“If Aung San Suu Kyi is elected to Burma’s parliament on Sunday, the world will inevitably ask: Has Asia’s Nelson Mandela finally met her F.W. de Klerk?” says Timothy Garton Ash. “Or, if you prefer a European comparison, has Asia’s Václav Havel met her Mikhail Gorbachev?”
Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says this weekend’s by-elections will be neither free nor fair due to irregularities ahead of Sunday’s poll. Only a small number of seats are up for grabs, but the poll has assumed immense symbolic importance as an indicator of the integrity of the country’s reform process and the viability of removing sanctions.
The European Union is already coming under pressure to lift sanctions from member states and big business eager to take advantage of the country’s extensive resources and market potential.
“There’s a lot of momentum to remove the sanctions as quickly as possible, beginning even before the April foreign ministers’ meeting,” said a senior EU diplomat.
“Germany and Italy are among those pushing for a complete removal of sanctions right away, while others favor a more gradual easing,” he said, citing Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden among the second group.
That’s one reason why some observers believe the civilian-led, military-backed government wants Suu Kyi elected.
“They’re holding a game of political theater with the West,” said Maung Zarni, a Burma expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “They want to showcase this election and be on their best behavior so they can get candy from the West. They want the West to lift sanctions.”
Rangoon’s hotels are full of Indian, Chinese and European businessmen, said Igor Blazevic, who is based there working for People in Need, a Czech NGO.
“They look more like trading adventurers who are testing the water for bigger players,” he told Reuters.
The election campaign could not be considered ”genuinely free and fair,” said Suu Kyi, due to irregularities that went “beyond what is acceptable for democratic elections”.
Nevertheless, the head of the National League for Democracy said she was ”determined to go forward” and did not regret contesting the poll. Whatever the results, the campaign had been a “triumph” in raising political awareness and popular understanding of the meaning of democracy.
“An election alone is not going to change our country,” she said. “It’s the people — the change in the spirit of the people which will change our nation.”
The poll was only the start of a longer process towards what she called the “revolution of the spirit.”
“I mean a revolution that will help our people to overcome fear, to overcome poverty, to overcome indifference,” she said, “and to take the fate of their country into their own hands.”
Suu Kyi said the poll would also be an important step toward national reconciliation, especially in Burma’s conflict-ridden border regions.
“We have been particularly encouraged by the response in the ethnic nationality states, in the Kachin State, in the Shan state and the Mon state,” she said. “We have found that there is great potential for a true democratic union, because we do not find that there are any fundamental differences between what we want and what the people of the ethnic nationality states want. We are after all the Burmese, simply a majority among many ethnic nationality groups in Burma.”
Conceding that the poll was flawed, an adviser to President Thein Sein that the election still demonstrated that “the country is on its reform road, and is in the process of building a democratic society.”
Nay Zin Latt told The Associated Press that “there could be some flaws and some bumps in the process, but our leaders have publicly said that their policy is to hold a free, fair and impartial election.”
The United States said that it had raised concerns with the authorities about “irregularities” in the campaign and the administration would be closely monitoring the vote
“This is an important moment for Burma. These by-elections, if seen as free and fair, will demonstrate the government’s commitment to democratization,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “This would further propel momentum in our bilateral relations.”
But holding successful by-elections may not be sufficient for some US sanctions to be lifted, observers suggest.
“In addition, there are U.S. laws that impose sanctions on Myanmar for unacceptable behavior … such as the use of child soldiers, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, failure to protect religious freedom and violations of workers’ rights,” said Murray Hiebert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Observers suggest that Suu Kyi’s election will boost the government as much as the opposition.
“It is much more dangerous for President Thein Sein if Aung San Suu Kyi fails to win her seat,” said analyst Nicholas Farrelly. “Such an outcome would lead to inevitable cries of vote-rigging and could spark an uncontrollable backlash. It may even spell the end of the nascent democratizing project,” he said.
The election had been a worthwhile investment for Burma’s democratic forces, she said, by raising political awareness and attracting widespread participation, especially from younger voters.
“After decades of quiescence, one might have expected that very few of our people would be in a position to take part in such a process, but we have found that they are quick to wake up and quick to understand what the issues are and what the challenges are,” Suu Kyi said.
While Suu Kyi’s high-flown rhetoric called for “freedom from fear” in her first TV campaign speech, other candidates stressed bread-and-butter issues.
“For the farmer, the poor, the ordinary people, their concern is their livelihood, how they put meals on the table. Other issues like freedom are secondary,” analyst Aung Naing Oo told AFP.
Shan Nationalities Democratic Party member Sai Bo Aung said the party aimed “to follow pragmatism rather than pursuing utopia,” while National Political Alliances candidate Kyaw Swa Soe focused on poor farmers’ ability to “grow their favorite marketable crops after cultivating monsoon paddy.”
Suu Kyi said she remains confident that Thein Sein “wishes for democratic reform, but as I’ve always said, I have never been certain as to exactly how much support there has been behind him, particularly from the military.” While many activists are skeptical about the reform process, her moral capital and integrity have helped persuade others of the value of engagement.
“Aun Sang Suu Kyi is a very smart person. So if she believes in this old man [President Thein Sein], there must be something behind it,” dissident Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein tells the Wall Street Journal:
People who know her say she was swayed by several factors, including assurances from Mr. Thein Sein that he would pursue reform as well as encouragement from Western leaders who thought it was worth taking a chance to see if the president followed through. The government subsequently approved amendments to the country’s election rules sought by Ms. Suu Kyi, released more political prisoners, and took other steps she approved of.
“She didn’t change her mind, but she at least changed her approach–she agreed to take part in this political game,” said Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based analyst. “For the first time she seems to have a strategy, which she never seemed to have,” he said. “I think being older and smarter is certainly part of it.”
External actors need to ensure that the authorities don’t backslide on democratic reforms, observers suggest.
“The Obama administration should keep up pressure for genuine cease fires with ethnic nationalities and coordinated assistance to the 70,000 displaced people at China’s border,” writes Rena Pederson, a former speechwriter at the US State Department. “And a US ambassador, the first in over two decades, should be named who has deep, clear-eyed familiarity with this country’s multi-layered problems.”
Until there is compelling evidence that the reform process is irreversible or at least well-entrenched, lifting sanctions could be premature.
“There are some really good signs, but there are areas where there are problems,” said an EU diplomat from a country that favors lifting sanctions. “We don’t want to be in the position of lifting them and then having to put them back.”
Burma’s reform process and democratic forces face serious obstacles, but there are grounds for optimism, says a seasoned observer of earlier democratic transitions.
“The NLD may not have the kind of organization the ANC had in South Africa but, as Mr. Havel showed in Czechoslovakia, mass organizations can emerge with remarkable speed in velvet revolutionary times,” writes Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution:
There’s the social and moral force of the country’s Buddhist monks. The regime’s clearly keen to get European and American sanctions lifted, so there’s some leverage there. Then there’s India, which might at long last choose to encourage next door what it practices at home: democracy. And there’s The Lady herself, a treasure without price.