For long-term Burma watchers, it has been easy to regard that country’s recent political changes as window dressing by an authoritarian regime hoping to attract investment without actually giving up power. There is no doubt, too, that the 2010 elections remained a very long way from being free and fair.
But the bi-elections in April this year did appear to offer a glimpse of a genuine reform process, with opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates winning 43 of the 44 seats contested. Burma’s President Thein Sein has since been feted around the world as a reformer, as has NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the symbol of hoped-for political change.
Since April, there have been numerous changes in Burma’s political and military leadership. To date, these changes have almost all seen the promotion of reformist officers or former officers and the side-lining of the government’s anti-reform faction.
In early October, Aceh will hold its second gubanatorial elections since the 2005 peace agreement that ended almost three decades of separatist war. After five years of relative peace and stability, the main political tensions appear to be between competing factions of the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Other, more troubling tensions are, however, just below the surface.
There is little to divide the main factions competing in the elections. The incumbent governor, Irwandi Yusuf, has overseen the development of a universal health care system, expanded education, overseen underlying economic growth and banned logging in Aceh’s spectacular rainforest.
His main electoral opponent, GAM’s former ‘Foreign Minister’, Dr Zaini Abdullah, also supports such programs. Apart from personalities, the division between them might be characterised as one of the latter being more conservative and the former more progressive.
Yudhoyono was initially elected in 2004 promising reform. He was relatively successful, launching a major anti-corruption campaign, pushing the TNI to divest its business interests, trying to clean up the judiciary and getting the economy back on track.
There is no issue more critical to the success of democratic projects anywhere than the civilian control and accountability of those institutions of state that exercise the capacity for compulsion; the military, police and intelligence services. The two requirements of these institutions of the ‘security sector’ are that they are effective in providing security from external threats and internal law breaking, and that they do not themselves constitute a threat to the state or its citizens. Where the security sector does not comply with these conditions, it can and often does create a hurdle to sustainable development, normative political progress and the sense of security these outcomes are nominally intended to provide.