Background to Burma's Transition
Burma’s prolonged and complicated democratic transition which began in 1988, grew out of political chaos and confusion resulting from the nationwide uprising that brought the end of 26 years of one party BSPP military-led rule. [see History of Burma's Transition] Upon taking power in September 1988 the military had promised to restore peace and hand power over to a multiparty government according to the overwhelming popular desire. However the lack of preparation for transition and increasing hostility towards the military that followed the opening up of a political transition augmented the junta’s insecurity about its fate. As such it became more reluctant to hand power over to the opposition who won the 1990 elections (Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD), transforming the elected assembly from a legislative body to a constitutional writing body. The bitter confrontation and inability of the opposition and the military to reconcile their differences has created a long and bitter impasse that has stalled and complicated Burma’s transition process for over 20 years.
Over the past 20 years several domestic and international forces have tried to influence the junta, however contradictory policies have only complicated Burma’s democratic process. Below is a diagram that displays the major forces influencing the political process and events in the country.
The military’s strong grip on power combined with the opposition’s inability to pressure the military out of power or compromise a power sharing deal has allowed the military to proceed with the transition progress on its own terms. The military created the Seven-Step Roadmap to democracy in August 2003 to set a clear path towards political transition under the government's rigid control. It has been recognised and supported by important members of the international community who see it as the most realistic solution toward democracy so far. Notably, the roadmap was officially welcomed and introduced at a multilateral meeting dubbed the Bangkok Process a few months after its announcement which included Australia, Austria, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Razali Ismail. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also gave his support in an official statement the following day.
The need for the military government to carry out its promised goal of democracy is necessary to justify its current hold on power and to stave off domestic threats of popular revolution and international economic and political pressures. Though it has continued to define itself as a transitional government and express its genuine desire for democratic change, the true intent of the military and whether the transition process will bring about real democracy remains a serious concern inside and outside the country. The annulment of the 1990 elections and the military’s increasing role in leading the transition by firstly creating the National Convention to replace the elected general assembly and appointment of military personnel in the proceedings have led to accusations that it had hijacked the process to institutionalise military rule. Furthermore, the continual arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and the heavy handed approach towards government opposition have only fuelled scepticism of the military’s handling of the transition process.