The Tide Is Turning In Burma


What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from more than seven years of house arrest and, while having lost none of her charisma or appeal with ordinary Burmese, she was in a tricky political situation. Her party, the National League for Democracy, had been declared illegal after deciding not to contest a controversial election in November 2010, and the government seemed intent on moving forward with its Roadmap to Democracy — whether she participated or not.

Previous attempts at dialogue with the regime had yielded little. Not only had she spent most of the past 20 years under house arrest but the military regime’s persecution of her party’s members had left the organisation a shell of its former self.

The consensus in Burma was that Aung San Suu Kyi was returning to a more complex and fragmented political environment. Despite her international status as a democracy icon, there was a danger that she would be frozen out, a sideshow to the main game.

In recent months, however, she has returned to centre stage, holding four meetings with a senior government minister and even travelling to the new capital, Naypyidaw, for an apparently friendly discussion and dinner with President Thein Sein.

Today her party will hold a meeting of more than 100 senior members to decide whether to register and contest upcoming by-elections in 48 constituencies. It appears likely the NLD leadership will endorse registering, and the majority of the people I’ve spoken to in recent weeks are in favour of the party doing so. [NOTE: This article was published on Friday, before the vote took place.]

Assuming the party leadership votes for registration, it’s worth asking the question: how has this dramatic turnaround occurred? Given my previous analysis, I’ve found myself pondering this more than a few times recently. What possibilities did I overlook? Two factors stick out, and for me they highlight the highly personalised nature of Burmese politics.

First, Aung San Suu Kyi has shown she is more flexible and compromising than many believed her to be. She has apparently placed few conditions on dialogue with the government, participated in government-backed events she believes to be "in the national interest" and been conciliatory in her interviews with the media, even to the point of praising the president, a former military general.

We always knew she was principled but since her release from house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi has also shown an admirable pragmatism. Her popular (and ultimately successful) "Save the Ayeyarwady" campaign — which called for an end to a planned hydropower dam in Kachin State — was wisely framed in the context of environmental and ethnic reconciliation issues, rather than the more sensitive topics of corruption and anti-Chinese sentiment. She has engaged with Burma’s increasingly influential civil society movement, as well as its domestic media industry, both of which barely existed the last time she was put under house arrest in 2003.

Convinced the government’s intentions are real, Aung San Suu Kyi has driven the move to register the NLD and contest the by-elections. She is likely to win a seat and enter parliament.

But the second factor — the most important, and most unlikely one year ago — is that the new government has decided it wants Aung San Suu Kyi on its team. Much has been made of the fact that the government wants to see economic sanctions lifted, and Western countries have made it clear this can only happen when there is genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. Additionally, having the NLD registered would legitimise the 2008 constitution, the Roadmap to Democracy and the new government, which came to power on 30 March.

No doubt the NLD’s likely participation was a significant consideration for the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations when, on 17 November, they approved Burma’s request to chair the bloc in 2014, despite US opposition.

It is notoriously difficult to work out the logic behind what happens in Naypyidaw. But there is, I believe, more to this than simply gaining international legitimacy.

Real credibility is won at home. After almost five decades of socialism and military dictatorship, many Burmese — not to mention the ethnic minorities that make up about one-third of the country’s population — still have a hard time believing that a group of former generals could have made the transition to wannabe democrats in a matter of months.

The positive steps the government has taken to date — which include relaxing media censorship, allowing relatively free debates in parliament and introducing a more consensus style of government, in which a variety of views are welcomed — have opened up political space, particularly in the former capital Rangoon. (In a recent piece for Inside Story, I tried to capture this mood of openness and the motivations of those taking advantage of these new opportunities.)

While important, these changes have had little material impact on the lives of most people. The three biggest challenges Burma faces — reforming the economy in an equitable manner, strengthening the independence of the judiciary and, most importantly, establishing genuine peace in the restive border areas — will require not only a great deal of political will on the part of the government but also the support of a wide cross-section of Burmese society. They will also have an impact on the interests of the military and business elite, possibly precipitating a backlash.

Many people have made it clear to me in recent weeks that they believe Aung San Suu Kyi is the only figure with the mobilisation skills to bring about real solutions to the country’s myriad challenges. "If the president and Aung San Suu Kyi can work together, in harmony, they can implement the changes we need over the next few years," a Burmese journalist working for an international broadcaster told me recently. "Actually, Aung San Suu Kyi needs the president and he needs her — it’s clear. Meeting her, it shows he is a flexible person — he is willing to do whatever is necessary."

Many have questioned the military’s motivation for transitioning to military rule. The sense I get is that the previous military government — essentially an emergency government that came to power after the country was wracked by protests in 1988 — recognised it could not safely govern forever, and that some concessions would have to be made. The September 2007 protests, dubbed the Saffron Revolution, gave impetus to the completion of the new constitution, while many observers have pointed to the effect of the Middle East protests, which were widely covered in the domestic press here.

"They know that the revolution can happen any time if they continue [with military rule]. But the crisis in the Arab world reminded them again that it can happen. It pushed them to move forward," said Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former activist who runs the Bayda Institute, a political training school.

There is also an economic angle: continuing with the "market-oriented" policies of the previous government, with its crony capitalism, multiple exchange rates and dependence on natural gas exports, would have seen Burma permanently relegated to least-developed country status. Given the military’s perception of itself as the saviour of the nation, this is not a label they enjoy, and it is regularly censored from domestic media. The heavy reliance on China as a source of foreign investment has also been a concern for many, including members of the government, many of whom earned their stripes fighting China-backed communist forces.

Despite the upside of international legitimacy, encouraging Aung San Suu Kyi to register the NLD is risky for President Thein Sein. The NLD remains popular, if only because of her stature, and in a two-horse race it would likely trounce the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), of which Thein Sein was formerly the chairman. (In an effort to ensure separation of powers, those elevated to the executive are required to resign as MPs and give up senior party posts.)

The USDP won a massive majority in the 2010 election — some 80 per cent of all seats — but only 50 to 60 per cent of the overall vote. Many constituencies were quite close-run affairs, and in areas dominated by ethnic minorities the USDP candidates often came out worse for wear.

With only 48 seats on offer in the by-elections, the USDP can’t lose its grip on the national legislatures. But a strong showing from the NLD will set the party up for a serious tilt at elections in four years time. My hope is that the party does not sweep the by-elections, and leaves a space for other opposition voices.

37 parties contested the 2010 election, and more than half could be considered part of the broad opposition movement, somewhere on the political spectrum between the NLD and the military. While the NLD sat on the sidelines last year, these politicians took the real risk, gambling their reputations on the poll. While many failed to win parliamentary seats, the trajectory the country has taken since November 2010 broadly vindicates their participation.

Given what happened in the 1990 election — when the NLD won in a landslide — the former generals running the country must realise what they are potentially unleashing. Yet it is something they have invited, making several concessions to the NLD in recent months. These include amending controversial party registration laws, allowing the NLD to operate relatively freely and releasing a significant number of its members who were in prison.

There is, of course, the possibility the NLD will vote against participation. The consequences of this would be serious, both for the party and the momentum the government has generated in recent months. But the fact the government considers having Aung San Suu Kyi involved in politics — in a real, meaningful way — a risk worth taking indicates it is no longer business as usual in Burma.

This may not be the dramatic upheaval that many hoped for in September 2007, but like last year’s election, it appears the best bet for moving the country forward.

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