VOA Burmese Blog

August 30, 2010

Interview with Dr. Steinberg

During the beginning of the year, I had the honor of meeting Dr. David Steinberg. Little did I know, that our encounter would be one of many to come. Dr. Steinberg is a professor at Georgetown University and he specializes in Burma as well as North and South Korea studies.  He wrote the book,  “Burma/ Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know”. On this particular meeting, we were interviewing Dr. Steinberg about his thoughts on Burma’s upcoming elections. This interview took place in January 2010, and Dr. Steinberg discussed with us his views on the elections, the constitution and the military junta.

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VOA Burmese:

Do you think that the 2010 elections would be a free and fair elections as General Than Shwe had stated it would be?

Dr: Steinberg:

Everybody uses that term free and fair and no one understands what it means. The difference is in the people’s definition. It will be only free and fair if Aung San Su Kyii is allowed to run, then that will not happen, because she cannot run under the provisions of the new constitution. Will it be free and fair if the NLD runs or doesn’t run? What if the NLD splits? What about the counting of the votes? What about free and fair campaigning- which was not fair in 1990? In order to be free and fair, you have to change press censorship laws so that political parties can distribute materials. There will be opposition parties, but at the same time the military will contain control because they have designed a constitution which will allow them to have the ultimate responsibility for power or in that state.

VOA Burmese:

What does the constitution indirectly state- regarding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?
Dr. Steinberg:

The constitution states that if you receive funds from Foreign sources you’re not allowed to run, and she has received the Nobel Peace Prize which involves a lot of money, even if she didn’t keep it herself. I don’t know where that money is, and it is not relevant, but the military can use that excuse to have her not run. Also it is likely, that she will be under house arrest at the time of the election or at least through the campaigning of the election.

VOA Burmese:

Dr. Steinberg, you also mentioned the 1990 elections previously, could you say that the  2010 elections may very well turn out to be like the 1990 elections?

Dr. Steinberg:

The dynamic is somewhat different. In 1990, the head of state was General Saw Maung. Genearl Saw Maung was the head of the junta, but his power was not absolute. It seems to me that General Than Shwe’s power is far more pervasive than General Saw Maung, and the need to please General Than Shwe may be greater. So it may be that in the referendum on the constiution, which was clearly a manipulated vote, the lower people in the government, may feel it necessary to prove it to General Than Shwe, that they have control. I still think there will be opposition parties, but they just won’t have too much power.

VOA Burmese:

So why did General Than Shwe make this statement? Why did he say at the USDA conference that this election would be free and fair? Is it merely rhetoric?

Dr. Steinberg:

It’s because everyone has used that same phrase- “ free and fair” – from Ban Ki Moon to everybody in the US government. And it’s a good phrase- this is what we do. It’s part of the American system, but at the same time, “ Fair” is a culturally derived term. What is fair in one society is not necessarily fair in another. Clearly the military has designated some of its key officers and officials to run for office, and that’s perfectly appropriate, but at the same time you feel that the military power is so great that they will be tendencies in the lower level of the military to try and please their superiors. And that is a danger. We have seen this here in the United States and all over the world, it is very common. However, how pervasive would that be, and will there be any neutral body that can judge what is appropriate. The election commission from 1990 was very sad. People were mostly older than I was , and they were figures in Burmese history, and well known, but they had no  power. And I hope that they have their election commission this time, would be far more representative and far more neutral.

VOA Burmese:

How can we assure that the elections would be a free and fair one? ASEAN and the UN proposed that there should be international monitoring of the polls. Do you think that this is likely?

Dr. Steinberg:

I don’t think that this is likely, but at the same time, we cannot impose free and fair elections on any one, even if they were to have international observers from the UN and ASEAN, certainly not from the United States. But how many polls can they watch? How many people can they watch? There would be thousands and thousands of people at the election places. So it’s not credible. I think with a good computer system, there can be something done, but they do not seem to have such a system. We were able to notice the irregularities of the Afghanistan elections in Karzai. But here you’re not electing a president, you’re electing individual members of the national assembly- of the junta, and that is quite different.

VOA Burmese:

I read some where that with this new elections, the old military junta is making way for the new generation of the military. Is this true?

Dr. Steinberg:

I don’t know if I would use that kind of phrase. The military wants to perpetuate military power, I think, is evident. It’s been evident since 1962. But at the same time, there is going to be a generational change among some of the people. General Than Shwe, General Maung Aye are both older. Earlier members of the junta have retired, like General Chit Swe. So at a certain age they will retire. One of the things that will happen, is of course a new military, but the military top leadership wants to make sure that it is protected by the new generation of military that will come to power, and that their families will not suffer. Under the constitution, no body can be tried for supposed crimes that are committed in their official capacities in the previous administration. This is an article of the constitution so General Than Shwe and General Maung Aye are protected as long as they are in the country, but they want to ensure that their families have economic interest and have a good role in that society.

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