"The Broken Promises of Military Rule"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
November 17, 2007
WHEN TWO of Asia's most prominent female politicians are under house arrest at the same time, it's easy to draw parallels. The scary part: comparing the off and on detention of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto with the longstanding house arrest of Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma makes Pakistan look good. But in both cases, this is no time for complacency on the part of the international community.
The women have similar paths. Both were democratically elected after their fathers were killed while serving as the leaders of their respective nations. Twice, Bhutto was elected prime minister and took office, and both times, her government was dismissed early. But at least she served for nearly five years. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory over Burma's ruling junta in 1990, has never been permitted to take office, and has spent 12 of the past 17 years under house arrest.
The two nations have tread similar paths as well. Pakistan's formation in 1947 and Burma's independence in 1948 both triggered predictable post-colonial power struggles, in which the military establishments used internal instability as a pretext for abolishing civilian rule.
In Pakistan, a record of irregular elections and the creation of the military-led National Security Council indicate a blurring of the lines between civilian and military rule. In Burma, which hasn't had a civilian ruler since 1962, the ruling junta has built up the military at the expense of human development, producing the largest army in all of Southeast Asia, and the worst record in health and education. Pakistan is not far behind in these terms.
In both countries, the dominant group's hold on political and economic power led to strong public reaction. In Pakistan, annulled elections and a military crackdown against the eastern wing led to Bengali calls for greater autonomy. With the assistance of the Indian Army, the Bengalis got their independent state in 1971.
Burma's marginalized populations have not been as successful. Several ethnic minority groups have been struggling for independence for decades, but without a powerful neighbor to support them, Burma's ethnic minorities have lost ground to the Burmese military almost every year. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese have fled to neighboring countries as refugees, where they have lived in limbo for decades.
Waves of protests in recent months have brought pressure to bear in both countries, but in the face of repression, these efforts may not go very far. President Pervez Musharraf's dismissal of Pakistan's chief justice generated so much outrage that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people inspired by lawyers' brave protests came out in streets and the justice was reinstated four months later by the Supreme Court. He was recently dismissed again in an arbitrary fashion. Now domestic demands and US pressure have influenced Musharraf to agree to national elections in January, but it is doubtful whether the elections will be free and fair.
In Burma, a violent crackdown against peaceful protests brought censure from the international community, to which the Burmese junta responded with bellows that it would not be bullied by the superpowers. Slightly conciliatory gestures allowing the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to enter the country and permitting Aung San Suu Kyi to meet with members of her outlawed opposition party should be met with skepticism. They are likely a ploy to silence members of Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, from adopting tough measures against Burma, when it holds its 13th summit this weekend.
However, in the case of Pakistan, at least there is a date to which Musharraf can be held accountable. Burma hasn't even offered the pretense of elections anytime soon. Discussions about "national reconciliation" — code words for designing a system whereby the military junta keeps all of its control but pacifies the international community — have been ongoing for more than a decade. Incidentally, Musharraf also used the "reconciliation" drama to withdraw corruption cases against Bhutto and some of his allies recently.
Both countries' military governments have a history of reneging on their promises. If international attention dies down, that is precisely what they are expected to do. The pressure to hold free and fair elections in Pakistan in January must be applied consistently until then, along with demands to restore removed judges. On Burma, the United States should encourage Asean to consider suspending Burma at its upcoming summit and link its continuing economic sanctions to specific timelines for democratic change.
The international community has done well to condemn the autocratic actions of Pakistan's and Burma's rulers. But to effect any positive change, it needs to keep up the heat and stop looking at military institutions there as potential harbingers of change.
Susan Banki is a research fellow at the Institute for Governance, Ethics, and Law at Griffith University in Australia. Hassan Abbas is a research fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and author of "Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror."
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