Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A New Dawn for Burma?

by Rowena Hammal
                                                                             (photo source: 
At first glance, it seems that ‘The Lady’ of Burma, or ‘Mother Suu’, has triumphed. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won over 40 of the 45 seats which it contested in the recent by-elections. Suu Kyi has toured Burma, and t-shirts bearing her image have been selling like hotcakes. Just three years previously, anyone showing open support for her risked arrest, and Suu Kyi herself was detained in the notorious (and aptly named) Insein Prison.
How far is this all really a triumph? A certain degree of euphoria is inevitable. The Burmese have languished under a brutal military junta since the 1980s; this election represents their first taste of democracy since the 1990 elections in which the NLD won a landslide with over 80% of the vote. On a personal level, Suu Kyi’s self-sacrifice has been monumental following the junta’s decision to ignore that election result. Kept under house arrest in Rangoon for the better part of two decades, she was separated from her husband and two sons who remained in Britain. When her husband was dying from cancer in 1999, she took the impossibly difficult decision not to leave Burma, knowing that the regime would not allow her to return. Suu Kyi has been an inspirational figurehead for Burmese democracy, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and writing the excellent ‘Freedom from Fear’ to explain her political philosophy. Her victory this month stands out as one of the best deserved in either this century or the last.
However, a darker truth lurks behind the many pictures of Suu Kyi surrounded by adoring supporters.
As she undoubtedly knows better than anyone, Burma is far from free. When asked last month to give Burma a rank out of ten as a democracy, Suu Kyi said that it was ‘on the way to one’. Suu Kyi will take her seat in a parliament of 664 seats, of which only 48 were included in the by-election, and a quarter of which are reserved for the military. The military-backed Union Solidary and Development Party (UDSP) holds almost all the other seats.. Suu Kyi has not won power, and the military may once again decide to repress the NLD following their electoral success. Many political prisoners are still in jail, and the Burmese Army continues to kill, rape and persecute Burmese citizens (particularly those from ethnic minorities such as the Karen people) without fear of redress.
So, what hope for a brighter future for Burma? The best chance will be if moderates within the junta see democracy as the source of benefits. Suu Kyi has consistently asked foreign governments and businesses to boycott Burma; the economic pressure which resulted from these sanctions is a key reason why the regime have been willing to relax their grip on the country. Continued scrutiny of the country by the international media, politicians, pressure groups and individuals will be essential to future progress.
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