“I think primarily that is the ruling party’s internal affair, but the internal struggle of the ruling party can threaten the democratisation process of [Burma],” [local political commentator Yan Myo Thein] said. “Because of the power struggle and incidents inside the ruling party, the upcoming general election can be postponed. If the election is postponed the process of democratisation in Myanmar will be delayed.”

The ruling party issued a statement saying that the removal was strictly limited to party postings (such as the chairmanship and general secretariat) and nobody had been deposed from governmental offices — which seems like a delicate way of splitting hairs to apply a veneer of legality to what is essentially a low-key coup by party conservatives. (One partisan claimed that 200 security people were on site when the party held a meeting on the firings.) The USDP did not clarify why its politicians had been fired from the party leadership.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut did offer this veiled commentary to Voice of America:

“Any party will have to go about changes when its leadership deviates from the party’s policies, ignores the party members’ will, prioritizes personal profit over the country’s interests and creates factionalism within the party.”

One interesting angle is that Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann (one of the people removed from his party post in this week’s purge by soldiers and police) had — in the eyes of conservative military brass and ex-military figures — reportedly become too politically close with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the official parliamentary opposition since 2012 (and a longtime, globally-recognized pro-democracy activist). New York Times:

Mr. Shwe Mann, like many politicians in Myanmar today, is a complex and somewhat compromised figure. As a leading member of the former junta, he was complicit in the persecution and economic mismanagement that left millions in poverty and kept thousands in prison for their political beliefs.

But as speaker, he sought to bolster the power of Parliament and pushed legislation opposed by the military that would have decentralized the country’s hierarchical administration, a legacy of military rule. His partnership with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was tenuous, but some saw hope for a grand bargain between the military and democratic forces.

The candidacy filing deadline for the key November elections is today, and Speaker Shwe Mann may struggle to gain ballot access without his party role. The question I posed in January, when it made my list of 15 elections to watch in 2015, remains:

Burma: Is the country really transitioning to democracy or is the transition all a façade by the new military-derived leaders to end the country’s devastating isolation?


Without words for concepts, do they still exist?

burma-mapI’m always fascinated by the way language and available terminology shapes our worldview — literally causing us to view the world fundamentally differently from our fellow people if they grew up with a very different language. In international politics, these differences crop up from time to time in the news.

In recent years, after many decades of broad cultural-political integration, the differences and resulting gaps in mutual understanding have generally become smaller, even borderline mere curiosities.

Examples: German using the same word for debt and guilt. Or, the Greek translation for the Wikipedia page for “Roman Republic” is just “Roman Democracy” because Greek lacks a word for Republic — and Greek government documents can’t use the word “republic” except when translated. Or, ISIS terrorists bitterly disputing the translations of its own various and oft-changed names, and the global media struggling to choose one.

But then there are the truly isolated holdouts, the places that have sealed themselves off from the outside world and kept their language from cross-pollinating.

According to a great new article in the New York Times, the dictatorship of Myanmar — still struggling under new management with a transition into democracy — has been one such place. The consequences of that linguistic-political isolation are now catching up as “Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them”.

The Burmese language doesn’t yet have a native word for democracy, only the borrowed English word with an accented pronunciation. However, it turns out the problem is much larger than one missing word: The country lacks Burmese words for most of the new political and policy concepts of the past four decades (like “computer privacy”)…or even many old concepts like “institution” or “federalism.” The Myanmar military regime attempted to ban even English words for political ideas — and then corrupted the understood meaning of any that remained, such as “rule of law.” An estimated 10-50% of the meaning of any given conversation between Western diplomats and Myanmarese leadership is hopelessly lost in translation.

And it may not just be a failure to understand the literal words. It’s hard to adopt and promote the ideas in a substantive way when the conceptual meaning behind them doesn’t carry over into the worldview-informing culture and language.

This, to my mind, should then pose a much bigger question, affecting many more countries in Asia as well as Africa — and one vastly beyond my pay grade:

Has the West been too quick to fault democratic shortcomings and state failures in post-colonial developing nations as a whole, if we accept that these Western Enlightenment-derived concepts from philosophers and leaders speaking inter-entangled European languages might have to some degree been imposed onto existing cultures with poorly compatible linguistic-cultural frameworks?

Obviously there would still be the usual factors sharing the blame. But it might play a role.

The Burmese political translation challenges now playing out in public should also, once again, raise legitimate questions about the very premise of “universal” values.

Myanmar military will retain “veto” on constitutional reform

Another big stumble for the purported transition to democracy in Burma under the military’s “transitional” leadership.

“Myanmar parliament votes to keep military veto” – BBC News:

MPs in Myanmar vote to keep the army veto over constitutional change, in a blow to Aung San Suu Kyi and hopes for fuller democracy.

This isn’t terribly surprising. I don’t think there was ever any particularly compelling (legitimate) reason for the military to remain in charge during the “transition” to democratic rule. Myanmar was already a failed state, so there wasn’t much downside or risk to making a rapid handoff to independent and technocratic civilians to finish the changeover.

Unless, of course, you were the military and never planned to give up power in the first place because “reforms” were onlya smokescreen meant to end global isolation.

Op-Ed | India’s Zero Dark Thirty Moment

The following op-ed originally appeared in The Globalist.

After the raid into Myanmar: Beware of boundless missions, India.

Indian Paratroopers on parade. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Indian Paratroopers on parade. (Credit: Wikimedia)

This week, India’s military staged a covert operation into neighboring Myanmar (Burma) to target two camps of ethnic separatist militants. The action was taken in order to eliminate the source of recent unprovoked attacks that killed 30 Indian troops near the border.

Assertive or jingoistic Indians are happy that the military action had shades of the U.S. Seal Team Six raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan to kill Bin Laden. The broadly enthusiastic public reaction in India seemed to be almost comparable.

In U.S. style, Indian Air Force drones monitored the operation, which lasted 13 hours and involved helicopters dropping in special forces commandos. To avoid detection, they crawled along the ground a significant distance toward two camps, which they destroyed along with dozens of combatants. India reportedly suffered no casualties.

India’s government elected not to notify Myanmar’s government until the operation was nearly complete. On paper, the two countries have a mutual security agreement. This is meant to allow for coordination on cross-border defensive operations precisely like this one.

Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opted for a unilateral approach. It is in line with a more muscular and assertive approach, to differentiate his defense posture for India from what is generally seen, depending on one’s political leanings, as the more timid (or circumspect) mode of his predecessor in such matters.

India as a major military power

Myanmar aside, the Indian government – once again led by the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – has also escalated military responses to incidents in disputed Kashmir.

At first blush, this looks like a revival of the tit-for-tat antagonism that led India and Pakistan to war in 1999. And India has also worried about rebels in Myanmar for some time. But there is a difference: today, India has a much larger role on the global security stage than ever before.

India has become the world’s top-ranking purchaser of major arms by volume. India imported 15% of arms sold worldwide from 2010-2014 – the largest buyer by a wide margin.

Sushma Swaraj, India’s External Affairs Minister recently hailed rescue operations by India’s military in Ukraine, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. It’s an important point of prestige, as Ms. Swaraj explained: “India’s image has emerged out to be a strong nation in one year so much that even the developed nations like Germany, France and even US sought our assistance…”

The Myanmar operation suggests India is no longer solely focused on rivalries with Pakistan or China and envisions a broader role for itself. One minister announced: “This is a message to neighbors who harbor terrorists,” a category in which he included countries as far afield as Iraq and Yemen. The military echoed this warning to “perpetrators of terror wherever they are.”

US as a poor model for India

Countries like India have long been very opposed to a muscular, borderless and unilateral U.S. military path. Given these recent policy shifts and rhetoric from India’s current government, it would seem some Indian policymakers are actually now keen to emulate that model.

“Might makes right” is the mantra of those activists. However, in the long run, even the U.S. military elite has found these unending little operations exhausting.

And this approach ultimately does little to change realities on the ground. As the United States has found out to its great frustration, such strikes only have a very momentary effect – however politically popular they may be.

At best, they are much like the (futile) effort of decapitating a hydra: the more you chop it off, the more (and faster) other heads of the hydra grow in. At worst, over-reach becomes one’s own death by a thousand cuts.

It is one thing to have a powerful and professional military. It is another to use it wisely. Beware of boundless missions, India.

Myanmar-China tensions heat up after fatal air raid

The military-dominated transitional regime in Myanmar (Burma) is fending off sharp criticism from China after its fighter-bombers allegedly accidentally crossed into China and dropped bombs on farmland, killing four Chinese citizens.

They deny that the aircraft, which were engaged in purported counterinsurgency operations near the 2,000-kilometer border, ever entered China. Myanmar’s Air Force is relatively old and decrepit after years of global isolation and sanctions — Chinese, Soviet, and Yugoslavian equipment from about the 1950s to the 1980s — but they maintain that GPS put them on their own side of the border.

Beijing asserted that this is actually just the latest territorial violation in a pattern they have been tolerating for some time.

China has threatened to take “decisive” measures if there is a repeat of a deadly attack by Myanmar forces on its territory, allegations that officials in Yangon deny.

Speaking at his annual news conference on Sunday, Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier said that the government had the ability and responsibility to “firmly defend” the stability of the border.

In a similar statement issued late on Saturday, Fan Changlong, who is a deputy head of the powerful Central Military Commission, said Myanmar air force aircraft had crossed the border “many times” recently.

The government of Myanmar recently emerged from the shadows under new leadership and is supposed to be undertaking a transition from direct military rule to democracy after decades of poverty, misery, and incompetence. However, most observers have questioned whether or not the new government is actually moving forward on the transition or is just a new paint job on the old system. There are also fears that the military might re-take direct power.

burma-mapThe counterinsurgency campaign has targeted ethnically Chinese citizens in the remote frontier region and pushed tens of thousands of refugees across into China, both developments that can’t be welcome to the leadership in Beijing and has probably raised hackles even before the deadly air raid incident. The alleged rebels in Burma are mostly ex-Communists associated previously with a Chinese-backed insurgency before the Myanmar junta’s creation in the 1988 coup.

China hasn’t been directly involved in a war in about thirty-five years and hasn’t even been involved in a proxy war in almost that long. However, it has reacted very strongly in rhetorical terms to the air raid and these other alleged violations. I still think the chances of China going to war with Myanmar are relatively slim still, but I wouldn’t count it out altogether.

Launching a war against an extremely inferior neighboring military without any friends on the world stage right now would probably be a pretty quick and effective way of re-consolidating the Chinese armed forces under civilian leadership. The former is in the midst of deep anti-corruption purges by the latter, which have rocked the senior military brass and probably unsettled the military as a whole. Rallying everyone to the flag to fight a quick retaliatory war against an unpopular and virtually helpless quasi-military regime would be a decent booster for the Communist Party leadership.

However, the ensuing problems of what might replace the Myanmar regime (or could be installed in its place) might be enough of a disincentive to persuade China just to rattle the sabres very loudly without actually using them. I also think going to war over this would be relatively out of character for China as it has defined itself in the post-1980 era (as a “non-interventionist”), and it seems more like something some other regime or country would do somewhere else in the world.

The Questions Posed by the World’s 2015 Elections

15 national elections I’m watching on 2015 and the questions I’m asking about them, organized in chronological order.


Greece: Can modern Greek democracy survive the combined effects of years of extraordinary fiscal mismanagement, a devastating recession, and a sudden day of reckoning (austerity) stage-managed from Berlin? That’s the bigger question the world is asking when Greece heads to the polls this coming weekend, behind narrow questions of what might happen in the next six months. Newcomer “Syriza” – a party with moderate rhetoric, yet still an unknown quantity – has led the polling average since November 2013, more than a year before snap elections were called. Syriza could shake things up — for good or ill — in the country whose ancestors founded much of Western democracy. On the other hand, the ancient Greeks also formalized the concepts of “oligarchy,” “aristocracy,” and “tyranny,” so that’s not a huge comfort. Modern Greek democracy is just 40 years old, and Plato might forecast a turn to a less participatory form of The Kyklos (the cycle of governance between such forms) is about due. The rise of the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” as a potent force in Greek politics offers that grim path.

Nigeria: Should a young democracy re-elect a civilian president from the same party that has won every election since 1998? Should it do so despite his record of extreme incompetence in handling an insurgency that has now seized more territory than ISIS controls in Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy? What if the alternative choice is a former military dictator and perennial also-ran? These are the basic questions facing Nigerians in February’s election that will see once-accidental President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party face off against Gen. Muhammadu Buhari at the head of an increasingly powerful opposition coalition and amid plunging oil prices. The legislative chambers are also up for election. Even if Jonathan is re-elected, he may face a hostile majority.

Israel: Can the Israeli left make a serious comeback in the country’s politics after Israel voters increasingly veered to the right and after significant party changes shattered the Labor Party for almost a decade? Would it make any difference to Israel’s relations with its neighbors and the world at large? Would it change the economic fortunes of average Israelis?

United Kingdom: Is the Westminster System — as it has traditionally existed in its tripartite form since the arrival of universal male suffrage — finished in Westminster itself? UKIP, the Scottish National Party, and other parties outside the Big Three make another coalition government of some kind almost a certainty – likely with huge effects for the British populace and their place within the European Union.

Mexico: Will the insulated Federal District finally be shaken out of its slumber by a growing protest movement and other reactions to the total capture of Mexican state and local government by the cartels? The Congress is up for election, but without a sea change in the foreign-focused Peña Nieto administration, few expect serious policy shifts at home, whatever the outcome of the midterms. Still, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition any more than they expect a spontaneous mass uprising that forces just such a sea change. Could be too early to tell.
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No Myanmar constitution revisions until after 2015 vote

Reuters: “Myanmar won’t amend constitution until after 2015 election: parliament speaker”

A referendum on amending the military-drafted 2008 constitution could be held in May, but no changes would be introduced until after a new parliament was elected, lower house speaker Shwe Mann said.
Suu Kyi’s party compiled a petition with nearly five million signatures in July calling for changes in a constitutional clause that would essentially weaken the military’s legislative powers and allow amendments to be made easier.

Among the controversial clauses is one that bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her children hold British citizenship, which U.S. President Barack Obama last week said “doesn’t make much sense”.

This development — along with recent speculation that Myanmar’s military may be planning to stage a coup against its own pseudo-civilian transitional government entirely staffed by ex-military officers — makes it difficult to give the transition team the benefit of the doubt and extra time they claim to need.