Democrati­sa­tion, In­ter­rupted

Text Zigor Aldama Photos Zigor Aldama and Miguel Candela

Asian Geographic - - In Focus - Aung San Suu Kyi

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

key events

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.

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