The woman who promises change. But will she deliver?
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.