The celebrations will be muted on Monday when Myanmar, as Burma has been known since 1989, marks the one-year anniversary of the first elections to produce a sitting parliament since 1960. Recent news might have suggested otherwise. Were those polls not the first step towards a remarkable opening of a state whose isolation was for decades rivalled only by North Korea, a fellow pariah which shared with Myanmar the ignominious distinction of being known best for the tyranny of its rulers and the impoverishment and abuse of its citizens?
Since the elections, Thein Sein, a civilian president, has replaced Senior General Than Shwe as head of state, censorship has been loosened, parliament has voted to allow the setting up of independent trade unions and scores of political prisoners have been released. Thein Sein gave in to popular protests against construction of the Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam at the end of September, suspending the project and explaining that it was "against the will of the people". As Peter Popham, the latest biographer of the country's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, observed, that was "a remarkable reason for a government of Burma to claim to do anything".
National reconciliation certainly seems to be in the air. In August, the president hosted a dinner for Suu Kyi. Such a social occasion was unthinkable under Than Shwe, who abruptly ended meetings if the name of the venerated Nobel Peace Laureate was ever mentioned, and in 2003 actually ordered her assassination. Although the massacre at Depayin, in the country's north-west, failed in its main purpose, Than Shwe later brazenly justified the attempt on the ground that she and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were "a threat to national security".
Now, however, it was aperitifs and pleasantries chez the president. Not only that, but unconfirmed reports suggest the NLD will be allowed to take part in a series of 48 by-elections scheduled for December, which could give the opposition a substantial presence in the 440-seat lower house, if not the resounding majority they won in the 1990 elections (which the generals did not recognise) - a victory they would surely have deserved to have replicated had they contested last year's polls.
Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is one of many analysts seized by optimism. He recently told an audience in Bangkok that there were "dramatic developments underway" in its neighbour to the west, and that Suu Kyi and the new government had enjoyed a "consequential dialogue". The US has lifted travel restrictions on some government officials and Myanmar has never looked closer to gaining what it has been denied in the past - the rotating presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the international credibility that would accompany it. That decision will be taken at a summit later this month, but why should it not go in its favour? Myanmar is, after all, according to an unusually unbuttoned Financial Times, "at freedom's gate".
If all this is so, however, one has to ask: why does the excitement displayed by foreign cheerleaders not appear to be so widespread in the country itself?
The answer lies in the nature of the elections whose first anniversary is imminent. Before they took place, U Tin Oo, chairman of the NLD (which had decided not to participate) said: "People seem lacking in enthusiasm over the vote. Many of those who are running have never breathed a word about democracy in their lives." In an interview with The Irrawaddy, a respected journal run by exiles based in Thailand, he concluded: "This election is the one that gets least public attention in our country's history, I think." It was not hard to see why.
Everyone knew the military junta was not going to repeat the mistake it made in 1990, when, assuming its propaganda and brutal crackdowns would lead a cowed populace to vote for its proxies, it allowed a relatively free and fair election.
The NLD went on to win 94 per cent of the vote, hence the regime's dismissal of the results. This time the process would be fixed firmly in favour of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a regime-run mass organisation which all government employees had to join under a slightly different name. True, it was nominally a party of civilians, but its main leaders were all generals who had just shed their uniforms. As Bertil Lintner, the veteran reporter, puts it in his new book, Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy: "Weeks before, sources were reporting that the military wanted to make the election credible by producing official results that showed 70 per cent voter turnout with 80 per cent support for its own party. And that was exactly the announced outcome after the November 7 election."
I asked Maung Zarni, a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and founder of the Free Burma Coalition, for his opinion on what many think was a milestone on the road to liberty. "How can I conceivably celebrate the anniversary of the 2010 elections, which resulted in no fundamental changes in Burma's politics or a new era of democratisation?" he replied. "The same generals taking off decorative stars from their chests, swapping green trousers for multicoloured silk skirts, and making themselves known by civilian titles, means nothing, nothing at all ... Nothing that matters to the public in Burma has really changed." Far from being a harbinger of hope, he said, the elections were "a complete farce".
For most of Myanmar's post-independence history, it was of little consequence to the outside world that its brave, if troubled, early period of democracy was completely snuffed out when the army took power in 1962. The leader of the coup, General Ne Win, was one of the Thirty Comrades who, under Aung San (Suu Kyi's father), had formed the core of the Burmese Independence Army during the Second World War, trained first by the Japanese and then switching to the Allies just in time to be recognised as a liberation force rather than being condemned as collaborators. Ne Win was no hero, however. In fact, Aung San had ordered him to be shot in 1941 when he was found to be in a Bangkok brothel instead of on duty. (The junior officer assigned was too afraid to carry out the task, a decision he later regretted. "If I had followed Bogyoke [General] Aung San's orders," said Ta Yar in 1988, "we would not have so much trouble now.")
Initially Ne Win's takeover was welcomed by many outside Myanmar. The country was riven by ethnic insurgencies; the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang occupied an area on the north-east border; and Communists had been fighting a guerrilla war since 1948. One diplomat stationed in Rangoon at the time told me that "Burma would have fallen apart if the army hadn't gone in". Ne Win's "Burmese Path to Socialism" may have turned out to be a crackpot programme that ultimately led to what was once the richest country in the region being awarded "least developed nation" status by the UN in 1987, but at least he was not a Communist - a major plus point for the US during a period when it looked as though the whole of South East Asia might succumb to the "domino effect".
After Ne Win's death in 2002, the British Labour MP Tam Dalyell was still able to write sympathetically about the isolation the general had imposed on the country. "My wife and I were invited to a long and simple lunch of rice and mangoes by Ne Win and his wife Katie in June 1965 ... he had closed Burma as the only way of keeping his country out the horrors of the Vietnam/Cambodia war ... Chou En-lai and the Vietnamese prime minister, Pham Van Dong, wanted to use the Burmese forests as a haven for guerrillas, which would have invited American bombing and Agent Orange."
Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, political secretary to the Malaysian deputy prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, in the 1960s, and later a member of his cabinet, is frank about how the dictator was then viewed in the region. "Ne Win was our friend," he says.
All that changed in 1988. A combination of Ne Win's erratic economic policy - the previous year he had demonetised most of the local banknotes, making 80 per cent of the cash in circulation worthless - and his heavy-handed suppression of student protests had led to unprecedented crowds taking to the streets of Myanmar. There were up to 10,000 casualties when the army answered by opening fire on a day that has become notorious as "8.8.88". By this point Ne Win had already resigned, raising the prospect of multi-party elections and handing the presidency first to General Sein Lwein, the "Butcher of Rangoon" whose tenure lasted only a few days, and then to his sycophantic biographer, Dr Maung Maung. There followed an all-too-brief "democracy summer" when former officials called for reform. Most notable of all was a speech to up to a million people at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon by the wife of an Oxford academic who only happened to be in the country because she was nursing her dying mother - Aung San Suu Kyi.
The summer ended on September 18. Martial law was reimposed and thousands died in a retaliation orchestrated by Ne Win. The election process he had promised still went ahead, but in an atmosphere of intimidation: Suu Kyi narrowly escaped being shot while campaigning the following year. After the NLD still won overwhelmingly, the junta ignored the result and Suu Kyi has spent most of the years since under house arrest. Those of her supporters who shared such a fate were the lucky ones. Many others fled abroad or joined the border-region insurgencies rather than face torture, rape and death in the regime’s appalling prisons.
The West has responded with a barrage of sanctions and repeated condemnations. But these have had little effect on a regime that has India and China as its neighbours, two emerging titans willing to ignore Myanmar’s abysmal human rights record in the interests of trade and exploiting its bountiful natural resources. Every effort at mediation has failed. The 2008 constitution that is supposed to be a part of a “roadmap to democracy” contains numerous provisions to ensure the military retains its dominance, while the armed forces themselves have swelled their ranks and live, with their families, in a parallel state with their own schools, hospitals, shops and housing.
There were two possible scenarios under which the military’s grip could have been broken. After the 1990 elections, argues Lintner, “The NLD should have called a press conference at their Rangoon headquarters. The international media were in Burma at the time, and the press conference would have been telecast live all over the world. The NLD should then have claimed victory and announced that, because of the massive mandate the people had given them, they would now go and liberate their leader, Suu Kyi, from her house arrest. Loudspeaker cars should have crisscrossed Rangoon. A million people would have shown up, and they could easily have unhinged the gates to Suu Kyi’s compound and carried her to Burma’s television studios, where she could have addressed the people, called for calm, and urged the armed forces to be loyal to the new government. Given the fact that even the rank and file had voted for the NLD, it is unlikely that the soldiers in the streets would have tried to stop the masses of people.” The generals “could have been given amnesty and, if they so wanted, been permitted to leave the country for Singapore, China, or any other country that would have been willing to accommodate them ... It would have all have been over in a day.”
An alternative was set out by Justin Wintle, in his 2007 book Perfect Hostage: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals: “The ‘liberal’ West should have exploited the chance to invest in Burma after 1988 – not just for the sake of profit, but by way of setting better examples of employment and business practice inside Burma. Similarly with tourism. If only by a process of osmosis, Burma must have changed. Limiting contact plays into the junta’s hands.”
But neither happened. Lintner’s assessment of the junta’s current position is sobering: “More than a billion dollars have been spent on arms purchases, mainly from -China, at a time when Burma had no external enemies and the decades-long civil war was coming to an end. Never before has Burma had such powerful – and well-equipped – armed forces. The build-up was clearly meant to secure the military’s grip on power and to make sure that there would be no repeat of the popular uprising of 1988.”
The truth is that while the world focuses on Aung San Suu Kyi – Popham’s and Lintner’s new biographies will not be the last; the French filmmaker Luc Besson is just releasing The Lady, his bio-pic of her, and her many supporters include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, U2’s Bono and Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister – it is the military that will decide the future of Myanmar. Unpalatable and unconscionable as it may be, they will probably also have to have a guaranteed and protected place in that future. At one level this is because, like all tyrannical regimes, the junta fears the retribution that may follow any opening up of the political sphere. So much so that when in 1990 Kyi Maung, the acting head of the NLD, told Asiaweek magazine that Myanmar had no need of a “Nuremburg-style tribunal” he was arrested. Even talking about the possibility of coming to terms with the past under a new dispensation is enough to send the generals scurrying to their bunkers in Naypyidaw, the newly constructed capital-cum-fortress in the remote countryside.
But it is also because, despised as it is, the army is virtually the only national institution the country has. Many historians have doubted the wisdom of the decision to exile the last Burmese king, Thibaw, and abolish the monarchy after the British completed their conquest of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. This not only ended a system of government that had endured for 800 years, but also left leaderless the Buddhist sangha, the communities of monks which were the other pillar of Burmese society. As Peter Popham writes in The Lady and the Peacock: the Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, “They were the potent local symbols of a moral, theological and political system that had governed people’s lives throughout Burmese history. The monks enshrined and sanctified the authority of the Buddhist king, and the people, by giving the monks alms, gained spiritual merit that was obtainable no other way. Now all this was smashed and ruined. It was worse than mere humiliation: the nation had lost its compass.”
Aung San’s army had hardly liberated the country from the Japanese, as Field Marshal Viscount Slim, commander of the advancing British forces, knew very well. “Go on Aung San,” he teased when they first met in May 1945, “you only came to us because you see we are winning.” (The reply? “It wouldn’t be much good coming to you if you weren’t, would it?”) But as in many other countries that had been occupied during the war, such as France, it was the fact of having participated on the victorious Allies’ side that mattered, not the numbers of soldiers who had fought. And it was Aung San who, clad in general’s uniform, had gone to Britain 19 months later and negotiated Burma’s independence.
The army had won its patina of heroism, an association shared with no other institution, and one the new Union of Burma sorely needed. The faint vestiges of that status still cling to it, as is shown by the fact that many prominent NLD leaders have been military men who had fallen out with Ne Win; the party’s chairman U Tin Oo, commander-in-chief of the army in the mid-1970s, is just one. Suu Kyi herself has always been aware of this. When she made her famous speech at the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1988, she stood in front of a giant portrait of her father, and said: “I feel strong attachment to the armed forces. Not only were they built up by my father; as a child I was cared for by his soldiers.” They could and should be, she said, “a force in which the people can place their trust and reliance”.
Some think that long-term reform could come through a reassertion of the country’s Buddhist identity, through the mass-membership meditation organisations and the influence of the sangha, the monks who marched in 2007’s “Saffron Revolution”. But that demonstration of disapproval did not share the success of the other “colour revolutions”; it was put down with a violence that shocked even a population long inured to the excesses of their rulers. Others, less optimistic, take the same line as Lintner: “Change would have to come through the only institution that really matters in the country – its armed forces.” And he sees little chance of that. “Burma’s future looks bleak,” he concludes.
Maung Zarni agrees. “What we are seeing is a slicker, smarter and incredibly richer dictatorship that is co-opting its opponents through carefully crafted reform talks,” he says. Zarni thinks Suu Kyi miscalculated the generals’ “will to power” 23 years ago, and is making a similar mistake about how genuine the desire to change is now.
“Ideologically and strategically, our opposition seems to be stuck in the Neolithic age.” He believes that they and their Western allies are being taken in by the form, while the substance remains the same, with Senior General Than Shwe continuing to run the show behind the scenes. “The real, long-term problem is the military, because it sees itself as an extra-legal organisation which has the constitutional mandate to serve as the real power behind the legislative and the executive. Without the entire military junking this feudal, medieval ruling class ethos, no reforms will be sufficient for the Burmese public to endorse western journalistic hyperbolic expressions such as ‘at freedom’s gate’ or ‘dramatic developments’.” One year on from the elections, he says: “Absolutely nothing foundational in Burmese politics has changed.”
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a frequent commentator on South East Asian politics and religion.