In Myanmar and Thailand, two militaries moving in opposite directions

Kevin Rafferty says as the generals in Myanmar cede power in the historic handover to civilians, Thailand’s ruling junta should remember the dangers of prolonged military rule on a nation’s economy and social fabric

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 12:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 12:54pm

Who would ever have imagined it – singing karaoke, dancing and joking. This was not some theatre vaudeville event but the closing ceremonies of the bleak, humourless, military-dominated parliament of Myanmar before yielding to a largely democratically elected new parliament.

The outgoing speaker urged his audience to join him in singing Dreams May Come True. The people of Myanmar have had to wait more than 50 years, since the military first took over in 1962, to dream of their dreams coming true. Even today, after Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy have taken their seats and dominate the new parliament, the handover to civilians will take another month.

READ MORE: Historic moment – Suu Kyi’s allies form Myanmar’s ruling party after decades of struggle

What is clear is that the Myanmese and Thai militaries are moving in opposite directions. Until they both yield to civilian politicians, Asia will be performing below its potential, to the detriment of the world and especially to the people of both countries.

Suu Kyi is the central focus of speculation about the path Myanmar will take; but she has maintained a judicious silence and enjoined her party members not to speculate. She even sat stony-faced when she was complimented as the most beautiful parliamentarian during the outgoing gig.

No doubt she remembers 1990 when her party also won a majority, and the military swept the results away, arrested her and her elected colleagues, and reimposed and tightened their grip on the country. She and Myanmar now face a challenge far tougher than winning an election – fulfilling the immense promise of a country where generations of military locusts gobbled up the fruits and stripped away the potential that Burma had to be a leader of modern economic development.

Suu Kyi faces a far bigger task than her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela, who was similarly released after years of detention. South Africa was a viable state, where the essential task was to bring the majority blacks into a flourishing economy.

In Myanmar, essential tasks include: making the government financially viable, cutting excessive licensing and controls that breed corruption and stifle private enterprise, and creating a proper state framework that does away with arbitrary decision-making by a greedy privileged group and establishes clear and predictable rules.

Suu Kyi has to do this with the former military rulers looking powerfully over her shoulder, with 25 per cent of the seats in parliament in a constitution the generals devised to give them reserve powers over military and security jobs, and which specifically blocks Suu Kyi from being president because her sons have foreign passports.

Does she cut the military in to a deal? That’s dangerous because the army grabbing its own favours created the mess in the first place. Or does she defy them? That’s dangerous because this military has shown it is prepared to trample over people. Or, hope that they will play with their military toys and leave her to run a real government? That’s overoptimistic.

A test of whether the military is ready to retire will come when we discover what fudge of the constitution allows her to take power.

Suu Kyi clearly has the steel, as her stubbornness and belief in herself and the people over 25 years has shown, but she has no experience of government and runs her party autocratically. Unlike other pariah states, except North Korea, Myanmar has no surfeit of exiles ready to come back from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank or UN to help create a government.

Myanmar still lacks the basic infrastructure of a modern state

The military stripped away education and health systems, banking and finance, private enterprise. The recent opening by the military to the world and help from Chinese investment have repaired some deficiencies, but Myanmar still lacks the basic infrastructure of a modern state, let alone the exemplar that it should be as one of Asia’s most richly endowed countries.

Suu Kyi must create Myanmar’s own way, and not leave the country prey to other nations keen to replace China as beneficiary of its riches. She showed her patriotism by staying under house arrest rather than flying to be with her dying husband. But one person’s bravery does not create a modern functioning government.

Across the border in Thailand, previously Asia’s tiger-cub economy, the military rulers seem determined to show the incompetence of armed forces in running a modern economy.

Junta leader and prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha continues to stall on the timetable for new elections. His attacks on “extreme human rights”, the danger of people voting for the wrong party, and “too much democracy” suggest a lack of seriousness about a return to civilian rule.

Junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha continues to stall on the timetable for new elections

But his recent remarks about women suggest that he is still living in the middle of the last century. “Women are the gender of motherhood,” Prayuth claimed. “When you return home … who is it? Who has a wife? Isn’t the wife looking after the home? At home she’s the big boss, isn’t she? Outside I’m the boss – at work, everywhere I have lots of authority. When I return home, I have to be quiet because she’s looking after the home, the kids, everything in the house. I haven’t done anything at home since we married, she’s doing everything…

“That’s why I have my head free to think about everything [else], not worrying about anything, not picking up the kids, not doing anything at all, because I work far away from home. That’s the small difference! But all the bad things I have done to her have benefited others.”

Myanmar should offer the example to Thailand of the danger of prolonged military rule. The health of the ailing king and doubts about whether the crown prince has the competence to step into his father’s shoes is clearly guiding the fears of Prayuth and his chums.

The danger is that, the longer they delay elections, the greater the risk of a popular explosion, especially if the king dies. Unlike the people of Myanmar, who suffered in silence under military repression, the Thais understand how the military are destroying the fruits of civilian rule.

Kevin Rafferty was editor of Business Day newspaper in Thailand