Aung San Suu Kyi's strategy for change

Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy never fail to surprise the pundits. When the NLD (whose symbol is shown in the photo above) won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in the April 1 by-elections, the result caught most observers off guard. Most of them had expected the party to fall short of overwhelming victory. As I noted in my previous post, this victory demonstrated that people of Burma were prepared to practice "sincere voting" in the by-elections, defying various forms of government pressure to vote for the woman many of them call "Mother."

What happens next is much harder to predict. The NLD and its parliamentary group now face the challenge of actually trying to effect change in a system defined by the authoritarian constitution of 2008. The constitution guarantees the military political supremacy and ensures the domination of parliament by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military's proxy party, by giving it 80 percent of the seats. In short, the recent "flickers of progress" in Burma have not substantially contributed to solving the country's two most intractable political problems: the lack of democratic governance and the failure to provide autonomy for its many ethnic minorities.

But this doesn't mean that the recent changes ushered in by President Thein Sein, a former army general who is also the leader of USDP, are insignificant. Burma now finds itself at a crossroads, confronting a fundamental choice between democracy and a new version of authoritarianism. While the euphoric headlines suggest that the country is heading down the former path, the current institutional arrangement actually points toward the latter one.

In his inauguration speech on March 31, 2011, Thein Sein urged all parties to "work together in the national interest" rather than engaging in opposition to the government. The leaders of parliament also discourage members of the smaller parties represented in the body from using the word "opposition" in parliamentary debates. Meanwhile, local media tend to use the phrase "national interest" quite broadly without really explaining what they mean by it.

So how will Aung San Suu Kyi deal with this rather daunting situation? She appears to have adopted a dual-track strategy, one that places equal emphasis on participation and contestation. The first part of this approach, to be pursued by the NLD members in parliament, focuses on working within the existing legislature, bureaucracy, and judiciary, despite their obvious democratic deficits. The idea here is that you won't be able to effect constructive change in these institutions without building their capacity to implement policy, and you can only do that by giving them incentives to behave as if they were in a real democracy. This strategy operates under the assumption that the present transitional stage is very fragile, and that an all-too-adversarial approach could provoke undesirable side effects. If the opposition pushes too hard for far-reaching change (such as amending the 2008 constitution or establishing a genuine federalist system), it could prompt hardliners within the military and the USDP to bring the reforms to a screeching halt.

This does not mean that Aung San Suu Kyi and her entourage will have to subordinate themselves completely to the current corrupt system. Even as the NLD parliamentary delegation works within the tight constraints of the non-democratic parliament, the party can still use its presence in civil society and the media to challenge the poor governance of the regime. To name but one example, they could confront the endemic corruption of the regime as a way of supporting the true rule of law.

If the NLD manages to strike this delicate balance between participation and contestation, it could succeed in gradually steering Burma away from Thein Sein's updated version of authoritarianism (what he calls "disciplined democracy") toward genuine democratization.

The international community can also play a positive role in Burma by encouraging the regime's reformists with selective incentives for any steps toward democratization. If the balance of power within the regime tips in favor of the moderates, that bodes well for progress toward democracy.

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In Egypt, a recipe for constitutional disaster

Attention all dictators! Are any of you looking to pass a constitution tailored to keep you in power while maintaining a semblance of democracy and representation? If so, look no further: just heed the example of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (represented by its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party), and their close ally, the Salafi Al-Nour party. The following suggestions should provide you with everything you need in order to turn your back on your nation's revolution -- indeed, on the nation itself -- and torpedo the dreams of the generation that, at the price of their very lives, created the conditions that allowed you to come to power.

Taking a note from the Brotherhood playbook, the following steps are a foolproof recipe to sideline opposing opinions and, along with them, the vast silent majority of the population:

- Whenever possible, state that the process of drafting the constitution will be an inclusive process that represents all strands of the population, as drafting a constitution must be a consensual effort.

- For weeks before the selection of the committee, say repeatedly that you want the majority of the committee to come from outside of Parliament. Be sure to state that you will pick people based on their skills and relevance to the process. Then backtrack on all of these promises just moments before the vote, declaring that you plan instead to give half the seats on the committee to members of parliament.

- When discussing with parliamentary members the procedures for selecting the 100-person committee tasked with drafting the new constitution, present a list of candidates you have already agreed upon with your main ally in parliament (which together you dominate). Use your parliamentary majority to approve the measure without giving anyone else a chance to discuss the candidates' merits. In fact, you don't even have to discuss it with your party members, who probably blindly believe the decisions of your party's politburo, the Guidance Council.

- Give a handful of irrelevant parties -- either your own allies or offshoots of the former dictator's party -- the chance to get their names in the news by publicly approving this committee.

- When appointing supposedly independent figures from outside the parliament, select irrelevant individuals based solely on their political leanings. Include the token religious minority of your own party, renowned public personalities with clear Islamist leanings, and the spokesperson of your parliamentary ally, who will go on to declare that "efficiency" is to be the main criterion of selecting members for this committee.

- Be sure to include very few legal scholars (a dozen or so) in the committee. After all, you don't want jurists challenging the validity of the document you want them to sign. Whenever possible, select those with clear Islamist inclinations (like Atef El Banna), people who you are certain will only nod in approval to your suggestions and repeat your talking points.

- Ignore nearly all the revolutionary youth who led the revolution (and in some cases died for it) while you and your buddies sat on your hands, either waiting for the storm to pass or cowardly declaring that it was religiously forbidden to disobey the ruler.

- Ignore women. When pressed on this point, decide that you will grant a mere 6 percent of the seats on the committee to represent half of the population. Endeavor to select appointees who will be as irrelevant to women's rights as possible, such as a parliamentarian who seeks to repeal a legal ban on female genital mutilation, or the inexperienced daughter of a member of the Brotherhood's aforementioned and all-powerful Guidance Council.

- Ignore student unions despite their revolutionary heroism. If you must, appoint one student who studies dentistry, and who is also a member of your party.

- Ignore the independent labor unions, whose strikes brought the old regime to its knees in the last days of the revolution.

- When Al-Azhar, the nation's thousand-year-old Islamic beacon of knowledge and reference for Muslims the world over, announces that it will boycott the work of this committee because it does not feel properly represented, ignore them.

- When the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church, the spiritual home of 10 percent of the population, expresses serious concerns over the formation and the working of the constitutional drafting committee, ignore them.

- When the non-Islamist members of this 100-strong committee realize they were only added to legitimize a rotten process and begin resigning en masse even before the committee has held its first meeting, ignore them.

- Give them the beard (sorry, the finger) by having one of your smaller hardliner allies, a representative of an openly violent organization, state on television that "those who resigned from the committee have no real followers," and that you "challenge them to take to the streets," fully knowing that, unlike you, they can't provide bus transportation or meals for protesters.

- Reiterate that the process of constitutional drafting will be an inclusive and consensual process.

- Have the speaker of the parliament run, unchallenged, for the chairmanship of the constitutional committee. When people object that the chair of the committee tasked with drafting a document that will determine relations between two branches of government is himself the president of one of these branches, and that this represents an outrageous conflict of interest, ignore them.

- Having shaped the committee to your liking, begin conducting meetings. Disregard the fact that about 25 percent of the committee has quit in protest. Ignore suggestions from the handful of remaining conscientious members to resolve the matter or bring back some ideological balance to the committee.

- Promptly begin to release statements that constitutional clauses are coming along nicely.

If you follow these steps, you will end up with something that resembles a party manifesto. All you have to do now is replace the words "Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt" on the cover with the name of your own country. Success! Well, to be strict, only partly, because the next step will be to get formal popular approval. This, too, will not be difficult, if you follow the following steps:

- Shove it down the throats of the civilian population via a massive PR campaign. This is, after all, the same population that you fooled into voting for you by heavily overplaying a religious message and by depicting your political opposition as anti-Islamic (often via immoral preachers addressing their congregations).

- Don't let people vote for individual clauses. Rather, put the entire document to vote in one go, leaving no room for independent thought, and, more importantly, focusing on the one or few articles that mention Islam. Be sure to stress in your PR campaign that voting against the constitutional draft is the same as a vote against Islam or Egypt's identity as an Islamic state -- something that all parties, across the board, never really debated to begin with.

Now you have just the constitution you need in order to put a country with dreams of equality and democracy on the road to theocracy. Congratulations!

Mohamed El Dahshan's Twitter handle is @eldahshan.

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