Democracy Lab

Why Burma Is Heading Downhill Fast

Rivalries among the political elite are exacerbating divides and allowing urgent problems to fester. Can anyone stop the rot?

For the past few months, I've been unable to escape an ominous sense that the political situation in Burma is on the wrong track. There are two main reasons for my anxiety. First, Burma is undergoing a leadership crisis. Second, the possibility of large-scale social unrest is increasing.

Eight months ago, I wrote a post explaining why the deepening divisions within the country's political elites were undermining my previous feeling of cautious optimism. I tried to describe a general state of anxiety caused by rising communal violence, widespread hate speech against religious minorities, worsening poverty, and intensifying political rivalries. Back then, however, the substantive reasons for the disagreements within the troika of President Thein Sein, House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi weren't entirely clear. But now the contenders have taken off their gloves, and their fundamental political differences are starting to come out into the open.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling parties managed to work well together during the initial reform period. In 2011, a historic meeting between the Lady and President Thein Sein paved the way for Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, to run in the 2012 elections. That dramatic development encouraged the countries of the West to lift their sanctions on Burma. But now the two have fallen out, quite publicly, over whether and how to reform the 2008 constitution, which was written by the then-ruling military junta. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi made constitutional reform one of her party's priorities, although even then it wasn't entirely clear what changes she wanted to make. In June of last year, she announced that she wanted to run for the presidency in the 2015 elections, noting: "For me to be eligible for the post of the presidency, the constitution will have to be amended." Aung San Suu Kyi was clearly referring to Article 59 (f) of the military-drafted constitution, which states that the president or vice-president cannot have a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. Aung San Suu Kyi had two sons with her late husband Michael Aris, and both are British citizens.

So far, Thein Sein has not deigned to respond to Aung San Suu Kyi's reform demands. In November 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi made an official demand for a meeting with key political players, including the president, the speaker, and Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to discuss constitutional reform. The president rejected her request, however, and his move seems to have sharpened the sense of lingering antipathy towards him that the Lady has been expressing in her meetings with foreign dignitaries and local political elites ever since late 2012.

In his latest speech to parliament on March 26, Thein Sein urged parliamentarians to pursue constitutional reform delicately and gently in order to avoid a political deadlock. Though he did not mention any possibility of top-level dialogue, the president noted, "The army still needs to be present at the political roundtable talks where political problems are solved by political means." If by these talks he means something more substantive than the usual parliamentary formality, it could signal that he is, in fact, open to the dialogue Aung San Suu Kyi requested, as long as members of the army are also at the table. Aung San Suu Kyi will need the military's support to get the amendment through parliament, and she believes Thein Sein is the only one who can persuade the military to bring its representatives to the table. In a press conference following the president's speech, the Lady insisted that "only the president can make it [military cooperation] possible." Organizing top-level talks might allow Thein Sein to win public points without having to striking a deal with Aung San Suu Kyi directly.

Political heavyweight Shwe Mann -- who is not only House Speaker but also chairman of the ruling party and, reportedly, one of Aung San Suu Kyi's allies in the establishment --has said that amending Article 59 (f) is not "the only priority" that his party will pursue. The ruling party has also proposed dozens of changes to the constitution, including Article 59. Meanwhile, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing remains tight-lipped -- though many insiders believe that the army agrees with the president. This unresolved situation presents the risk of a leadership vacuum as Burma heads toward the 2015 general election. Who will qualify -- both in terms of constitutionality and popular support -- to run for president?

As long as the constitutional barrier remains, Aung San Suu Kyi's chances are slim. The incumbent, Thein Sein, also doesn't stand much of a chance, since his party appears to be under the complete control of his rival, the strong-willed Shwe Mann. More importantly, the ruling party is not likely to win enough seats to nominate a presidential candidate (whether it be Thein Sein or Shwe Mann) in the first place. Under the current Burmese system, the people do not directly elect the president: parliament does, in a complicated procedure that gives disproportionate power to the military. Even though the current ruling party is unlikely to win both houses of parliament in the 2015 elections, the military members of parliament can still nominate its leader as their candidate for the presidency. So it's entirely possible that army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who reaches retirement age next year, will enter politics and become the military's nominee for the presidency.

And that, obviously, is a problem. The military has dominated politics in our country for the past half-century. As long as the military continues to control the presidency rather than handing power over to a civilian leader like Aung San Suu Kyi, the legitimacy and stability of the political transition will be incomplete.

The looming leadership vacuum raises an important question for the country's troubled transition. To be sure, Burma has plenty of other constitutional problems that need to be addressed. (Foremost among them: the broad, veto-wielding power of the military and the lack of ethnic rights.) But it's the question of reforming Article 59 that inspires the most passion these days, precisely because of Aung San Suu Kyi's continuing popularity among the majority of the population. People tend to believe that having the Lady as president will automatically lead to the resolution of all the other problems that the constitution poses. The uncertainty surrounding the 2015 elections has created a sense of insecurity among the top players, prompting each of them to regroup, mobilize their own constituencies, and prepare for the fights that lie ahead.

Aung San Suu Kyi has become increasingly vocal in her criticism of the president. In so doing, she has resorted to her time-honored strategy: Pushing for change by wielding international and domestic pressure. She continues to urge her western supporters to pressure the government for constitutional reform. Since early 2013, she has been using her foreign trips and meetings with foreign leaders at home to ask them to urge the Burmese government to accept reform.  Recently, she teamed up with the 88 Generation Group, the most influential force in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi's party, to use the "people's power" to change the constitution. In a speech at a mass rally on March 22, 2014, she called on the public to join nationwide protests for constitutional reform.

There is, however, a growing Buddhist nationalist movement that could serve as a counterweight to Aung San Suu Kyi's reform attempt. Radical Buddhist monks have now succeeded in pressing the government to enact laws that prohibit interfaith marriage. Though President Thein Sein might not be responsible for organizing the movement, he adopted its cause by asking parliament to consider the interfaith marriage ban a few weeks ago. Reliable sources tell me that Thein Sein is in regular contact with the nationalist movement, including Ashin Wirathu, a self-styled "Burmese bin Laden" who is one of the movement's most controversial leaders. Some of the movement's leading monks have indicated that they would not support amending Article 59 (f), fearing that it might make Burma vulnerable to the threat of a Muslim or other non-Buddhist president in near future. Of course, these monks urge their followers to vote for Thein Sein instead of Aung San Suu Kyi, since they view her as too weak in her defense of nationalism and Buddhism. It is ironic to see Thein Sein, who was once reportedly tipped to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his reform efforts, slip into the embrace of ethno-nationalists.

None of this seems to impress Burma's ordinary citizens much -- which hardly comes as a surprise, given their continuing poverty and lack of rights. They are left to cope with the daily reality of unemployment, illegal land grabs, official corruption, ethnic tension, and the inevitable outbursts of violence when government forces step in to suppress the resulting protests. (In the photo above, protesters pray during a demonstration against land grabs in Yangon.) Given the general atmosphere of tension, it is not hard to imagine how power struggles at the top might lead to partisan political protests, religious riots, or even terrorist attacks. Since the general level of trust and tolerance is so weak, and the capacity of the state so fragile, society could easily find itself in a situation even worse than Thailand's recent bout of political polarization. No wonder the Economist projected that Burma is at high risk of social unrest in 2014.

Unless Burma's leaders manage to reach a basic consensus about the speed and character of the transition, these risks will only mount. A few weeks ago I described the current situation in our country to some of my friends as a "slow-motion train wreck." As one of those listening put it: "Yes. And we, the people of Burma, are inside the train."

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Je T’Aime, Ron Paul

France has its own Tea Party -- and it's upending Europe’s socialist stronghold.

France and Texas go way back. In 1839, as the handsome wood mansion in Austin that housed the French Legation still reminds us, France was one of the few nations to recognize Texas during its short life as a republic. (Although, relations weren't always cordial, and during the famous "Pig War" of 1841 the French chargé d'affaires had his valet shoot a number of porcine marauders that had invaded his residence.) A few decades later, a motley crew of Provençal poets, enamored of "le wild west," dressed up as cowboys and Indians, transforming the Camargue, a stretch of swampy land in southern France, into a Mediterranean Texas, replete with bulls and ranches. A few years after that, in 1984, French audiences and the Cannes jury hailed Wim Wenders stunning film "Paris, Texas" -- an equally romanticized, though somewhat grimmer, French riff on the Lone Star state.

Is it possible that France is now importing the brand of conservative politics peculiar to Texas? Following their first round of local elections last Sunday, the French, at least at first glance, seem intent on doing so. Though a second round of voting will take place this Sunday, French voters have already spoken. What they had to say echoes what Texas conservatives, in particular the Tea Party stalwarts, have been saying for some time: Less federal government (whether D.C. or Brussels), more traditional values, and please, no more immigrants trying to change things around here. 

To be sure, close to 40 percent of voters spoke by refusing to speak at all: Never before has the abstention rate been so high in a French election. As with the Texas Democrats -- scarcely half a million turned out to vote in the most recent primary -- voter abstention is the ruling Socialist Party's greatest fear. And the problem has only gotten worse as the approval ratings of national leaders have plummeted. François Hollande continues to go in public esteem where no French president has ever gone before: Just before the elections, a poll taken by the newspaper Le Figaro placed his approval rating at 17 percent. (For a little perspective, Obama's approval ratings in Texas are hovering at just above 30 percent.)

Whether it reflected widespread apathy or hostility, France's unprecedented abstention rate benefitted the conservative opposition's base. The neo-Gaullist UMP outperformed the Socialists by 8 percentage points in the popular vote, despite being convulsed by a series of financial and political scandals, many tugging at the heels of both their current leader, Jean-François Copé, and those of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. But the real significance of the UMP's relative success was that it required the party to move substantially to the right. Like mainstream Texas Republicans, French conservatives have succeeded by glomming onto the worldview espoused by their extreme right flank. Indeed, the real winner last Sunday was the extreme-right Front National (FN). The party captured only around 5 percent of the popular vote, but presented candidates in only 600 of the 32,000 towns and cities that held elections over the weekend. This indisputable victory not only could lead to the capture of several city halls, but perhaps more importantly, has already redefined France's political landscape.

Even from the modest height of the ersatz Eiffel Tower in Paris, Texas, the twinned radicalization of Lone Star and French conservatives unfolds in neat parallel. On a number of issues, the discourses of the Tea Party in Texas and the FN in France have pushed the traditional conservative establishments to the right. While "compassionate conservatives" have long argued for a more humane and generous immigration policy, the Tea Party has pushed mightily in the opposite direction. This seismic shift has led to the growing isolation of establishment figures like former President George W. Bush, and the growing prominence of radicals like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who himself becomes a beacon of moderation when compared to Tea Party militants like Senate candidate Chris Mapp, who told the Dallas Morning News that ranchers should be allowed to shoot on sight illegal immigrants -- in his words, "wetbacks" -- crossing the border.

The French right has responded in a similar manner to the FN's harsh immigration policies. While no one has suggested shooting illegal immigrants from Romania or North Africa, the FN long ago called for the expulsion of three million "illegals" from France. More recently, FN leader Marine Le Pen has spoken about an "Arab occupation" of many French cities, while Florian Philippot, the FN candidate who is poised to win the mayor's race in the Alsatian city of Forbach, insists on the term "invasion."

In response, the mainstream French right has adopted the same language, sometimes with even greater ferocity. In 2005, Sarkozy famously dismissed the rioting youths in suburban Paris, many of whose parents were from North Africa, as "la racaille" or scum of society. A few years later, he proposed that naturalized citizens -- i.e., North African immigrants -- who break the law be stripped of their citizenship. Since becoming the leader of the UMP, Jean-François Copé has upped the ideological ante, asserting that the children of illegal immigrants born on French soil should not automatically become French citizens.

The so-called droitisation, or pushing to the right, of the UMP's discourse, is clearing the ground for tacit alliances with the FN. In a few cities and towns, deals between FN and UMP politicians have been struck in this Sunday's run-off elections. When the Socialists expressed alarm, Sarkozy's former Prime Minister François Fillon chuckled: "The Republic is not in danger should two or three FN candidates win city halls."

But the Front National and the Tea Party share more than just a deep fear of being overrun by foreigners with brown skin. Libertarians apart, many members of the Tea Party have a distinctive view of Christianity and the religious foundations of the United States. This is also the case in France, where the FN has attracted a growing proportion of young Catholic voters and even allied with militant Catholic organizations during the recent anti-gay marriage demonstrations. These Catholic voters are, admittedly, less than enthusiastic over Le Pen's desire to resurrect the death penalty in France, outlawed in 1981. (They would have been thoroughly nonplussed when an American audience cheered the announcement that 234 executions have taken place under Gov. Rick Perry's watch.) But they are attracted to Le Pen's opposition to state-reimbursed abortion and applauded the recent claim by her second in command (and companion), Louis Alliot, that the French state "does everything to encourage abortion and nothing to preserve life."

While the UMP and other conservative and centrist parties have not embraced all of these positions, the FN has nevertheless tilted the playing field in that direction. Like the Tea Party, they continue to ram the center of political discourse ever farther right. For this reason, the results of the second round of elections this Sunday are already in. After Steeve Briois, the FN candidate in the city of Hénin-Beaumont, won the first round outright last Sunday, one of his supporters shouted gleefully: "The world will now know who we are." As we like to say in these parts, "Texas is bigger than France" -- a claim that, unless it plans to annex Luxembourg, France can never challenge. But it may soon be able to make a different boast: "France is redder than Texas."

Photo Illustration: Ed Johnson/FP