The woman who prom­ises change. But will she de­liver?

Southasia - - Contents - By Col R Har­i­ha­ran (retd)

No­bel lau­re­ate, Aung San Suu Kyi who had been leading the strug­gle for democ­racy led the Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD) to a re­sound­ing vic­tory in the re­cent par­lia­men­tary by-elec­tions in Myan­mar. The re-en­try of Suu Kyi and the NLD in Myan­mar pol­i­tics opens a new chap­ter in the trou­bled his­tory of this na­tion.

Un­doubt­edly, Suu Kyi’s charis­matic lead­er­ship and tremen­dous pop­u­lar­ity bagged 44 of the 45 seats for the NLD. On the flip side, de­spite its thump­ing suc­cess, the NLD will oc­cupy only 39 of the 440 seats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The House of Na­tion­al­i­ties – the up­per house – will have only 5 NLD mem­bers out of 224 mem­bers. In light of the big­ger pic­ture, NLD has a long way to go to make a ma­jor im­pact inside the par­lia­ment.

But even to­ken NLD rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the par­lia­ment is of far-reach­ing po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance be­cause Suu Kyi’s pres­ence as a mem­ber in the House will com­pen­sate for the num­bers. With her en­try in the par­lia­ment, the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship, or­ches­trat­ing the gov­ern­ment from be­hind, will be un­der tremen­dous pres­sure to pre­serve its spe­cial sta­tus as­sured un­der the 2008 Con­sti­tu­tion.

The NLD had boy­cotted the en­tire army-en­gi­neered con­sti­tu­tion-mak­ing process from the very be­gin­ning un­til the 2010 gen­eral elec­tions. NLD’s fun­da­men­tal ob­jec­tion to the 2008 Con­sti­tu­tion was that it le­git­imized the mil­i­tary role in a multi-party democ­racy. How­ever, NLD’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the by-elec­tions un­der the 2008 Con­sti­tu­tion in­di­cates a ma­jor shift in its po­lit­i­cal stance. Pres­i­dent Thein Sein’s pos­i­tive and face sav­ing re­sponse to some of NLD’s ob­jec­tions ap­pear to have in­flu­enced Suu Kyi’s de­ci­sion to join the po­lit­i­cal main­stream.

Her at­ti­tu­di­nal change ap­par­ently started in 2007. Former UN Spe­cial En­voy, Razali Is­mail, noted in April 2007 that Suu Kyi “had come a long way to re­al­ize that democ­racy can only be done through the gen­er­als, with the lat­ter still in the driv­ing seat. This re­al­iza­tion of hers is in stark con­trast to the im­per­vi­ous, prin­ci­pled and un­bend­ing Suu Kyi I had met over twenty meet­ings ago.”

Ap­par­ently, Suu Kyi has opted for po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism rather than demo­cratic dog­ma­tism as a means to achieve her goal.

Thanks to Pres­i­dent Thein Sein’s pos­i­tive push and the en­try of Suu Kyi and the NLD in the par­lia­ment, the demo­cratic process might gather its own mo­men­tum whet­ting the ap­petite for more peo­ples’ par­tic­i­pa­tion with a di­min­ished role for the army. This would co­in­cide with Suu Kyi’s goal of a democ­racy free from mil­i­tary over lord­ship. How the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship would re­spond to this re­mains the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion.

NLD has a long way to go to make a ma­jor im­pact inside the par­lia­ment. But even to­ken NLD rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the par­lia­ment is of far-reach­ing po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance be­cause Suu Kyi’s pres­ence as a mem­ber in the House will com­pen­sate for the num­bers.

This makes the re­form process frag­ile and vul­ner­a­ble to mil­i­tary lead­er­ship’s sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ties.

In a video speech ad­dress­ing Car­leton Univer­sity stu­dents last month, Suu Kyi, strik­ing a word of cau­tion stated, “Ul­ti­mate power still rests with the army so un­til we have the army solidly be­hind the process of de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion we can­not say we have got to a point where there will no longer be a U-turn. Many peo­ple are be­gin­ning to say that the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion process is ir­re­versible. It is not so.”

Even now, the NLD has to over­come small con­sti­tu­tional road­blocks that im­pede free­wheel­ing demo­cratic func­tion­ing in par­lia­ment. There is a con­sti­tu­tional re­quire­ment for par­lia­ment mem­bers to take an oath to “pro­tect” the con­sti­tu­tion. Newly elected NLD mem­bers, in­clud­ing Suu Kyi, have de­ferred their oath tak­ing.

How­ever, Suu Kyi has clar­i­fied that the NLD was not boy­cotting the par­lia­ment but only await­ing for the oath to be suit­ably amended with a phrase like “re­spect the con­sti­tu­tion” to make it more ac­cept­able to them. This is a clear in­di­ca­tion that Suu Kyi would like to avoid con­fronting the gov­ern­ment on such func­tional is­sues.

In light of all this, Suu Kyi is plan­ning to travel overseas for the first time in 24 years, prob­a­bly be­cause she feels con­fi­dent of the present scheme of things. This would also in­di­cate that she may not take any pre­cip­i­tate ac­tion to rock the on-go­ing demo­cratic process. It is ex­pected that she would sta­bi­lize her party’s po­lit­i­cal pres­ence, ex­plore all av­enues avail­able within the present con­sti­tu­tional set up and work to­wards a build­ing a con­sen­sus to amend the con­sti­tu­tion to make it more demo­cratic.

The re­cent by elec­tions came un­der close in­ter­na­tional scru­tiny as they were con­sid­ered a barom­e­ter for the progress of de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of the coun­try. There is a great deal of in­ter­na­tional op­ti­mism now as the elec­tions were largely con­ducted fairly. The U.S. am­bas­sador to the UN, Su­san Rice, chair­ing the UNSC meet­ing

on Myan­mar, de­scribed the elec­tions as a “his­toric and crit­i­cal step on the path to con­sol­i­dat­ing and strength­en­ing Myan­mar’s demo­cratic re­forms.”

In a bid to en­cour­age Myan­mar’s de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion process, in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions slapped on the coun­try are be­ing loos­ened. Al­ready the Euro­pean Union has an­nounced the sus­pen­sion of sanc­tions – ex­cept for arms sale - for one year. The EU’s for­eign pol­icy chief, Cather­ine Ash­ton said the bloc aimed to sup­port progress in Myan­mar “so it be­comes ir­re­versible.”

The U.S. has lifted the ban on in­vest­ments in Myan­mar as the first step. As the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion process pro­ceeds apace, other U.S. sanc­tions are likely to be lifted fully, sooner than later. With such broad based in­ter­na­tional sup­port, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity hopes that not only the Thein Sein gov­ern­ment, but also the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship would be en­cour­aged to con­tinue the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion process.

Myan­mar is a huge reser­voir of un­der ex­ploited nat­u­ral re­sources in­clud­ing nat­u­ral gas. To re­source hun­gry na­tions, it of­fers tremen­dous in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. Its in­fra­struc­ture re­quire­ments are many and its de­vel­op­ment into a modern na­tion pro­vides plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ter­na­tional busi­ness. Al­ready world lead­ers are mak­ing a bee­line to Myan­mar; David Cameron, the Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter made a quick trip to Myan­mar and In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh is sched­uled to visit soon.

Pres­i­dent Thein Sein ap­pears to be con­scious of these com­plex­i­ties; he had been keep­ing Suu Kyi in the loop on im­por­tant is­sues. How­ever, whether he would con­tinue to re­tain the con­fi­dence of the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship might de­ter­mine the progress of the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion process.

A brew­ing threat to progress in Myan­mar is the stalled rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process with eth­nic mil­i­tant groups wag­ing war against the state ever since in­de­pen­dence. His­tor­i­cally, the in­abil­ity of civil­ian gov­ern­ment to tackle these in­sur­gen­cies, par­tic­u­larly by the Karens, Kachins and Shans, in 1962 had pro­vided a valid rea­son for the army to usurp power. Con­scious of this dan­ger, both Suu Kyi (and NLD lead­ers) and Pres­i­dent Thein Sein have been hold­ing talks with in­sur­gent group lead­ers with lim­ited suc­cess.

Only a strong demo­cratic gov­ern­ment can guar­an­tee an eq­ui­table role for eth­nic mi­nori­ties to par­tic­i­pate in na­tion build­ing. One can only hope that the Myan­mar lead­er­ship col­lec­tively re­al­izes its re­spon­si­bil­ity in en­sur­ing this. With no doubt, this would be the big­gest chal­lenge for Suu Kyi.

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