With Burma's government holding a rare election in November, it's fair to wonder whether the military junta has real changes in store for the beleaguered country. Last Friday, a Burmese official at the United Nations even went so far as to insist that the leader of the Burmese opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, will have a chance to cast a ballot. Unfortunately, the full evidence suggests that the regime isn't inclined to initiate any deep reforms after 48 years of autocratic rule: Although Suu Kyi will be able to vote, she was barred from running for office, and her imposed house arrest has yet to be lifted.
Nonetheless, Burma's rulers may be paving the way for their own eventual eclipse.
Even flawed elections can make a meaningful difference to the people of Burma. Indeed, things could hardly get worse for them. For the duration of the junta's rule, the Burmese have been plagued by terrible government and a barely functioning economy: They have suffered rulers who were insecure in their hold on power, but who were capable of easily enriching themselves through natural resources like timber and opium.
One of the reasons that Burma's economy is in such dire shape is that the junta has felt that economic growth would imperil their rule. The military junta, after all, hadn't merely imposed itself on an anarchic society -- it overthrew a popular democracy. Starving the country of dynamism has been one of the ways that the military has managed to consolidate its rule against the specter of an uprising among Burma's minorities.
By introducing mild liberal reforms, the junta now wants to shift from near-constant crisis management to the cultivation of longer-term legitimacy and stability for the current regime. That's what these elections are more-or-less explicitly about -- in contrast to the country's last elections, which were held 20 years ago, in 1990. Then, the junta was taken by surprise by the victory of Suu Kyi. The regime's response was to reverse the results, and rescind all of its nascent democratic reforms at the time.
This time, military leaders are making sure in advance that the outcome will be to their liking. Aung San Suu Kyi has been barred from running for president, 25 percent of legislative seats have been reserved for the military, and a powerful national defense and security council has been established that will be free of democratic oversight. Already, more than 20 high-ranking officials in the junta have resigned from the army to re-invent themselves as civilian candidates under the banner of a new party, Union Solidarity and Development Association.
It's clear that the regime is less interested in establishing a democracy than in resisting pariah status on the international stage and forestalling discontent at home. Whether they're motivated by the bite of sanctions, the restiveness of domestic ethnic minorities, or the discontent of a younger generation of officers among the junta, Burma's rulers want to restore some measure of legitimacy for themselves -- without, of course, loosening their grip on the country's levers of power.