Inside Cover: 26 Jul 2010

Inside Cover: 26 Jul 2010

BANGKOK – Over the past few days in Hanoi, a bunch of people who ought to know better have emitted a lot of self-righteous flak about the coming elections in Myanmar.

The verbal posturing of ministers at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum will, as usual, have no effect on the conduct of polls in that beautiful but benighted nation.

In fact, rather than give Myanmar an “earful”, as ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said, it would have been better to highlight the much-lauded elections in the Philippines.

It could have been noted that as a result the Asian Development Bank decided to join a US$1 billion fund for Manila’s power projects, and the International Finance Corporation will invest $300 million in the same sector.

The non-threatening message to the generals in Naypyidaw would have been clear: Properly held elections can bring rich material rewards.

And the parallel would be apt, since modern politics in the Philippines echoes that of Myanmar. For more than two decades, both nations were run by venal dictators. Ne Win in Myanmar and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines were military men driven out by popular protests.

Myanmar then held largely free and fair elections, which the National League for Democracy won in a landslide. But the generals ignored the result and have continued to rule with an iron fist ever since.

The Philippines has done a tad better. There have been regular elections, but few would say they have been free and fair.

After the fraudulent 1986 polls, Marcos was forced to flee and Corazon Aquino took over – only to face regular coup threats that derailed her administration. Next up was President Fidel Ramos, who won with only 23 percent of the vote in an election again marred by allegations of fraud.

After Ramos, the film star Joseph Estrada became president but was forced out amid charges corruption.

Then, in the most crooked election of all, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over and clung on until this year – without ever gettting an earful from ASEAN.

This tawdry sequence has now been broken by the victory of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino.

Said United States academic Sheldon Simon, a Southeast Asian expert: “The election of Benigno Aquino as president of the Philippines was greeted by observers as a generally fair and transparent process.”

Aquino has already won plaudits for choosing ministers who promise to strengthen governance, fight corruption and reduce poverty.

Cesar Purisima, the new finance secretary, is a tough-minded former accountant who vows to combat graft, while the respected Alberto Romulo’s extension as foreign secretary signals continuity in external affairs.

Overall, Aquino and his new team have collectively given hope to Filipinos, international partners and investors.

And there is no reason why this cannot happen in Myanmar – if the elections are allowed to proceed without earfuls of criticism.