Myanmar: Suu Kyi beacon of a new era
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, the government and the military establishment also deserve to be counted among the winners. Doubtless, the iconic Suu Kyi — symbol of the struggle for democracy since 1988 — is the leading force of the transformation now under way.
It is the iron resolve of this frail-looking, 66-year-old Nobel laureate and her relentless campaign — even after the military junta robbed her of the results of her victory in the 1990 elections and kept her under periodic detention since then — that triggered the electoral landslide heralding democracy in one of the world’s most repressive military dictatorships. No praise can be too much for this awesome achievement.
However, an outcome dealing a political blow to Suu Kyi would have been disastrous for not just democracy but all of Myanmar and especially its president and the military rulers. In fact, the regime is reportedly flattered at the result of the by-elections endorsing its own “reformist credentials”! The elections have made Myanmar the world’s newest darling. It is yet to be freed from the clutches of the military and far from being a democracy, but it holds out great promise of profit for international capital.
With the inevitable lifting of sanctions by the US and other western countries, Myanmar is bound to emerge as a new magnet for investments. There would be stiff competition for exploiting the potential of its oil and gas reserves. It is already a tourist hot spot, and is waking up to how tourism infrastructure can make for a new economic boom and, along with foreign investments, boost its foreign exchange reserves.
These, though, are in the future. What has happened now is that Suu Kyi has proved that she is as popular as she was in the 1990 elections, after which she has been mostly under house arrest. She has won handsomely in the 45 by-elections and set Myanmar irrevocably on a new political path.
If one sees this as an election with only winners — and no losers — then, in the stages to come, every player would strive to hold on and maximize the winnings of this round.
The goal post now is the general elections scheduled in 2015. The challenge facing Suu Kyi is to build on the victory, carry further the momentum and sustain the movement for democracy until the 2015 elections. She would need to go beyond her emotive appeal to create cadres across the country, recast the party as an electoral machine, keep her followers fired and use her place in Parliament to gain more political mileage.
This is the first time there is an “Opposition” in the 664-member Parliament of Myanmar and the generals and unelected military men sitting in Parliament would not do anything to make her job easy. The military is banking on gradual and moderate success of reforms — so that they have a safe exit without any backlash of the kind witnessed in the Arab world. Since Myanmar is now moving toward democracy, they may not try to thwart it; but they will definitely try to ensure that the pace is “comfortable” and does not endanger them in any way.
President Thein Sein, who assumed office in March 2011, has done a remarkable job. It is yet unclear how he negotiated with the military dictatorship to allow the process of political reform to go this far. But the undeniable fact is that he has prevailed and struck a balance between the interests of the military dictators and the movement for democracy. There are also reformists in the military and among the ranks of the uniformed in Parliament. It would appear that Thein Sein has played off these forces against each other in a shrewd manner to the satisfaction of the generals, Suu Kyi and the international community.
Although his role is being commended, it remains to be seen whether he stays on course until the 2015 election, for that would be the critical test of whether the reforms go forward enough for Myanmar to experiment with democracy. Until that happens, and the generals retreat from politics, Aung San Suu Kyi has to remain on guard and safeguard the small space she has secured for democracy to take root in hostile ground. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty — even of liberty that is yet to come.
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