The peacock fights on
By Benoît Cros
1 April 2012
Burma takes its first steps towards democracy, but can the NLD offer more than just Aung San Suu Kyi’s star appeal?
The fighting peacock is flying over Rangoon. As Burma goes to the polls for its first election with the participation of the National League for Democracy (NLD) since 1990, the party’s symbol is everywhere in Burma’s former capital. Hundreds of cars have been transporting NLD supporters through the streets of the city. Dressed in white shirts and the traditional longyi, the majority are young people, their faces covered with NLD stickers, singing the party song: ‘Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is back, the time has come, we must win.’ The people on the streets applaud them, and even some prisoners being transported in a police van join in the fervour. ‘22 years later, our time has come. I’m confident we will win this election,’ says enthusiastic 77-year-old U Htun Oo, one of the veteran NLD members who contested and won the 1990 polls before the military regime decided to cancel them.
This Sunday’s by-elections, however, are only for 45 of Burma’s 600 parliamentary seats, and do not threaten the hold of the regime’s Union State and Development Party (USDP). Furthermore, 25% of the seats are reserved for the military. The NLD has showed its concern over some irregularities: the names of some dead people were found on the voter rolls, the boundaries of some constituencies have been changed, and a part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech on TV was censored. The government has authorised electoral observers from the EU, US and ASEAN to monitor the polls, but the NLD is critical. ‘These are not fair elections,’ Suu Kyi said on Friday. It doesn’t appear, though, that the government’s tactics include preventing Suu Kyi’s election. ‘[The government] would be a fool to do so,’ says a local journalist who did not want to be named. The government is counting on the easing of U.S. economic sanctions against it following steps towards democratisation, and these elections are key to that goal. The ruling party hopes that the lifting of sanctions will bring significant investment into Burma.
The Burmese economy is the key to understanding recent changes. Some hope that reforms and economic liberalisation will improve the situation of one of the world’s poorest countries. ‘Remove sanctions and watch Myanmar flourish,’ the economist Joseph Stiglitz recently argued. ‘Opening up trade in agriculture and textiles…would probably benefit directly the poor farmers who make up 70% of the population, as well as create new jobs,’ he added. Stiglitz also observed that ‘restrictions that prevent socially responsible companies based in advanced industrial countries from doing business in Burma have left the field open to less scrupulous firms.’ However, some NGOs fear that foreign investment without proper labour laws would be dangerous for Burmese workers. During the 1990’s, the French oil company Total was accused of using forced labour.
Another crucial issue is the change underway in Burma’s relationship to its big neighbour, China. Twenty years of western sanctions transformed Burma into a China-dependent economy. But President Thein Sein recently cancelled a highly controversial Chinese dam project on the Irrawaddy river, in a gesture that was seen as a first step towards a new balance of power.
Among local entrepreneurs, the excitement over economic reforms is clearly visible. ‘We were caught by surprise,’ says Maung Maung Lay, vice-president of Rangoon’s chamber of commerce. The government has reduced bureaucratic obstacles and increased transparency in business. The new investment law will allow foreign companies to invest directly in the country, whereas earlier they had to enter into joint ventures with local companies. Maung Lay’s only concern regards the pace of reforms. ‘We are not prepared yet, and if this happens too fast, we may be overwhelmed by foreign companies, especially in the retail sector,’ he asserts.
Burma’s recent reforms have also eased media restrictions and reduced censorship. 7 Days, Burma’s most popular magazine, has seen its weekly circulation double to 140,000 copies. This week, it included a voting guide in its magazine, with plenty of details about the candidates. Nowadays, The New Light of Myanmar, the state newspaper, already looks old-fashioned. However, all magazines, except those specialising in entertainment and sports, still have to submit their articles for official clearance prior to publication. The Voice magazine was recently sued for publishing a report on the misuse of funds connected with the sale of a copper mine.
Beyond the Lady
What the NLD can do to lead the country towards democracy is still unclear, and so far the campaign has not provided any answers to that crucial question. During a meeting in Mawlamyaing, capital city of the Mon State, local NLD candidate Khin Htwe Kywe was presented as the personal choice of Aung San Suu Kyi. The name of the Lady, as Suu Kyi is popularly known in Burma, seems to be the only electoral draw the NLD offers its voters.
Some observers think the party has a long term strategy: ‘I think the NLD’s big goal is the 2015 general election,’ says Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor ofThe Irrawaddy, a Burmese media outlet functioning in exile. But a strategy based only on the Lady’s name could be risky for the party: Suu Kyi will be 71 years old by 2015. ‘At the moment I can’t see anybody able to replace her,’ Zwa Moe says. More significantly, for Suu Kyi to emerge as the movement’s presidential candidate the country’s Constitution would also have to be changed, since it currently doesn’t allow a president who has foreign relatives. Suu Kyi was married to Michael Aris, a British citizen, and her son holds a British passport.
Right now, however, those complications seem far away. Suu Kyi’s popularity throughout the country is so overwhelming that it amounts to a personality cult. ‘She fought her whole life and she sacrificed herself for the country,’ says Ye Myint, a 46-year-old taxi driver. In Ye Myint’s vehicle, two NLD flags adorn either side of the steering wheel. And this is hardly unusual. Taxis and restaurants that don’t have NLD stickers are becoming rare, especially in the districts going to the polls. In downtown Rangoon, selling posters and T-shirts of Suu Kyi has become one of the most profitable businesses. Six months ago, this would have been completely unthinkable.
‘There really is a change in Rangoon, but we are worried by the situation in rural areas,’ says Pyae Pyae, a volunteer for the NLD campaign. The condition of Burma’s ethnic minorities also remains a cause for concern. The government recently broadcast a propaganda video on state television, showing people from all of Burma’s ethnicities singing while going to the polling station. The reality is less joyful. Making up 40% of the population, ethnic minorities struggling to secure their autonomy have been in conflict with the government for decades. Ceasefire agreements have been recently signed but they are not always respected. In Karen State, located on the Thai border, the Burmese army recently sent in new troops, and some fighting has been reported. The situation in Kachin State in the north of the country is also worrying NGOs. In March, Human Rights Watch reported how the Burmese army attacked several villages in that area and ‘razed homes, pillaged properties, and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people.’
As with many issues in Burma, the conflict in Kachin State mirrors the intra-governmental divide between the hardliners – among them Aung Thaung, the government’s official negotiator with the Kachin Independence Army – and the moderates represented by President Thein Sein. Burma is surely not yet a democracy: hundreds of political prisoners remain in Burmese jails; the right to strike and to demonstrate is still limited. But widespread opinion says there is no going back to the earlier levels of repression. ‘The so-called hardliners are not stupid,’ Maung Maung Lay says. ‘They know they have no interest in [backtracking],’ he adds. These elections will be Burma’s opportunity to prove that statement true.
~ Benoît Cros is a French freelance journalist based in Barcelona and currently touring Southeast Asia. He blogs at http://benoitcros.wordpress.com/.