Democracy in Burma?
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the father of modern-day Burma. From 1989 to 2010 she spent fifteen years under house arrest, during which she received the Nobel Peace Prize. On 1 April 2012, her opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 of the 45 vacant seats in the lower house of the Burmese parliament. She is a world champion of democracy.
Burma is a now changed country. A little over a year ago, Suu Kyi was still an unperson; merely mentioning her name was to invite trouble with the authorities. Today she is an officially acknowledged interlocutor of the president. Her image is sold openly by vendors on the streets of Rangoon and newspapers breathlessly report her every move.
The implications of this shift are potentially as far-reaching as the democratic revolutions of 1989 or the more recent upheavals of the Arab Spring. Burma is a linchpin country in the evolving geopolitics of Asia. It shares borders with both China and India, and policymakers in Beijing and Delhi are feverishly planning ambitious infrastructure projects—pipelines, highways, and railroads—that will allow them to boost their trade between each other as well as with Burma itself, which has an extraordinary wealth of untapped natural resources.
Though such plans antedate the current opening, they stand little chance of succeeding unless the Burmese government can find a way to calm the ethnic rebellions in its own borderlands—an aim that is likely to be furthered by liberalization. Meanwhile, an outbreak of democracy in Burma could also have a profound effect on its neighbours in Southeast Asia, where a rising middle class has already begun to challenge long-dominant authoritarian assumptions in some countries.
And yet caution is in order. Despite all the undeniable signs of progress, no one can yet claim that Burma is on an irresistible path to democracy. There are many reasons to be sceptical. It could well be that the government’s opening is nothing more than a tactical move aimed at getting the Western countries to lift sanctions, thus prolonging the survival of the entrenched elite behind a façade of liberalization.
If so, the Burmese president is already well on his way to achieving that end; earlier this month, the Obama administration announced that it was suspending (though not eliminating) several financial sanctions against the regime.
While it makes sense to reward the Burmese government for positive actions, it is also true that the regime still holds all the cards that count. The president and his ministers may have put away their uniforms in accordance with the current constitution’s stipulation that only civilians can hold executive positions, but the reality is that the armed forces continue to exercise virtually unlimited power. In this respect, allowing a few dozen oppositionists into parliament does little to change the basic constellation of forces. Meanwhile, ex-generals or their cronies still control all of the country’s major economic assets.
Burmese dissidents are quick to point out the limits of the new tolerance. The political prisoners released from jail are not the beneficiaries of an amnesty; under current law, they can be rearrested at any moment for offenses to be defined virtually at the whim of the government. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of dissidents remain in prison.
Censorship has been merely curtailed, not eliminated. And despite the cease-fires that the administration has managed to conclude with most of the rebellious ethnic groups, the army actually appears to have stepped up its war against the Kachins in the remote north of the country—an offensive that has continued despite several cease-and-desist orders from the president.
It could well be that Burma’s new pseudo-civilian leaders are aiming less for checks-and-balances democracy than a modernized authoritarianism in which they continue to pull the strings—perhaps modelled on nearby Malaysia or Singapore – prosperous but authoritarian. This option, however, might represent a huge advance for a country reduced in the past 50 years from one of Asia’s richest countries to one of its poorest.