Burma’s Elections and Suu Kyi’s Victory: Caution or Celebration?

Posted on | april 5, 2012 | No Comments

Courtesy of The Irrawaddy

Late last night (Tuesday April 3rd) Burma’s State Television officially announced that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had won 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested in by-elections on Sunday. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (the party led by former members of the Junta) won one, and then in a seat where the NLD candidate had been disqualified. Few if any expected the NLD to carry nearly all before them, fewer still expected that the elections would not be marred in part by some attempts to ‘massage’ the figures. The result generated a whole host of epithets, ‘historic’, ‘landmark’, ‘watershed’, ‘groundbreaking’ as well as scenes of wild jubilation on the streets of the former capital and commercial center of the country Rangoon (Yangon). Equally some among the pro-democracy advocacy groups sought to prick the bubble of rising expectations by both soberly reflecting on the dominance of the military-backed USDP in a relatively powerless parliament and pointing to continued human rights abuses against the country’s ethnic minorities even as millions celebrated Suu Kyi’s victory.

So where does this leave us? The truth is that despite their triumph the NLD will only have 37 seats in the 440-member Lower House and four in the Upper House, meaning that the party will struggle to influence the ruling USDP. On the other hand despite only having only around five percent of the total seats, the NLD does now become the main opposition party in Burma, with Suu Kyi the leader of that parliamentary opposition. Suu Kyi has said that one of her first goals is to reduce the role of the military but any amendment of the controversial 2008 Constitution requires a vote of 75 percent of the legislature. Thus there are enormous obstacles to the NLD being anything more than a vocal and critical minority, shouting from the sidelines while the USDP largely carries on business-as-usual. But all this is nevertheless unchartered territory. When Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010 few could have imagined that in less than 18 months she would be elected to parliament as the head of a party most had written off an no longer effective.
Skeptics remain weary, suspecting the military backed regime of orchestrating nothing more than a public relations campaign designed to ease Western sanctions on the country. In this perspective, Thein Sein is an arch-Machiavellian persuading the Junta to accept a small ‘token’ number of NLD members of parliament in return for bringing the country out of its diplomatic and economic isolation. A leopard never changes its spots they claim, pointing to the crackdown after the 1990 elections, after the uprising led by Buddhist monks in 2007, and the repeated violation of successive ceasefire agreements with insurgents representing the country’s ethnic minorities. And yet such skeptics have consistently been unable to offer any alternative roadmap to democracy. The cry for more sanctions and greater diplomatic isolation failed to recognize that without the full support of Burma’s neighbors in ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and of the regional giant China, no sanctions regime would ever be fully effective. Indeed as western companies pulled out of Burma Chinese investment poured in.  With the military vividly demonstrating in 2007 that it was prepared to use lethal force to crush and quell popular demonstrations the prospect of popular revolution was also always a dim prospect. The uncomfortable reality then was that for any real progress those campaigning for political reform would have to do a deal with the Devil. For Burma the only way forward is a negotiated transition, the extent, pace and scope of which may well be disappointing and slow, and one in which the perpetrators of those human rights abuses may well be granted amnesty as the price for their acceptance of change. This is what happened in Chile, in South Africa, and in many other countries that have made a painful transition away from authoritarianism.
As for the West? The Obama administration has already signaled that it is willing to greet progress and reform with rewards. Upgrading the country’s relationship with Burma to full ambassadorial status clearly showed this. Already in the wake of Sunday’s elections Senator John McCain has called for an easing of sanctions, and it is likely that over the next few weeks and months we will see this come into effect. However it is also unlikely that there will be a simple blanket removal of existing sanctions. Instead in all probability specific sanctions will be lifted in the hope of strengthening the hand of reformers in the ruling party, demonstrating that there is traction in continuing along this path. It is my opinion that this is the prudent approach to take. Following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 it took four years for the transition from apartheid to the country’s first fully inclusive general election.  During those four years negotiations between the African National Congress led by Mandela and the National Party were often stalled and acrimonious. They were also plagued by persistent violence, especially by groups and parties representing the Zulu and Xhosa tribes.  We should not expect the reform process in Burma to be any different. It will experience setbacks, there may indeed be violence, but for all the caution and skepticism we have not been here before. For now let us celebrate Suu Kyi’s success. Tomorrow begins the hard work.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
URL: http://profjabbott.blogspot.com
E-MAIL: jason.abbott [at] louisville.edu


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