Burma – The Long Road to Democracy

In Burma (Myanmar) the white elephant has long been a symbol of power and fortune, historically linked to times of change and prosperity. Burma’s ruling regime have unveiled two white elephants and hailed their finding as a triumph, as a pivotal discovery at a time when political change sweeps the country and the nation makes its first tentative steps towards reform and democracy. But, while the superstitious military junta claim that the work of white elephants is improving foreign relations, for those campaigning for democracy the real hope comes in the form of Burma’s First Lady Aung San Suu Kyi and her long awaited return to politics.

For the last 50 years Burma has been the epitome of a dystopian nightmare for its inhabitants as its military regime, Orwellian and oppressive in nature, has sought to consolidate their power over the country and its people. One of the world’s least developed countries, the government consistently squander capital on outlandish projects. In 2005, the nation’s capital was moved to a purpose built city on the basis of astrological observations; meanwhile human rights are consistently ignored, censorship is rigid, healthcare almost nonexistent and the army fights a brutal and long running civil war against ethnic insurgents along its borders.

But November has seen this isolated and oppressed nation swept up in a tide of political change. Unlike the revolutions in the Arab world that were instigated by popular uprisings, change in Burma has been triggered by the Burmese government as a series of unprecedented political moves have been made to end the nation’s global seclusion and reduce sanctions.

Last year, in the midst of questionable national elections, Noble Peace Prize winner and democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Popularly known as Burma’s First Lady, she had spent 19 of the past 22 years in confinement following her party’s (National League for Democracy) overwhelming win in the 1990 elections, a result which was outright ignored by the military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi became renowned all over the world as a campaigner for justice, freedom and democracy while she fought for her nation’s political freedom from the clutches of the military junta. In the process, she was transformed from politician to beloved symbol of hope and resolve for both the Burmese people and the wider world that followed her agonising plight.

Now, a year on from Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the ruling party, a government which is nominally civilian yet comprised almost exclusively of former generals, have made a minor amendment to their constitution which will allow the ‘First Lady’ to return to active politics. Her party, the NLD, boycotted last year’s elections when the government ruled that former prisoners could not stand for office, a clause which prevented Aung San Suu Kyi and many high profile party members from standing. The United Solidarity and Development Party, led now by President Thein Sein, won a majority, allowing the generals to keep power and dashing all hope of democratic reform.

Aung San Suu Kyi has now announced that she will be contesting by-elections this December and with 48 seats being contested it is a significant chance for the NLD to gain a foothold in the Burmese parliament. The move comes at a time when the government are attempting to legitimise their rule while seeking to improve foreign relations. The reintroduction of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to politics will provide a small measure of legitimacy both in Burma and abroad; it has been welcomed by the world at large and praised as a step towards democracy.

Equally important is the fact that the media in Burma have even been allowed to run the story at all. Harsh censorship rules have been relaxed and Aung San Su Kyi’s picture has even been allowed to grace the front page of publications, an act which would previously have seen an editor arrested.

It seems that the government are beginning to understand that they cannot make progress in isolation, and that to make progress Aung San Suu Kyi must be allowed to play a political role in the country. The question is, however, how genuine are the Burmese government’s intentions? It remains to be seen if they will simply renege on their promises of progress in the future. Hillary Clinton completed the first visit to Burma by a Secretary of State in over 50 years at the beginning of December, in order to surmise what the regime’s “true intentions are and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform”. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also intends on visiting the Asian nation “as soon as possible”.

Despite this ray of hope, the fact remains that thousands of political prisoners are still detained by the government. The release of these prisoners would be needed before Burma could realistically be considered to be making real progress towards reform. The country has also been selected to chair ASEAN (The Association of South East Asian Nations) in 2014. However, this position could turn out to be a premature reward; legitimisation of the regime as the prospect of chairing ASEAN could be used to apply more pressure on Burma’s leaders while ongoing wars ravage the country’s borderlands and oppressed ethnic minorities fight for autonomy from the central Burmese government.

What the future holds for Burma is still ambiguous, but with Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to politics and the lifting of censorship, the stage has been set for a slow move towards a democratically elected government in this oppressed and war-torn country. Yet, as Aung San Suu Kyi has warned, “the road ahead is full of difficulties and the road to democracy is endless”. Progress will undoubtedly be slow, but the road is certainly open.

Richard Collett


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