Text Zigor Aldama Photos Zigor Aldama and Miguel Candela
November 2015, Moe Thway couldn’t conceal his excitement. He was about to vote in a democratic election for the first time in his life. As a founding member of Generation Wave, a youth pro-democracy movement born during the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007, he considered this first free general elections since 1990 – when the military refused to accept its defeat and remained in power – a personal victory. He would not think of voting for any other party than the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent almost 15 years under house arrest.
“It doesn’t matter that the constitution, written by the military junta in 2008, bans ‘the Lady’ – as many call Suu Kyi – from contesting for presidency, because her kids have a foreign passport. We know that she will exert power through her candidate, Htin Kyaw,” Thway explained.
The young activist was right: The NLD won a landslide victory and secured the presidency with 360 out of the 652 votes in parliament, where the army still holds 25 percent of the seats. “That gives the military veto power on any constitutional amendment, and it also keeps three key ministers. It’s going to be tough to reform the current system, but we believe change will come fast,” Thway said before the elections.
Now, almost a year and a half after Htin Kyaw was sworn in, optimism has faded and disappointment has set in. Promises are proving empty and little has improved in the country. Even Thway doesn’t show much enthusiasm anymore. “I’m not sure whether we were wrong or whether hopes were just too high. But the government is definitely not living up to the expectation,” he shares. For many people, that’s an understatement. Since the elections, even the unthinkable has happened: People have marched on the streets to express anger at Suu Kyi – who was practically a deity for many before. She has had to concede that things aren’t going smoothly.
“If you think I am not good enough for our country and our people, if someone or some organisation can do better than us, we are ready to step down,” Suu Kyi said in a televised address to the nation on the commemoration of the first anniversary of democracy in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
In the latest by-elections held in April 2017, the NLD won only nine of the 19 seats up for grabs. This stood in harsh perspective compared to the 2012 by-elections (the first in which the NLD was eligible), where Suu Kyi won 43 out of the 44 seats, securing her ticket into parliament. “She has proven to be just another politician,” criticises Zin Mar Lin, from the Brave New Burma Federation.
The eroding figure of Suu Kyi shows that not everything is rosy in the democratisation process. Myanmar’s transition to democracy has been lauded as a glowing example of how a dictatorship can turn into democracy without a bullet being fired – because the generals decided to hang up their uniforms and turn the military junta into a civil government in 2011.
A transition period began, and with inspiring results: Political prisoners were freed, ceasefire agreements were negotiated with a dozen armed ethnic groups, and the world responded with open arms, lifting the embargo that had been crippling the economy for years.
Companies from all over the world flocked to Myanmar in search of a virgin market to explore, and people dreamed of a democratic president, something that the former British colony hadn’t seen since 1962.
“If you think I am not good enough for our country and our people, if someone or some organisation can do better than us, we are ready to step down”
Lin concedes that there has been positive development. “Yes, economic growth is there and many have started to label Myanmar as the new economic miracle of Asia,” he says. “But the truth is that the bonanza is only benefitting a few. And it’s easy to understand why: Even if they stepped down, most of the land still belongs to the ex-military who ruled the country, and their families. They pocket huge amounts of the investment flowing into Myanmar. Regular citizens just see prices soaring. Rental prices for apartments, for example, are now ridiculously high. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening.”
They are not only key to peace, but also to the prosperity and well-being of the country. Suu Kyi has tried to secure ceasefire agreements with all the ethnic guerrillas, but the army keeps at its hostile operations, often using artillery and aviation.
“We are willing to negotiate a ceasefire, but that’s impossible when the military keeps bombing our positions. We need to defend our people,” says Gun
Maw, a general in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Meanwhile, internally displaced Kachin inhabitants find themselves trapped in rudimentary camps after fleeing from battle. “Soldiers keep ravaging towns, raping, killing, and burning houses to the ground. The situation of almost 100,000 displaced people is critical,” explains Labang Dai Pisa – who manages KIA’S camps – at one of the facilities in Jeyang.
ZIGOR ALDAMA is the Far East Asia correspondent for Vocento, Spain’s largest media group. His work often revolves around social and cultural issues.
MIGUEL CANDELA is a photographer currently based in Hong Kong, specialising in social features across Asia. He won Best New Talent at the 2012 Prix de la Photographie (Px3) Paris competition.