Myanmar is on the brink of its first democratically elected government. Kevin O’Leary examines the past, present and future for the state.
The 1st of February 2016 will be remembered as one of the most symbolic days in the history of modern Myanmar and indeed in the quest for representative democracy in the post-Cold War era. The arrival of Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament, following years of house arrest by the Burmese military junta signified the end of an authoritarian regime which stood as a relic from a bygone era of bipolar world politics. The question now is what this momentous occasion means for the people of this impoverished nation, which is beset by ethnic strife and extensive social problems.
What has just occurred in Myanmar draws clear parallels with significant developments in the world’s political arena following the collapse of Soviet communism. Suu Kyi’s presence in Myanmar’s lower house, just metres from representatives of the once all-encompassing and at times brutal military regime, was reminiscent of the swearing in of Polish president Lech Wałęsa in 1990, watched on by former dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski, or indeed the arrival of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to the first parliament of post-apartheid South Africa. More than twenty years on, it is now Myanmar’s turn to overcome years of ferocious political division, and much like what occurred in both South Africa and Poland, witness former adversaries work together for the common good of their respective populations.
What brought about these major changes in Myanmar politics? In 2011, after 49 years of military rule, a new constitution and an opening of the economy to foreign markets provided the catalyst for a new era in the country’s history. Following the 1962 coup d’état by the military, an extensive nationalisation process subjected the state’s citizens to widespread poverty, something which has persisted despite close economic ties to neighbouring China since the early 1990s. The onset of foreign capital is hoped to stimulate an economy that has long suffered from stagnation, mismanagement and isolation. The adoption of a functioning democracy is an attempt to make the nation more attractive to outside investors and thus assist in this new economic approach.
For the new members of parliament, the challenges are substantial. Among the parliamentarians from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is Ma Thander, who after spending six years in jail as a political prisoner, lost her husband in 2014 when he was shot dead in army custody. 110 of the 390 NLD candidates elected to both houses of parliament have served time as political prisoners, with many only being released as part of the reforms that led to last November’s election. Irrespective of any of the issues the new government will face, simply being able to work alongside their former jailers and oppressors will be a key test in itself. Thander says however that she bears no hate, insisting that she wants both sides to “work together for the good of the country.” The first-time member of parliament alluded to the slight unease between the NLD and the military, stating “I can shake hands with them, but I don’t know if they will shake hands with us. We have been smiling at them [here in the parliament] but they don’t smile back.”
Notwithstanding the current rapprochement between the military and the NLD, the new government faces the arduous task of unifying a country split by half a dozen separate conflicts occurring in the nation’s border regions. Myanmar’s diverse ethnic makeup stymies a national cohesion that could provide the momentum for the kind of national renewal and development that would advance the nation from its current woes.
Not even rejection of the military junta over the course of five decades brought any meaningful co-operation between the various opposition groups in the country. Despite a peace agreement being signed in October between many of the armed militias, attacks involving the other rebels against and by the military continue unabated and threaten the very sovereignty of the Myanmar state. This and addressing the persecution of Myanmar Muslims, who in many cases were even denied the right to vote in the democratic November elections, will pose the most pressing concerns for Suu Kyi and the government in the coming months and years.
Despite the evident challenges facing Myanmar, there is widespread support for Suu Kyi and belief that she is best placed to guide the state away from the last few decades which have witnessed such instability and turmoil. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner is the daughter of Aung San, who achieved independence for Myanmar and ironically established what became the same Burmese army that some decades later would place Suu Kyi under house arrest. Aung
Win, a prominent NLD member, has described the sentiments of the Myanmar people on her election to parliament, saying “I cannot describe what we feel about Aung San Suu Kyi. Today would never have been possible without her.”
Suu Kyi has been quick to temper the elation that has followed the November elections, warning supporters to be humble and remain wary of the tendency of the military to intervene when it feels threatened. Suu Kyi’s presence in the parliament in early February was little more than ceremonial, with the real political decisions being made at the end of March, as this period will see the appointment of a new president and the formation of a new government.
Whatever way the negotiations between now and then go, what appears certain is that a deserving Suu Kyi’s NLD and the military will finally be sharing power after one of the most protracted internal political conflicts in modern history.