Burma’s long march to democracy

Nothing perhaps could be more embarrassing for a nation’s leader than to represent his country in a forum abroad just after his administration has been decisively defeated in an election at home. An electoral repudiation is an eloquent way of telling the world that a president has lost the right to speak for his people.

But for Burmese President Thein Sein, a former army general who attended the leaders’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Cambodia on Wednesday, his party’s defeat in Burma’s (Myanmar’s) parliamentary by-election last Sunday will be a source of personal pride rather than of shame. To appreciate this irony is to understand what it means for the politics of a country like Burma to be graced by the participation of Asia’s most credible opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi, who vied for one of the 45 parliamentary seats rendered vacant by the appointment of some of the military regime’s leaders to key posts in government, has won 92 percent of the votes in her rural constituency.  Forty other members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have taken most of the remaining seats. The fragile-looking pro-democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was in detention for about 15 years, could have chosen not to participate in this election. She had every reason to ignore it.

At stake in this election were seats that make up no more than 7 percent of the total membership of parliament, where at least 25 percent of the seats are reserved for non-elected officials of the military. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, a proxy for the Burmese junta, remains firmly in control of government. The NLD’s victory does not in any way represent a sharing of power. By all accounts, this was no more than a “demonstration election” that the regime needed to lose (though probably not as badly as it has) in order to burnish its credentials as a government in transition to democracy.

Yet, to put it this way is to be cynically dismissive of the complex challenges that the situation in Burma today presents. It was Thein Sein who virtually begged Suu Kyi, the woman the junta jailed for many years, to join the election. That she responded positively testifies to her extraordinary patience and love of country. “I think there’s a need,” she recently told a public gathering, “for the participation of the military for the stability of the transformation period of our country. If the military and the people do unite together for the sake of our country, we can attain the development of our country in a very short time.” This political realism may not be entirely groundless. Suu Kyi sees the military—an institution her late father, the Burmese independence leader Aung San, once headed—as a partner in the nation’s development.

Despite the opposition’s landslide victory and the orderly conduct of the election, however, public skepticism persists. Asean may be inclined after this election to reward the regime by recommending that existing sanctions against the regime be lifted. But the Burmese public want to see if the transition is for real; for them, the litmus test of the regime’s true intentions will be the 2015 general elections.

For the last 50 years, the military has held sway over this impoverished nation, deploying its dictatorial powers to extract the natural wealth of the country—its timber and vast reserves of natural gas—while keeping at bay the ethnic and political forces that have historically opposed the military junta. In 1990, two years after the outrageous massacre of thousands of unarmed demonstrators, Burma held parliamentary elections calculated to draw the opposition into a terrain the junta thought it could control. The NLD called the generals’ bluff and swept the elections. Without being a candidate herself, Suu Kyi for the first time showed the military that if elections were held freely, the junta might not stay one day longer in power.

Unable to accept the 1990 election results, the junta turned around and invalidated the vote. Most of the leading figures of the opposition NLD, who should have been sitting in parliament, found themselves in jail instead.  Asean stood in horror as Burma’s generals, already known for their excessive brutality and corruption, continued to rule without accountability. But, while the United States, Britain, and the European Union took resolute steps to isolate the regime by imposing economic sanctions, Asean refused to go beyond its policy of “constructive engagement.”

Through all this, the detained Suu Kyi maintained a serene presence that was as powerful as it was non-violent. Several times, the junta urged her to leave the country and live in exile with her husband and two sons. But she chose to remain with her people, refusing to leave even after the death of her British husband out of fear that she won’t be allowed to return.  Separated from her family, she remained a thorn on the side of the Burmese military. Apart from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, no other leader in the developing world commanded such a compelling moral power.

The more the junta tried to marginalize her, the bigger she grew in the eyes of the world.  It would have been easier for the generals to justify their iron grip if Suu Kyi had led an underground armed movement against the government. But this was not the path she chose.  She didn’t want to see her country destroyed by civil war, no matter how justified it might have been. She was confident that military rule would sooner or later come to an end, because, in the modern world, this type of government is no longer sustainable. Her optimism is being proven right.