If a political party and an incumbent president of the leading democracy in the world cannot accept fair elections, what can we expect from former British colonies that are just trying to emerge as democracies? Before we lecture others about the cleanliness of their houses, we need to have a look around our own. The noise coming out of an election in Myanmar some four days after that of the U.S. strikes a familiar tone though some of the sounds there are gunfire.
I began a long engagement with Burma, or what became known as Myanmar, over fifty years ago. Over the years, it became a great place to visit but a most difficult one in which to conduct business. I went through a list of acronym-named quasi military organizations such as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and its more polished handle as the State Peace and Development Party. That was followed by the Union Solidarity and Development Party over the course of twenty-two years. Nothing changed but the freshly pressed uniforms of the military dictators as they sought to find a name that did not seem to originate from an Orwell novel. My Thai friends were close to these guys having developed substantial natural gas reserves that kept the lights on in Thailand. Therefore, I was always accompanied by Thai friends and a nearby local handler.
On a visit in 1995, we landed in Yangon, Myanmar, in a Thai International jet which stopped just off the runway. The tail exit stairway of the plane lowered and we were escorted off the plane, while handing our passports and luggage tags to Burmese military to sort out the official details while we proceeded into town to meet the Minister of Energy. It was a regal welcome which would have pleased a British monarch at the height of their empire. Sadly, there were no interesting oil and gas opportunities remaining. On many subsequent visits, I always reached the same conclusions-massive geological risk coupled with equivalent political risks do not represent an attractive setting. Over the years, the common theme was a military-led ruling junta with a military leader like Than Shwe, shown below, welcoming Prime Minister Abhisit of Thailand which kept the country afloat through purchases of natural gas buttressed by certain arms support.
Over the course of this time, we personally witnessed the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from imprisonment to house arrest and ultimate freedom to lead the National League for Democracy (NLD). It was the opposition to the SLORC residual of the military bearing the more "friendly" name of Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). I asked an insider of the military government why the generals finally succumbed to international pressure to try on the cloak of a supposed democracy. The response was they did it for their own skins as they feared international actions would have resulted in seizure of their vast fortunes held in Singapore. Aung San Suu Kyi, shown below, has proven to be a disappointment to most outside of Myanmar following her award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Everyone expected greater support from her to condemn the military persecution and genocide of the ethnic minority Rohingya population without having a realization for the actual strong control of the military. Nonetheless, she retains a halo effect at home given the reality that she has a positive impact even though the military remain the chief puppet master.
In the recent Myanmar election, Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD Party appears to have chalked up a major victory that could be further strengthened by including the many, fragmented ethnic minority parties in a common government that could entail cabinet positions. Not surprisingly, the losing military-led USDP, shown below, cried foul as they denounced the Myanmar Election Commission claiming voter fraud and "requesting a re-run" of the election.
USDP protests, shown below, were quickly organized outside the Election Commission headquarters. In reality, a host of poll watchers, ballot control procedures and even indelible ink on voters' fingers provided a respectful level of legitimacy to the election process. Nonetheless, a newly-elected NLD member of parliament was shot dead in the course of the protests.
All of this news may sound a bit "deja-vu" in light of what followed the U.S. Presidential election. Given the miserable performance in the "cradle of democracy," maybe we should not be surprised that the short "democratic" period of Myanmar could result in the actual death of a newly-elected official. On the other hand, I think it is fair to say that the leader of the free world has not set the democratic gold standard one would expect. We need to keep that in mind as the powerful Myanmar military continues human rights abuse to the ethnic minorities as the country struggles to follow the democratic process to put some measure of control on the corrupt military. Nonetheless, no one likes a sore loser.