“Ecstatic cheers of ‘Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi!’ echoed through the streets of an impoverished Yangon suburb Wednesday as Myanmar’s most iconic figure registered her candidacy for a parliamentary by-election,” AP reports:
Even if her political party wins all 48 seats to be contested in by-elections April 1, it will have minimal power. The 440-seat lower house of Parliament is heavily weighted with military appointees and allies of the former junta.
But a victory would be historic. It would give the longtime political prisoner a voice in Parliament for the first time after decades as the country’s opposition leader.
The country’s reform process is genuine, a US Senate leader said today, after meeting separately with Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein.
“I’m convinced he (Thein Sein) is a genuine reformer, and more importantly, so does Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s senior Republican.
He stopped short of endorsing the lifting of sanctions, but the European Union is to consider doing so within the next month as a gesture of encouragement for the reform process, EU diplomats said today.
The regime has introduced a raft of reforms, including relaxation of media censorship; labor law reform, including freedom of association for labor unions; release of political prisoners; and peace initiatives with ethnic minority rebel groups.
The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar today welcomed the government’s decision to amnesty hundreds of political prisoners on January 13. The release of prisoners of conscience “is an important and necessary development to advance national reconciliation and deepen Myanmar’s transition to democracy,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana.
But the Thailand-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners reports that 1260 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars. Former prisoners also need assurances that they can resume political activities, says Geraldine May of the Free Burma VJ (video journalists) campaign.
“The campaign can’t end now. We need to make sure they’re safe and help them in reintegrating their lives,” she argues.
Some activists and analysts insist that the reform process remains fragile.
“The military still has a lock on all the social, political and judicial levers of power, ex-officers infest every meaningful ministry and state-owned company, and Myanmar remains a nefarious transit point for the trafficking of drugs, gems, weapons and humans,” one observer notes.
Other observers caution that former junta head Senior Gen. Than Shwe continues to exercise considerable power behind the scenes.
“Burma is still a country under authoritarian rule, and that means its further progress depends to a critical extent on the motives and capabilities of the man who holds its highest office,” says Aung Zaw, founding editor of the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine:
There are also questions about the extent to which Thein Sein is truly in control. Several leaders of the military regime still hold positions in his government. (In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned that the generals still wield enormous power despite the veneer of democracy provided by the elections. “I am concerned about how much support there is in the military for changes,” she said. “In the end that’s the most important factor, how far the military are prepared to cooperate with reform principles.”)
Former military figures are struggling to come to terms with the give-and-take culture of democratic politics, even in the stunted form practiced in the country’s parliament, according to a former general and key regime figure:
“We need to establish an institution that is strong and sustainable,” he told AFP in an exclusive interview, playing down concerns that the military might attempt to seize back power. “If parliament is strong and sustainable, there is going to be no coup,” he said.
For the lawmakers, the learning experience is not all plain sailing. During the previous sessions, dissent between the two rooms created moments of panic, with some at the time describing the situation as a constitutional crisis.
“That’s democracy. It’s admirable!” said Soe Yin, a former rector of the University of Yangon who is now a USDP parliamentarian. “We need to disagree on disagreement.”
“In the army, there is no argument. You have to obey the command because you have to fight the enemy… Don’t disagree, ever. But in parliament you have the right to argue.”
Several signposts will whether the regime — “once the E. coli of Southeast Asia and a jackbooted political cousin to North Korea” — has fully embraced democratic reform, one observer notes:
First, Suu Kyi must be allowed to win and Thein Sein must not be assassinated by reactionary elements in the military. ….
Washington will float the name of an ambassadorial candidate or two, and American diplomats will perhaps use “Burma” less often as the official name for Myanmar. (The junta adopted Myanmar in 1989.)
Suu Kyi will begin to travel — first around Myanmar and then abroad. ….
Election monitors will be permitted to observe the elections and international journalists will be given visas to legally work inside Myanmar. Until now, getting into the country as a reporter has been about as easy as crashing a Mafia wedding.
Myanmar will sign more treaties with its warring ethnic minorities, notably the Kachin.
The National League for Democracy’s plans to contest more than 40 seats in forthcoming elections “is being seen as a key test of the military-backed government’s reformist credentials,” says BBC South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey.
Contesting the by-elections gives the NLD an opportunity to revive its moribund organization and mobilize local supporters, says iconic student leader Ko Ko Gyi (left), one of the hundreds of prisoners of conscience released on 13 January.
“Local people will have the chance to organize and support the transition to democracy,” he told Democratic Voice of Burma:
The activist, a founder of the 88 Generation Students’ Group and a pivotal figure in both the 1988 and 2007 uprising, had spent four and a half years of a 65-year sentence in prison prior to his latest release. During that time he was tortured and suffered regular bouts of poor health. Prior to his arrest in August 2007 during the early stages of the uprising, he told reporters: “We paid the price with our families, our youth and our society. But we are satisfied with that sacrifice .”
The need to attract investment was a principal factor in persuading the regime to open up to the West and embark on a reform process, analysts suggest. A massive infrastructure project announced today is the first major sign that Western companies are ready to seize advantage of the country’s rich resources and strategic location, but endemic corruption may be an obstacle to ensuring investment serves as a vehicle for promoting good governance.
“Myanmar is developing an $8.6 billion port and industrial complex in the nation’s south intended to feed Asian demand as the U.S. and Europe lay out a path to ease sanctions in place for more than 20 years,” Bloomberg reports.
The Dawei initiative highlights Myanmar’s efforts to connect one of Asia’s poorest nations to a region driving global growth. …..The moves underscored the investment risks stemming from Myanmar’s 14-month-old transition toward democracy, a process on which the lifting of sanctions is conditioned. The country is viewed as the most corrupt after North Korea and Somalia in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
China and India share more than 3,600 kilometers of border with Myanmar, whose 64 million people earn an average of just $2.25 per day, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. Both nations have sought increased access to the resource-rich nation’s reserves of natural gas.