Author: Jacqueline Menager, ANU
Gandhi once said that ‘the spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires a change of heart’.
Almost a year since the November 2010 elections, a change of heart in Burma has not been easy for the country’s democratic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely considered the solution to Burma’s ills for more than two decades. But the lacklustre strategy of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the inadequacy of its policies have both become apparent over the past few years. Some in the NLD, for example, stubbornly refuse to engage with the military or soften their stance to promote change. Instead of waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi to lead the way, many of the NLD’s younger members have split from the party to run as independents, and many minority ethnic groups also participated in the election. Several of these won seats and joined the parliament with the victorious military-aligned government.
One notable opposition force is the Democratic Party, which was formed in the lead-up to the 2010 elections. The party is headed by Mya Than Than Nu, daughter of U Nu: the country’s first prime minister, a campaigner for independence and a colleague of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San. She is joined by two other daughters of former political leaders: Nay Yee Ba Swe, the daughter of late-Prime Minister Ba Swe; and Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, the daughter of late-Deputy Prime Minister Kyaw Nyein. Their fathers were important democracy and independence campaigners, rivaling Aung San Suu Kyi for celebrity pedigree and political credibility.
In contrast to these enthusiastic newcomers, the NLD presents a tired front. The party boycotted the elections, dismissing them as undemocratic. The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi have been on the back foot since making that decision, relegated to reacting to the new government — led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and which has only increased in power since its election victory. Aung San Suu Kyi’s moment may have passed and she is scrambling to remain relevant.
Still, a new role is being carved out for Aung San Suu Kyi: utilising her international presence to bolster support for the new government. Her increased dialogue with the new government has led to the release of joint statements, alongside a softening of her harsh stance toward sanctions and the military — and even open praise for President Thein Sein, observing that ‘the president wants to achieve real positive change’. In response, the US is reconsidering its stance on Burma, commenting on the improved relations between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government.
The US can also take encouragement from Burma’s latest challenge to Chinese influence in the region. President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State — which commenced without an environmental impact assessment — in late September 2011, thus trumping the quiet activism of Aung San Suu Kyi. The decision came after a public campaign to have the dam project cancelled, but at a time when the Chinese had already invested approximately US$600 million in the controversial project. The suspension represents two important developments: the government responding to public opinion, something previously unheard of; and a challenge to Chinese dominance in Burma.
In another encouraging move, the government announced in October 2011 an amnesty for 6300 prisoners to be released in the coming weeks. The government is prioritising prisoners who are aged, disabled, in bad health or who have served their sentences with good behaviour. So far, the government has released around 200 — of the estimated 2000 — political prisoners. But some of the most prominent, including the leaders of the 1988 uprisings, are still behind bars. Whether the government will release them in the near future remains to be seen, but if the US and Aung San Suu Kyi continue campaigning, the government may make it a reality.
All these measures signal a change of heart and clarify the shifting political landscape. Perhaps a time has come where the government is gaining the legitimacy it has long sought, encouraging greater public support with the dam suspension, and where it is now capitalising on this new confidence in order to temper Chinese influence in the country. If this trend continues, and with the government receiving Aung San Suu Kyi’s backing, the wider support of the population and the power to resist Chinese influence, the future looks brighter than before. But while the current government remains ascendant, Aung San Suu Kyi and her advisors will need a deft touch. She is now only one among many important political players.
Jacqueline Menager is a PhD candidate at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.