“A mass movement is spreading across Myanmar on a scale not seen since tens of thousands of Buddhist monks led anti-government demonstrations in 2007 and the massive nationwide pro-democracy uprising against the old military regime in 1988,” a leading analyst notes.
The mobilization is being generated by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s by-election campaign and her National League for Democracy’s attempt to take 48 legislative seats from military aligned politicians. The democratic upsurge has given the lie to those observers who suggested that Suu Kyi and the NLD were anachronistic holdovers with little to offer.
“Until a year ago many Western observers, including prominent European Union diplomats in Bangkok who cover Myanmar, asserted that Suu Kyi (right, addressing a recent NED event) was a spent political force, that many young people didn’t even know who she was because she had spent years under house arrest,” writes Bertil Lintner, a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. “Instead they felt that a new ‘Third Force’ was emerging, one that challenged the supposed uncompromising stands of both Suu Kyi and the NLD, and the military-dominated government.”
The present mass movement shows clearly how wrong they were; most outsiders failed to understand that Suu Kyi was not only a political figure but, in the minds of many ordinary Myanmar citizens, a female bodhisattva who was going to deliver them from the evils of the country’s military regime. At a recent rally in Mandalay, two teenage girls carried between them a huge red banner declaring that Suu Kyi was “a second god.” Suu Kyi herself is opposed to her apotheosis but such representations promise to continue in the context of Myanmar’s polarized political landscape.
Analysts say that Suu Kyi has clearly been far from idle during her prolonged spells under house arrest.
“You don’t need to dim the headlights in talking to her, which is something I can’t say about politicians in my own country,” said Sean Turnell, an Australian expert on Myanmar’s economy who recently met with Suu Kyi.
He described her as “fluent in the language of economics” and well versed in technical knowledge of issues such as microfinance and property rights. Mr. Turnell said she had read several of his papers, including a recent one titled, “Some Fundamentals of Burma’s Macroeconomy.”
There is still the danger of a reversal of the current reform process, Suu Kyi recently warned, and she has cautioned that the country lacks the capacity to implement the necessary reforms. Yet some observers fear that popular expectations of Suu Kyi and the NLD are so high and the country’s problems so formidable that there is a substantial risk of democratic disillusion.
“Her presence is electrifying. It’s not just a Nelson Mandela, a Gandhi, an Obama but it has an element of Marilyn Monroe and a rock star,” said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar expert and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “But can her ability to mobilize public support be translated into concrete change? I doubt it.”
Increasingly she is being asked to propose solutions to her country’s woes rather than merely lamenting them…. Being elected to Parliament — assuming she wins — will be a nuts-and-bolts test of whether she can help bring prosperity to a constituency that gets its water by pulling buckets out of a well.
“There’s an element of gamble and risk for her,” said U Thant Myint-U, a historian and the author of several books on Myanmar, or Burma. “Once she’s won, and pretty much everybody assumes she’ll win, things will be very different,” he said. “She will have to deal with a range of issues, from the government’s fiscal policies to health care reform to responding to demands from her constituency for electricity, cheaper phones and more jobs.”
Will the National League for Democracy be the next opposition movement to struggle to make the transition from protest to politics?
Her career could now follow the trajectory of the late Vaclav Havel, who after his rise as an intellectual and activist against Communist rule was twice elected president of the Czech Republic. Or she could slump like Lech Walesa, the hard-charging hero of the Solidarity labor movement in the waning days of Polish Communism, who alienated allies and voters, flirting with single-digit percentages in opinion polls during his one-term presidency.
But some observers believe Suu Kyi’s political lustre is unlikely to be dimmed by Burmese citizens’ disillusion arising from the poor performance or underachievement of any democratic or reformist government.
“They identify her with democracy and freedom and with resistance, and they will continue to do that whether she manages to get into parliament, become prime minister, or not,” said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at the University of Canberra.
Those familiar with her activities since her release in late 2010 say she is both determined and able to make a practical contribution to Burma’s democratization and modernization.
“I don’t think she wants to be perceived only as an icon,” said Larry Dinger, the former head of the U.S. mission in Yangon. “She’s a democrat who sees herself as a practical politician. She very much wants to find a pragmatic way forward.”
The most challenging, potentially intractable problem she is likely to confront is Burma’s unresolved ethnic conflict, writes Lintner, the author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy.
In the far north of the country, a bloody war between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic insurgent group fighting for autonomy within a federal union, shows no signs of abating despite several rounds of peace talks and mediation efforts by foreign reconciliation outfits. In other parts of the country, fragile ceasefire agreements between the government and various other rebel forces have maintained a semblance of peace. As Myanmar’s history shows, ceasefires only freeze underlying problems and to date have not provided lasting solutions. There are still at least 50,000 men and women under arms across the country of ethnic resistance forces.
To address these underlying problems, Suu Kyi has called for the convention of a second “Panglong Conference,” in reference to an agreement that her father Aung San, who led Myanmar’s fight for freedom from colonial Britain, signed with representatives of the Shan, Kachin and Chin peoples at the small market town of Panglong on February 12, 1947. The agreement paved the way for a new federal constitution, which was adopted in September of that year and declared independence on January 4, 1948.
“Everyone has suffered abuses. And after they persecute these people, they kill them,” said Bauk Gyar, a Kachin activist who was last in the conflict zone two months ago. It is premature to lift international sanctions until the military makes serious moves towards peace and reconciliation with the Kachin, Keren and other minorities, she told a recent conference at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“According to sources familiar with recent negotiations, ethnic leaders have been told that ‘a discussion about federalism is not even on the table,’” Lintner writes in The Asia Times:
Whichever model Myanmar aims to follow, it cannot be done unless significant clauses in the present constitution are amended. Most of these, including those concerning state structure and ultimate military control over the decision-making process, cannot be considered without the approval of at least 75% of all parliamentarians in both the Upper and Lower Houses and would need to be enshrined through a national referendum. In practice, this makes any fundamental constitutional reform impossible.
Scrapping the 2008 constitution and drafting a new one based on some kind of federal concept is likely the only viable way ahead to resolving Myanmar’s unresolved ethnic issue.
The National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based democracy assistance group, has an extensive grants program supporting Burmese democrats and civil society, including initiatives to provide accurate and reliable information about developments in Kachin State, and to build the professional capacity of Kachin journalists; an independent monthly Burmese- and Karenni-language newspaper covering news and issues for the Karenni community in Burma, in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, and for ethnic and democracy groups in exile; and projects to inform Karen people in Burma about events and news and to expose them to basic principles of human rights and democracy.