The Road to Naypyidaw
Come the November elections, Myanmar will offer an even playing field for people to elect the candidate of their choice.
Burma, whose official name was changed to Myanmar in 1989, was a former British colony, which gained independence in 1948. The country underwent a military coup in 1962 and was ruled by successive totalitarian regimes till 2011. Besides suppressing freedom of speech, the authoritarian ruling junta of Myanmar has been engaged in the oppression of ethnic minorities. The Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Rohingya, Chin, Kachin and other minorities have been oppressed resulting in intermittent protests and separatist rebellions.
Owing to strong pressures from the United Nations and other human rights organizations, in 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved after a 2010 general election. A nominally civilian government was installed but the military continues to exert influence on affairs of the state.
One of the prisoners of conscience and victims of the hardliner military regime is Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese Army and negotiated Burma’s independence with the British Empire in 1947, but was assassinated by
political rivals in 1947. Aung San Suu Kyi was only two years old then. Her mother, Khin Kyi, gained prominence as a political figure in the newly formed Burmese government and was appointed Burma’s ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960. Suu Kyi followed her mother there and received her early education in India. She continued her education at Oxford University subsequently. After graduation, she worked at the United Nations under its Secretary General from Burma, U Thant, for three years, where she met her future husband Dr. Michael Aris. The couple got married in 1972.
In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma to take care of her ailing mother and then the pathetic affairs of the country compelled her to lead the pro-democracy movement. She helped found the National League for Democracy ( NLD) on 27 September 1988, but was put under house arrest on 20 July 1989. In 1990, the military regime called a general election, in which the NLD bagged 80% of parliament seats but the results were nullified and the military refused to hand over power, leading to an international outcry. Aung San Suu Kyi continued to face incarceration. In recognition of her efforts for peace and restoration of democracy, she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize the year after. She was not permitted to go and receive her prize. Her sons Alexander and Kim accepted the Nobel Prize on her behalf. Aung San Suu Kyi used the Nobel Peace Prize's US$ 1.3 million prize money to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people.
Her husband Aris' last visit to her was in Christmas 1995 as the Burmese authoritarian regime denied her husband further entry visas. Aris was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and became terminally ill but despite appeals from the United States, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Pope John Paul II, the Burmese government refused to grant Aris a visa. He died on his 53rd birthday on 27 March 1999.
On 12 November 2010, days after the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won elections conducted after a gap of 20 years, the junta finally agreed to sign orders allowing Suu Kyi's release and her house arrest term came to an end on 13 November 2010.
The imposition of civilian rule and release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners has improved Myanmar’s human rights status and foreign relations and has led to the easing of trade and other economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States.
The role that Suu Kyi will play in the future of democracy in Burma remains a subject of much debate. She successfully negotiated with the Myanmar government to secure the release of a tenth of the political prisoners and got the trade unions legalized. In November 2011, following a meeting of its leaders, the NLD announced its intention to reregister as a political party in order to contend 48 by-elections necessitated by the promotion of parliamentarians to ministerial rank. The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar and called on Suu Kyi. On 5 January 2012, British Foreign Minister William Hague also met Aung San Suu Kyi and his Burmese counterpart.
In December 2011 she decided to run in the 2012 national by-elections to fill vacant seats. In an official campaign speech broadcast on Burmese state television on March 14, 2012, Suu Kyi publicly campaigned for reform of the 2008 Constitution, removal of restrictive laws, more adequate protection for people's democratic rights and establishment of an independent judiciary. The speech was leaked online a day before it was broadcast and a paragraph in the speech, focusing on the Tatmadaw’s repression by means of law, was censored by authorities.
Suu Kyi called for international media to monitor the by-elections, while publicly pointing out irregularities in official voter lists, which included deceased individuals and excluded other eligible voters in the contested constituencies. She observed widespread fraud and violation of rules in the elections. She had to cut short her campaigning because of exhaustion and heat but she won the seat in the parliament along with 43 of her party members, making her the leader of the opposition in the lower house.
Aung San Suu Kyi has now announced her candidature for the presidency in Myanmar’s 2015 elections. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s Constitution has a clause, which was apparently formulated to bar her from the presidency because she is the widow and mother of foreigners.
General elections in Myanmar are scheduled for November 2015. Most likely, the current President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, will step aside when his term ends this year. The possible candidates are Shwe Mann, the former No. 3 in the junta who is now Speaker of the House of Representatives. According to political pundits, he is poised to pick up the baton of presidency from Thein Sein. Aung San Suu Kyi’s aspirations to become Myanmar’s next president will only be possible if constitutional changes take place, lifting the bar on her. The main contender, Shwe Mann has declared that a referendum would be held in May 2015 on constitutional changes that are being thrashed out amidst heated debate in the legislature. He claims that constitutional amendments will not be incorporated just after the referendum; hence they will not be applicable in the 2015 elections.
It will not be a quirk of fate if the Nobel laureate is denied her right to contest for the Presidency but another deliberate attempt to keep her away from power. Time is not on her side as her health is not in prime condition. Perhaps international players and organizations can bear pressure on Myanmar to make it an even playing field for all contestants so that democracy may prevail and the people have a fair choice of electing the candidate of their choice. If Myanmar intends to showcase to the world that it has shed the fetters of totalitarianism, it must amend its constitution in accordance with the wishes of the people, well in time to be applicable to the 2015 elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s aspirations to become Myanmar’s next president will only be possible if constitutional changes take place, lifting the bar on her.
Aung San Suu Kyi