The moral factor in political transitions

YANGON—Nothing can better remind us of the significance of the 1986 Edsa people power uprising, whose 30th anniversary we are observing this week, than to view it in relation to what is happening today in Myanmar (Burma). By luck, I find myself in Yangon (Rangoon), its capital, where I have been attending a fascinating dialogue on civic engagement in periods of transition with past awardees of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation.

Myanmar is on the cusp of a historic transition that is not unlike our Edsa I. Indeed, it is not farfetched to think that Edsa 1 may have inspired both the student-led rebellion in 1988 that the military brutally suppressed, and the “Saffron Uprising” in 2007 that Buddhist monks in saffron-colored robes staged against the military dictatorship two decades later. As in Edsa, these Burmese uprisings found a moral symbol in a woman of steely grace—Aung San Suu Kyi. But unlike Edsa, the Burmese military seized upon the flux of events to impose its own brand of dictatorship.

A junta of corrupt generals that initially went by the ominous name “State Law and Order Restoration Council” (SLORC) ruled the country from 1988, promising general elections and a new constitution in a bid to cloak its rule in some form of legitimacy. In 1990, two years after the coup against Gen. Ne Win’s one-party state, the SLORC held general elections. The people roundly repudiated them by electing the opposition candidates from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League For Democracy (NLD). Totally embarrassed, the junta turned around and refused to honor the results of the elections. Instead of allowing the NLD to occupy the 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats it had won, the junta proceeded to jail and persecute its leaders.

The junta ruled with impunity, completely oblivious of the democratic transitions that were unfolding in the rest of the world at about this time. Enraged by its corruption and chronic abuse of fundamental human rights—not the least of which was the repeated arrest and detention of Aung San Suu Kyi over a 15-year period—the international community sought to isolate Myanmar’s regime by imposing stiff sanctions that further crippled the country’s already impoverished economy.

A pariah on the world stage, Myanmar’s military government sought what little affirmation and comfort it could find among its fellow member-countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Asean opted to pursue a policy of “constructive engagement” that was aimed at gradually bringing Myanmar’s rulers to the path of political and economic normalization.

It took some time before the global pressure on the regime started to bear fruit. Finally, in 2008, in the wake of widespread protests and a devastating typhoon that killed 140,000 people, the junta signaled a resolve to move toward civilian rule by promulgating a new constitution that would form the basis for a new civilian government. The provisions of this basic document betrayed a deep insecurity born of the military’s legitimacy deficit. It gave them a lock on 25 percent of the parliamentary seats. It vested the president with full immunity from criminal prosecution at the end of his term. It barred from the presidency anyone whose spouse or children carried foreign passports—a provision expressly aimed against Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband and two sons carried British passports.

In 2010, the junta called for parliamentary elections. The NLD, with its leader still in detention, refused to lend legitimacy to these moves by staying away from the general elections. As expected, the military-backed Union  Solidarity and Development Party won. But, six days after, in a gesture of reconciliation, the government unconditionally released Aung San Suu Kyi.

In 2012, by-elections were held for 46 vacant parliamentary seats. This time, the democracy icon, known simply among her compatriots as “The Lady,” led her party in vying for these seats. The NLD won all but two of the seats—a prelude to its dramatic November 2015 landslide victory, which gave Aung San Suu Kyi’s party control over 70 percent of parliamentary seats. With this comes the power to form the new government when parliament convenes to elect the country’s next president on March 17.

Although the prospect of suspending or amending the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for president remains uncertain, there is no question that she is today Myanmar’s most powerful leader. She stands on the same spot where Cory Aquino found herself 30 years ago. As in Cory’s case, immense expectations attend her historic rise to power. The military remains a thorn in her side.

Cory had to fend off seven coup attempts by disgruntled military officers who thought that, because of their role in Edsa 1, they had as much right to run the government. In contrast, despite the defeat of its candidates in the last elections, Myanmar’s military is technically undiminished in its powers. It holds a veto power on all constitutional amendments or revisions. By law, it also retains control over key government ministries under any administration. Most important of all, the generals can dictate whether the ongoing ceasefire agreements and peace negotiations with Myanmar’s ethnic rebel armies will bear fruit or not. But, lacking the moral affirmation of these powers, they can no longer govern.

Despite our own disenchantment with what came after, Edsa 1 exemplifies this moral force and thus remains a model and a source of inspiration for nations that are still struggling to free themselves from the yoke of political tyranny.

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