Three months ago I stood in a sweaty crowd of about 10,000 people in urban Rangoon, listening to Burma’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, give her first official address in more than seven years.
The previous day — November 13 2010 — she had been released from house arrest. Photos of her standing behind the gates of her lakeside residence, waving to a swarm of supporters, reporters, photographers and Special Branch operatives, took top billing in the international pages of newspapers across the globe.
Having apparently lost none of her political nous, Aung San Suu Kyi issued an open invitation to come to her headquarters the following afternoon. And come they did, taking an opportunity denied for much of the past 20 years. "I believe that I will now have the chance to listen to the voices of the people," she told us, before declaring: "There is no one that I cannot work or talk with."
Her words were met with cheers — but the practicalities of beginning dialogue have proved more difficult.
Without a legally registered party — the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 80 per cent of the seats in the 1990 election, was disbanded after deciding not to contest last year’s poll — Aung San Suu Kyi has had to walk a tightrope: on the one hand, working to fulfil the hopes that so many at home and abroad have pinned on her, while at the same time being careful not to aggravate the regime and prompt a crackdown.
The past three months have only reinforced that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are just one element in a complex political landscape, in which the easily digestible good-versus-evil narrative so beloved of mainstream Western media has proved increasingly redundant. Discontent with the country’s political stasis, many new actors have emerged to occupy ground between the NLD and the government. These include opposition and ethnic political parties, civil society organisations and local NGOs.
At the same time, the deeply unpopular military has progressed with its seven-step "Road Map to Democracy", convening national and regional parliaments on 31 January and promptly selecting a retired military general, Prime Minister Thein Sein, as the country’s new president. Serving or former military officers fill 26 of the 30 ministerial positions in the new cabinet — in addition to most of the speaker and deputy positions. Despite the widespread criticism of this process, the transition from a military to an ostensibly civilian government is the most significant structural change in a generation.
What role, if any, the NLD can play outside of this legal framework remains to be seen. There is little optimism that the party will be able to rebuild its network of supporters, the majority of whom have drifted away over the past 20 years. While most still have a great respect for Aung San Suu Kyi, there was widespread disappointment at the party’s decision — based on her instruction — not to participate in the election. This denied voters a viable opposition and eased the path to power for the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, of which Thein Sein is the chairman.
The NLD’s statement last week on the efficacy of economic sanctions — perhaps the greatest political discussion point of recent times — has proved equally unpopular here, and showed that the "voices of the people" are still struggling to get through to the party’s leadership.
While calling for discussions with Western nations, including Australia, on "when, how and under what circumstances sanctions might be modified in the interests of democracy, human rights and a healthy economic environment", the party maintained that sanctions had not negatively affected the people to "any notable degree".
With no access to loans from international financial institutions, the lowest level of per capita aid in the developing world and a chronic lack of investment in labour-intensive industries, the people of Burma might beg to differ. And where sanctions have not banned trade and investment — as is the case with Australia — boycott campaigns have effectively done the job instead.
The military government is certainly to blame for the country’s economic woes but it’s hard to find anyone here outside the NLD office — even those who supported the NLD’s decision to boycott the election — who sees sanctions as playing a positive role in shaping the country’s future. Rather, sanctions have given the military a convenient excuse to blame opposition groups for the well-documented economic malaise. Any drop in Western investment has been more than offset by Burma’s neighbours, who in 2010 agreed to gas, hydro and mining projects worth in excess of US$15 billion — more than all combined foreign investment in the preceding 20 years.
Is it surprising then that many Burmese people look at other dictatorships and semi-democracies in the region — Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and even Singapore — and wonder why their country should be treated so differently? In recent weeks, almost all opposition and ethnic parties have formally stated their opposition to sanctions, arguing that in addition to being ineffective and harmful, their removal could be used to promote reconciliation between the military and opponents of the regime.
"Burma has been deprived of economic opportunities that other countries in the region could enjoy. This has vitiated the ability of a large majority of the citizens to be economically successful and hampered the overall economic development of the country," the National Democratic Force, which won 16 seats in the November 7 election, said in a statement earlier this month.
Opposition from outside the country has also intensified. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member, joined the chorus last month. Aung Naing Oo, an activist who formerly campaigned for their imposition, argued that it was time for a "reality check … sanctions as a tool of ‘political bargaining’ against the Burmese government have never worked". Instead, in his view they "have become a major hindrance to any efforts of trust-building required for the stated goal of reconciliation" and should be repealed "while any shred of effectiveness" remains.
Western governments, while aware of their failings, are unlikely to lift sanctions without a recommendation from Aung San Suu Kyi — after all, they were imposed largely at her insistence. It’s important to note at this point that she has neither sought nor claimed to be the sole voice for 60 million Burmese people. Yet, the mainstream media and a strong activist community in exile have turned Aung San Suu Kyi’s words into a gospel that is politically difficult for governments to contradict. Until recently, even the mildest dissenters found themselves labelled "apologists" (if foreign) and "traitors" (if Burmese).
If there is one thing that the WikiLeaks cables have reinforced it’s that the best advice on the ground is often not acted on by policy makers. "While many outside Burma perpetuate the impression of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party as a large movement with massive support waiting to take the parliamentary seats they won in the 1990 election, the reality is quite different," the US embassy in Rangoon wrote in a June 2008 cable that, not surprisingly, went largely unreported. "[T]he party is not the last great hope for democracy and Burma."
Few seem to have got this message.
At a ceremony organised by 11 leading political parties, representing six different ethnic groups, to mark Union Day on 12 February, I met an experienced journalist who works as a stringer for a foreign news agency. The parties, who have all spoken out against sanctions in the past month, had issued a joint statement calling for dialogue with the new government, an independent judiciary and a general amnesty at the ceremony, and I asked if he was going to file anything. "My bosses aren’t interested in this. They don’t understand the significance," the correspondent said, pointing past the hundreds of seated supporters to the 11 party flags hanging near the stage.
"They only want to know what the NLD has to say. And for the NLD, sanctions are the last bargaining chip. Without them, the party really has nothing left," he said, before glancing at his watch.
"Sorry, I’ve got to leave. The NLD ceremony is about to start."
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