Will Myanmar’s Reforms Sideline
Suu Kyi’s Political Influence?
(Published on Democratic Voice of Burma online edition & Dissident Voice.com)
By Daniel Opacki
Myanmar’s military rulers have wised up since 1990. After Aung San Suu Kyi got elected in a landslide victory the military leaders 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. Before 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 Myanmar’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 Myanmar gleefully visiting Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein.
Myanmar is slowly and chaotically adapting to the economic newness of, well, everything. Though due to a countless number of reasons Myanmar has a long way to go before rising just slightly on the list of least developed nations. For example, the Myanmar 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
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. Myanmar’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.”
Since Suu Kyi’s release, a new law was written by Myanmar’s rulers to prohibit her from running for President. The massive crowds she raised at campaign events leading up to recent bi-elections, they said, reminded them of the great 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 Myanmar capable of actually opposing them for years on end simply by remaining in her own home.
By also legally preventing Su Kyi and other candidates from campaigning outside their home districts prior to the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi’s effect on Myanmar’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 willbreak 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 Myanmar’s current
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 famous as she in opposition to the military rulers, the NLD Party may be in danger of permanent collapse.
Suu Kyi and her 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 Myanmar passports.
But will Myanmar’s current rulers listen to Myanmar’s citizens? Or, will they look to the Chinese investors, IMF, and other foreign investors currently planning to convert greater Yangon and Mandalay into large enterprise zones?
Mainland South East Asia, with approximately 300 million people nestled between three of the world’s most populous nations, India, China, and Indonesia, is preparing for unprecedented change. Yangon and Mandalay merely are 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 Myanmar are underway. Currently, not one mainland ASEAN nation has a democratically elected government and only Myanmar 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, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Myanmar’s leaders to discuss the coming 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 U.S. policy. None can visit Myanmar 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 Myanmar 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 Myanmar 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 Yangon. An excellent question was quickly raised by Irrawaddy journalist Kyaw Zwa Moe in
an article titled, Has the United States Forgotten Suu Kyi? Zwa Moe noted:
The reality is that while Suu Kyi remains the most influential opposition leader in the current government, and she is not the head of the government. Neither is Suu Kyi is just a symbolic figure. Mr. Kerry’s trip correctly reflected that.
In the past, Suu Kyi’s public approval to the lifting of U.S. 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 Myanmar is nice but the realities on the ground reflect a startlingly complex story. Millions of Myanmar’s people only survive day to day. Sadly, there are no easy answers for the multiple troubling issues in Myanmar. 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. Myanmar’smilitary leaders have historically proven they’re very willing to massacre and imprison their citizens. A boycott could prove meaningless without a government reaction or crackdown on mass demonstrations. To avoid a repeat of past violent
reaction by Myanmar’s military, at some point one must ask the question, is something, such as the current pace of reforms, better than nothing?
behavior by Myanmar’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 Myanmar’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?
Kyi will just give in and consign her supporters with sweat shops and shopping malls. Myanmar needs solutions to solve issues of fundamental human rights, to end the misery and suffering of the poor, the uneducated, the hungry, the homeless, and to set free its child soldiers.