The Road to Naypyi­daw

Come the Novem­ber elec­tions, Myan­mar will of­fer an even play­ing field for peo­ple to elect the can­di­date of their choice.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. M. Hali

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.

Shwe Mann

Aung San Suu Kyi

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