By Messay Kebede
Since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of the opposition to the military rule, Burma’s (Myanmar) political evolution has become an important discussion topic for political observers and analysts. Detecting a promising shift toward democratic opening, Hillary Clinton recently visited Burma and held talks with political leaders. The hope is that, after decades of a dictatorial military rule and deferred promises of democratization, Burma is finally engaging in the serious path of political reforms and transition to democratic government. On the other hand, Ethiopia, which had a fleeting experiment with free and fair elections in 2005, is going through the reverse process of a repressive and dictatorial government whose notable outcome was the holding of an election in 2010 that was anything but fair and free and resulted in the regime claiming 99.66 % of parliamentary seats. The purpose of my analysis is to compare the two countries with the hope of clarifying the reasons why they took divergent political paths and assessing the implications of Ethiopia’s democratic retreat, together with the political options offered to opposition forces as well as to the ruling party.
Lest of being accused of comparing oranges with apples, I must begin by showing that the two countries are indeed comparable. Notably, one immediate and weighty counterargument would be to say that the Ethiopian regime has all the characteristics of a civilian government while that of Burma is a military rule, itself the result of a coup in 1958 against the then legitimate civilian government. I grant the difference but also remind that, while open military regimes indeed materialize the hegemony of military elites in the form of a direct or indirect rule––the latter often done through the conversion of military rulers to civilian politicians––there is an intermediate form in which the military elite forms a tight coalition with a ruling civilian elite. My contention is that the latter applies to Ethiopia, there being no doubt that both the history of the TPLF as a guerrilla organization and the privileged treatment that the Meles’s government accords to the military produce a de facto alliance between the civilian leadership and the repressive apparatus of the regime. Since the regime has lost any legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Ethiopians, the use of military and police forces alone ensures its survival.
There is more to the matter than the above similarity. Though belonging to different continents and histories, Ethiopia and Burma share many striking similarities. To begin with, not only in a way similar to Burma Ethiopia was subjected to a repressive military rule for an extended period subsequent to a coup that overthrew a civilian government, but also the military rule in both countries was coupled with the implementation of a socialist policy. Just as the Derg traded its initial nationalist platform for a socialist agenda, so too the military junta that ruled Burma announced in 1974 the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma.
As a result, both countries suffer from a legacy of economic mismanagement imparted by the nationalization of the means of production and the subsequent spread of corruption and lack of accountability. What is more, after the disavowal of socialism, a skewed policy of privatization of state-owned enterprises has led in both countries to the formation of conglomerates owned by ramifications of the ruling parties or their closest cronies. Just as in Ethiopia privatization meant the corrupt practices of passing ownership to extended organs of the TPLF, in Burma, too, denationalization changed state property into the private property of generals or their cronies. Unsurprisingly, the prevention of a healthy and open competition and the drainage of the financial resources by the monopolistic and corrupt practices of the conglomerates failed to improve economic outputs so that real economic progress has remained elusive in both countries.
Another noticeable similitude is that both countries have suffered and still suffer from ethnic quarrels and insurgencies. Like Burma, Ethiopia is an ethnically diverse country with a history of armed insurgencies fuelled by a longstanding grudge against a dominant ethnic group. In Burma, ethnic groups have complained about the dominance of Burmans, who constitute 60% of the population, and the policy of Burmanization that resulted in minority groups being economically and culturally marginalized. We know that the source of ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia is the complaint about the dominance of the Amhara and the policy of Amharization. In the face of ethnic insurgencies, the central state in both countries has assumed the responsibility of defending national unity through the formation of a strong military force.
In terms of ethnic conflicts and their outcomes, there are, however, notable differences. Contrary to Burma, the Amhara dominance was not the hegemony of a majority, since the Oromo ethnic group can claim to be as populous (if not more) as the Amhara, not to mention that today’s dominance of a Tigrean group has plunged Ethiopia into the uncharted course of the ascendency of a minority group. Above all, the military in Burma were able to contain ethnic insurgencies, whereas armed insurgent groups defeated and destroyed the Ethiopian army. The clear outcome of this was that in Ethiopia the military junta lost power and was replaced by a guerrilla elite while Eritrea became independent. But as stated earlier, some such difference does not remove the fact that the TPLF’s rule is the result of one military force replacing another military force.
Most characteristically, the existing regimes in Burma and Ethiopia are similar in the way they react to electoral defeats. Both like to brag about the opening of the political field, which however they are quick to repudiate at the slightest challenge. Thus, in 1990 the military regime in Burma announced the holding of the long promised free election whose outcome was that the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory. The reaction of the military leaders was typical: they refused to hand over power to the victorious party and put Suu Kyi and other leaders under house arrest.
Restarting the opening process, Burma’s military rulers announced in 2003 a seven-step roadmap to democracy that would culminate in the holding of free elections. The promised elections were held in 2010, but which were far from being free and fair since, in addition to the electoral process being marred with widespread frauds and irregularities, the National League for Democracy was banned from participating and its leader still under house arrest. Even so, the ruling junta announced a complete victory by stating that the party representing it, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, had won 80% of the votes.
We remember a similar scenario in Ethiopia. The relatively free and fair election held in 2005 resulted in the opposition gaining a substantial victory. The reaction of the TPLF was the rejection of the results, the imprisonment of the main leaders of the opposition, and the violent crackdown on protesters. A blatant intensification of repression followed, even as the holding of free elections in 2010 was reaffirmed. The promised elections were held amidst intimidation, repression, and restrictive rules. The ruling party unashamedly claimed to have won 99.66 % of parliamentary seats even if opposition parties and external observers spoke of votes being rigged and voters and candidates being intimidated and harassed.
It should be noted that the upgrading of repressive policy had comparable effects on the opposition forces. In both countries, opposition groups have failed to either force the existing ruling elites into dialogue or ease in any way the repressive policy. This failure has led to fragmentations over the right approach, some opposition groups turning more and more to armed struggles while others prefer to rely on the likelihood of a popular uprising. Thus, powerlessness has resulted in the split within the National League for Democracy, some groups having decided not to boycott the elections and work with the ruling party. Though Ethiopian opposition groups present a different aspect, still the inability to force change on the regime has caused splits and strategic reassessments.
As concerns differences, a notable factor appears in the relations of both countries with the West. Since 1996, Burma is under international sanctions organized by Western countries, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Such is not the case with Ethiopia, since despite widespread violations of human rights, Western governments have been reluctant to economically punish the Woyanne regime, mainly because the regime is considered as an ally in the fight against terrorism and appears as the only stable state in a highly volatile region. However, the difference is somewhat decreased when we note that the international sanctions against the Burmese regime are far from being efficient, given that the sanctions were not strictly enforced and that the two neighboring countries, namely, China and India as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, proved reluctant to support Burma’s economic and political isolation.
Where the difference becomes major is that the military regime in Burma, admitting its undemocratic nature, proposed in 2003 a roadmap that traces out a step-by-step progression to democratic government, which, it is true, many observers found painstakingly slow and unreliable. By contrast, the Woyanne regime has never been sincere enough to recognize its lack in democratic credentials, and so never offered any transitional arrangement on the grounds that Ethiopia is provided with a blossoming democracy since the overthrow of the Derg and the capture of state power by the TPLF. Some such attitude allows the holding of a bizarre discourse in which the regime interprets its crackdown on political dissents, not as an opposition to democracy, but as the defense of the democratic order against nondemocratic forces.
From the above disparity follows the Ethiopian regime’s constant game of deception, which blocks the need for a transitional process and whose consequence is the establishment of a political deadlock cornering many Ethiopians into rejecting the idea of evolution of the regime, thereby giving them no other choice than passivity or the resource to violent methods. Needless to say, to the extent that the impasse deprecates nonviolent opposition, it promises nothing but uncertain outcomes for Ethiopia as well as for those who control power.
Burma’s Incentives for Change
To understand why Burma engaged into a transitional process, it is necessary that we delve into the reasons why the military junta thought that gradual democratization is the best option for all. I have already indicated that the decision to open the political competition was not caused by the pressure of opposition forces. Then, what could impel a well-established dictatorship to open a political system that so durably and efficiently defended its hegemony? It must be said here that analysts differ in their explanation of the change of political direction.
Many observers maintain that the planned democratization is simply a fake promise designed to perpetuate military rule under civilian disguises. Others, however, are more cautious, arguing that there are some compelling reasons for democratization, however slow and unsteady the process may be. For such commentators, economic interests are the driving force behind the timid push for democratization. The first commanding point is the geographical situation of Burma, notably that it is part of a region that is going through an unprecedented economic boom. The realization that Burma, far from participating in the boom, is falling behind is incentive enough for the military to think about change.
The awakening includes the recognition that the dictatorial system in place stifles free and fair competition and encourages corruption and embezzlement, and so stands in the way of economic improvement. A dynamic market economy requires that the political apparatus be unlocked so that excluded and educated people inject their expertise, their dream of prosperity, and their social ambition into the economic system. In other words, political opening became appealing to the ruling junta in Burma, not because of internal threats to the dictatorial system, but because of the understanding that economic progress is conditional on political reforms.
A related incentive to political change toward democratization is the need to lift the economic sanctions imposed by Western countries and international financial institutions. What this means is that, once the military junta had decided to engage the country in the path of economic development, the lifting of international sanctions through slow but palpable political changes became an integral part of the new direction of the country.
Political opening became all the more attractive because of the involvement of many army generals in the sector of private business following the privatization of state-owned enterprises. The corrupt practice of privatization, which favored senior officers, had the unintended consequences of creating a business-military group with some leaning for a healthy private economy. This group of generals, retired or not, was likely to use its influence and power to bring about those changes necessary to accelerate the pace of personal enrichment. Stated otherwise, the fact that many generals privately owned businesses encouraged the gradual shift of their interests from political power to the management of their businesses.
One other reason for political overture advanced by some observers is the development of a generational conflict within the military. As the senior officers who established the dictatorial system became old, younger officers aspired to replace them. The best way to avoid generational conflicts that would undermine the unity of the armed forces is to transit to a civilian government, while protecting the interests of the military as well as of the old and retiring guard. A civilian government friendly to the military could be established if the military initiate and control the democratization process. Since the people owe democratization to the military, they would express their gratitude and their recognition of the military as the protector of democracy by favoring the party representing military interests.
Insofar as the Burmese evolution is triggered by the understanding that the establishment of a free market economy cannot come about without political reforms, it provides an important lesson for Ethiopia’s ruling clique. Meles’s government survival depends on its ability to control the repressive forces of the state. This ability, in turn, depends on Meles’s success in keeping the repressive forces materially satisfied and using them in a moderate way, given that an excessive recourse to the violent means of the state to suppress recurring riots caused by economic crises would be troubling to them. These two conditions point to nothing else but the need to realize a steady economic growth in the country. Meles understands this quite well, as evidenced by his flirtation with the idea of developmental state. To quote Addis Fortune, “having rejected democracy, the Revolutionary Democrats only have their ability to deliver economic growth as their source of legitimacy.”
Meles’s dream to bring about a developmental state must confront one undeniable fact: neither the pursuit of one’s interests nor the gratitude and the loyalty or fear of clients, still less moral exhortations, can nurture a sustained achieving drive, alone able to launch Ethiopia in a real path of economic development. A sustained productive appetite requires the challenge of a social system rejecting the ascriptive protection of clients, cronies, and ethnic associates, that is, it demands the exposure of the business community to the constant challenge of a competitive market. And since economic progress is necessary to remove the threat of popular uprisings, it springs to mind that political reforms should be an essential component of the survival strategy of the Woyanne regime.
My guess is that Meles dismisses the idea of political opening because he has in mind the Chinese model of economic growth without democratic opening. Yet, he should realize that the Chinese model is off the table for Ethiopia. To start with, Ethiopia is saddled with conflicts of all kinds, especially with ethnic rivalries, mostly nurtured by the TPLF itself. The proliferation of competing elites representing various ethnic groups places Ethiopia far away from the homogeneous nature of the Chinese elite. One of the consequences of the Maoist class war has been the elimination of elite diversity in favor of a uniformized leadership structure. Such is not the case in Ethiopia where elites have tended to disperse around competing interests, made particularly exclusive by identity politics. Witness even the EPRDF is a coalition of diverse ethnic groups, and so has nothing to do with the monolithic character of Chinese political elite fashioned by decades of ideological uniformity, Spartan alignment, and an internalized sense of hierarchical discipline.
Nothing that resembles even remotely the Chinese uniformization characterizes the formation of modern elites in Ethiopia. The Chinese characteristic of the political class, the military elite, and the bureaucracy being for decades under the control of a disciplined, united, and omnipresent political party is to be found nowhere in Ethiopia. Again, take the EPRDF. In addition to being an alliance of disparate groups, the main uniting force of the political front, namely, the TPLF, assuming that it has been somewhat disciplined, fragmented in 2001. The split and its subsequent developments opened the door to an influx of arrivistes, yes-men, and opportunists of all varieties. The consequence was that recruitments into the political, economic, and bureaucratic elites were based more on loyalty to Meles and his close associates than on ideological commitment and competence. All these people associated with the ruling clan for the unique purpose of personal enrichment through political protection and illicit means. It is therefore a divagation to assume that economic progress can be achieved with so many corrupt, incompetent, and self-serving people infecting the entire political and economic apparatuses.
The Transitional Process
However compelling the need for political opening has become to accelerate Burma’s economic progress and the very interests of the Burmese military, it must not be made to seem that the military are ready to hand over power to an elected body. As already indicated, the democratization process must promote their long-interests, and so must remain under their control for a foreseeable future. How could it be otherwise when we know the corrupt source of their enrichment and the absence of a serious threat to their continued rule? For them, democratization must guarantee, not their marginalization, but their integration into the emerging system and the preservation of their privileged place.
The means to ensure the above result is to place restrictions on the democratization process such that the military still command a political leverage that gives them assurance against political exclusion. In effect, the 2008 Constitution reserves 25 percent of legislative seats and all government posts associated with defense and security to the members of the military. In addition, the Constitution allows autonomy to the military in their own affairs, just as it puts them in charge of the protection of the Constitution, security, and unity of the country.
No mistake about it, the military still have extensive power and the political opening allows anything but a fair and free contest. Nonetheless, compared to the Woyanne regime, it has the advantages of clarity and the avoidance of deception and betrayal of one’s own Constitution, such as it happens to Meles’s government every time it transgresses the promised respect of the democratic rights of all Ethiopians. Above all, the Burmese Constitution has the advantage of promising a gradual democratization while the Woyanne’s attitude of denying rights permitted by the Constitution blocks political evolution, giving Ethiopians no other option than violent uprisings.
Granted that good reasons exist to characterize the transition process set by the military as nothing but a sham, a disguised means to preserve the status quo, the fact remains that other Asian countries have progressed into multiparty systems after decades of military or civilian dictatorships. All these countries have started with slow and incremental reforms whose effect was to create a growing middle class that became interested in supporting deeper economic reforms and political changes.
It is worth noticing here that opposition forces in Burma have evolved toward the acceptance of a transitional phase and abandoned their “full democracy now or nothing” approach by participating in the electoral contest of 2010, despite the many restrictions imposed by the military. Most significantly, after her release, Suu Kyi admitted the need for a transitional phase when she said: “I don’t want to see the military falling. . . . I want to see the military rising to dignified heights of professionalism and true patriotism.” Even if we assume that the military want to consolidate their power rather than to support democratization, it is undeniable that the opening of the political system and the participation of opposition forces can lead to gradual change reconciling the interests of the military with those of the nation.
Contrary to what is in gestation in Burma, the Woyanne retractions of democratic rights as a result of election defeat in 2005 creates nothing but a deadlock and a further deterioration of the political and economic life of the country. The only way out is political opening, as shown by the evolution of the Burmese military rulers, who came back to political opening after effecting a similar crackdown on the winning opposition party. The lesson that the Woyanne should learn is that the retraction of democratic rights is a recipe for economic mismanagement and stagnation and hence is not even in line with their own long-term interests.
The initiation of political opening is, moreover, the best way to argue for and make acceptable the setting of some rules to avoid a total loss of power. The deal should be the opening of the political system in exchange for some guarantees against marginalization, which is exactly what the military in Burma have proposed. Everything is possible in due time, and the Woyanne regime should use its hegemony to do what is possible instead of using its power to repress the opposition. The good usage of power is not repression, but the implementation of reforms that have the long-term outcome of integrating its own sectarian interests into the national interests. Since this process of integration is the sure way of avoiding revolutionary uprisings, which sound the end of reformism in favor of the overthrow of the existing regime, my question is: Why wait until things get out of hands with animosity reaches a boiling point even as solutions able to reconcile all interests can be worked out?
Opposition parties as well as the ruling party should know that their goals must be based on what is achievable. To do otherwise is to raise problems that they cannot solve for the simple reason that solvable problems are those that already implicitly contain their solutions. To project goals that do not contain their solutions is to plunge into a destructive utopianism, as illustrated by the mistakes and subsequent demise of the Ethiopian leftist forces after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1974. Meles’s government cannot stifle the deep discontent of Ethiopians and the challenge of opposition parties; as things stand now, the latter (I am speaking of those committed to a nonviolent strategy) cannot force the ruling party to play the game of fair and free election. What remains but that which protrudes as reasonable and feasible by default, namely, the path of mutual accommodation.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)