Burma’s military rulers have wised up since 1990. After Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in a landslide victory the military rulers quickly discovered that Democracy threatened control over their self-interests. They promptly placed Suu Kyi under house arrest and returned to their business as usual. Prior to Suu Kyi’s release in 2010 Burma’s dictatorship announced its new Constitution.
The recent “reforms” rolled out in 2012 by a former general, President Thein Sien, was touted as amazing progress by governments, institutions and people across the globe itching to get their hands on a piece of Burma’s vast resources and access to its low wage manufacturing workforce.
In the early days of reforms even U.S. President Barack Obama took his entourage to Burma gleefully visiting Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. Burma is slowly and chaotically adapting to the economic newness of, well, everything. Though due to a countless number of reasons, Burma has a long way to go before rising just slightly on the list of least developed nations. For example the Burmese military leaders’ recent admission of using child soldiers led them to “pledge” an end to the practice in a few months time rather than immediately. Read – not really.
Since Suu Kyi and President Thein Sien made worldwide diplomatic tours, received awards and showers of praise, the world’s exuberance over reforms has quieted. Burma’s leaders had their promised time as the ASEAN Chair in exchange for reforms. They are now looking at the 2015 national elections with a sentimental eye on the past and one worried eye on the future.
With real estate values blown off the charts, pre-reform-like stifling of political critics, arrests of land rights activists and journalists now occur more frequently. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners not all political prisoners have been released from prison as promised by President Thein Sein. Government rule is softly moving into a nebulous conditional domain described by key government officials and military leaders as a “Disciplined Democracy.”
Pre-empting Suu Kyi’s release, a new constitutional law was written by Burma’s rulers to prohibit her from running for President. The massive crowds she raised at campaign events leading up to recent by-elections, they said, reminded them of the famous 1988 uprisings. More to the point, such large crowds supporting Aung San Suu Kyi scare the hell out of the military leaders. They have no way to counter the support for the one person in Burma capable of effectively opposing them for years on end simply by remaining in her own home.
If she is also prevented from campaigning outside her home district prior to the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi’s affect on Burma’s people will be severely limited.
If Suu Kyi obeys the prohibitive law, its legitimacy will be enforced. If she runs a national campaign, she will break the law created to prevent her from refreshing support for her and other NLD candidates. Either way, the government’s response to Suu Kyi’s actions will reinforce the “disciplined democracy” approach desired by Burma’s current leaders.
Preventing Suu Kyi from campaigning for the NLD sets her on the margins of authority. Politically, she may as well be under house arrest. With Suu Kyi nudged out of the top political sphere, her influence on national and regional issues may equally vanish. As Suu Kyi ages and with no national leader remotely as popular in opposition to the military rulers, the NLD may be in danger of permanent collapse.
Suu Kyi, NLD followers and like-minded supporters recently made brisk progress, using basic principles of democratic freedom, by gathering millions of signatures to petition the government to amend the law barring her from the Presidency. The law disqualifies Suu Kyi because her adult children are not holders of Burmese passports.
Will Burma’s current rulers listen to Burma’s citizens? Or, will they listen to the Chinese investors, IMF, and other foreign investors currently planning to convert greater Rangoon and Mandalay into enormous enterprise zones?
Mainland South East Asia, with over 300 million people nestled between three of the world’s most populous nations, India, China and Indonesia, is preparing for unprecedented change. Rangoon and Mandalay are merely puzzle pieces to mainland ASEAN’s planned regional development. Overland trading by road and rail connecting India and China with Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Burma are underway. Currently not one mainland ASEAN nation has a democratically elected government and only Burma possesses a formidable opposition leader.
Foreign leaders and dignitaries have no option but to deal with the current and retired military leaders in Napyidaw no matter how much they admire Aung San Suu Kyi. Recently, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Burma’s leaders to discuss the approaching national elections and to meet with gathering ASEAN leaders. Some observers unfairly rebuked Kerry for using a hotel owned by a military dictatorship crony, still sanctioned under US policy.
None can visit Burma now, or could have in the past, without their cash going to the government and its cronies. One could optimistically argue that Kerry can sleep anywhere in Burma if he helps create an opening that allows Suu Kyi’s candidacy for President.
More importantly than where Mr. Kerry slept, the United States is a consistent supporter of Suu Kyi and the Burmese people’s quest for democracy. Mr. Kerry didn’t fail to mention that, lest anyone forget it, now that Burma is awakening to the world beyond its borders. A more prophetic part of Kerry’s trip was that he nearly missed a meeting with Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon. An excellent question was quickly raised by Irrawaddy journalist Kyaw Zwa Moe in an article titled, “Has the United States Forgotten Suu Kyi?”
He noted: “In the past, when Suu Kyi said something, world leaders listened. Their policy reflected well on her words. But now, the situation is different. These days, Washington and other Western governments seem to need Thein Sein more, while Suu Kyi is becoming a mere symbol for the international community. Foreign diplomats aren’t missing meetings with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but their meetings are more and more appearing as courtesy calls.”
The reality is that while Suu Kyi remains the most influential opposition leader to the current government, she is not the leader of the government. Neither is Suu Kyi just a symbolic figure. Mr. Kerry’s trip correctly reflected that.
In the past Suu Kyi’s public approval to the lifting of US-led sanctions was all but a requirement. If Suu Kyi is unable to run for President in 2015 one must wonder if the politician Aung San Suu Kyi will remain equally relevant. With such high stakes looming for economic engagement with fast developing ASEAN nations it seems less likely she will.
A utopic vision for the future of a democratic Burma is nice but the realities on the ground reflect a startlingly complex story. Millions of Burmese people simply survive day to day. Sadly, there are no easy answers for the myriad troubling issues in Burma. If Aung San Suu Kyi does become President, expectations for her will be set incredibly beyond her reach.
If barred from a run at president, Suu Kyi’s wildcard option is to boycott the elections. Doing so could lead to disastrous and violent civil unrest if mass protests occur. Burma’s military leaders have historically proven they’re very willing to massacre and imprison their own citizens. Yet, a boycott could prove meaningless without a government reaction or crackdown on mass demonstrations. To avoid a repeat of past violent reaction by Burma’s military, at some point one must ask the question, is something, such as the current pace of reforms, better than nothing?
The time could be approaching for Aung San Suu Kyi to declare victory in that any kind of progress in Burma is forward progress. However, some leaders in Naypyidaw are unwisely regressing into pre-reform political rule while allowing economic development. This innate behavior by Burma’s military, may unfortunately force mass demonstrations should Suu Kyi boycott the elections.
To that end, thousands of ex-political prisoners have no fear of recriminations for their political activism. It should be clear to Burma’s current rulers that no one wants a repeat of the past. Is the military willing to allow more civilian governance by relaxing their grip on the throat of its citizens?
Until the current rulers stop imprisoning journalists, land rights activists and protestors while ignoring the near-genocidal treatment of the Royhinga people in Arakan State, as well as other ethnic people on the border regions of Burma, it’s doubtful that Suu Kyi will just give in and consign her supporters to sweat shops and shopping malls. Burma needs solutions to solve issues of basic human rights, to end the misery and suffering of the poor, the uneducated, the hungry, the homeless, and to set free its child soldiers.
Daniel Opacki is an educator who occasionally writes about Burma. He is currently writing a collection of stories about Burma and can be reached through his blog Bamboodazed.com
The comments and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.