Changing equations

The divisions within Burma are the actual drivers of change — President Thein Sein has initiated a process that, if consolidated, will be irreversible

The byelections held in Burma on April 1, 2012, resulted in a victory for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. After a period of 22 years, this victory is heralded as one of the most significant changes in Burmese political history and opens a chapter for the progress of the democratic reforms shaping Burma. Winning from Kawhmu, a constituency on the outskirts of Rangoon, Ms Suu Kyi’s role will be significant in terms of both internal developments shaping the country and the international changes that it will bring for Burma. This byelection also saw the role of observers from both the United States and Europe, which is also critical since the first initial steps to reverse sanctions will be based on their assessment of the veracity of the electoral process.
One of the most visible changes will be the inclusion of the Opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in Parliament. This was the first time in over 22 years when the NLD headed by Ms Suu Kyi contested for parliamentary positions. Of the total 664 seats in Parliament, 45 seats were contested during the byelections on April 1. The NLD is slated to win nearly 43 of these in the national and the regional Assembly. With this victory Ms Suu Kyi will be a member of Parliament for the first time in the Lower House.
The role of the NLD since its electoral victory during the Burmese general election in 1990 remained marginalised after the government under Gen. Ne Win refused to hand over power to the NLD. During the past 20 years, very little changed. It is only in the aftermath of the October 2010 election that some reforms have been initiated under the leadership of President Thein Sein.
For the elections held in October 2010, the NLD failed to meet the stipulations suggested by the new Constitution and did not register as a party. It was subsequently banned from contesting the elections. The change in the government’s position is immense considering that within a span of two years the newly elected government under Mr Sein has shown the willingness to include its arch rival, the NLD, in the electoral process and will also allow the victorious candidates to be part of the parliamentary system.
Internally, Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD are expected to offer a strong and credible Opposition to the government. Their presence will help to achieve a greater degree of national reconciliation which is critical for Burma. Also at the international level, the view on Burma is beginning to change. There is already a view that the observers to the election will call for a lifting of Western sanctions once they establish that the elections were free and fair — a change that will be very positive in integrating Burma into the international community. While there have been reports of attempted intimidation and hostility towards the NLD, the election and its results clearly point towards a credible electoral process. However, this change will need to be dealt with delicately since the political atmosphere remains fragile.
Over the past few months while the pace of reforms was visible in Burma there was also apprehension about the splits within the ruling leadership. This was particularly visible between President Thein Sein, supported by Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, and vice-president Tin Aung Minyt Oo, whose position was more hardline. The ongoing power struggle between the President and his immediate subordinate has divided the leadership vertically — this is a key factor that needs to be watched since it will determine the manner and shape of the reforms that will follow. While the current reforms are significant, there is a fear that the hardliners may feel threatened if the reforms take a concrete shape, which leaves little room for the military. In a country that has had military rule for 50 years, this fear can push back the reforms once again.
This split has also resulted from the fact that the reform process has identified Mr Sein as the “driver of change” in Burma.
The release of political prisoners, the freedom given to political protests and the rights to the media were all indicators of the changes being initiated within the democratic process.
The reform process is also seen as an end to the old guard in Burma and the emergence of the new — several observers have stated that the changes directing Burma today were in the offing as a growing gap was visible between leaders like Than Shwe and those like Thein Sein. This division within the leadership is critical — for decades the international community has been aware that the change for Burma needs to come from within. Interestingly, though the international community has been able to signal its outrage about the atrocities in Burma and the erosion of human rights, it has had little leeway to act in this case. Sanctions from the United States and Europe have had little impact in terms of bringing about concrete change, because they have targeted regime change which has been impossible to achieve from the outside. The divisions within Burma are the actual drivers of this change — the leadership of President Thein Sein has initiated a process that, if consolidated, will be irreversible.
Much of the changes that are shaping Burma currently is also because of the personal rapport that Mr Sein has been able to achieve with Ms Suu Kyi. Since August 2011, over a series of meetings, Mr Sein and Ms Suu Kyi have established a modus vivendi for accommodation of various political interests. These changes need to be backed by constitutional provisions to make them more lasting and judicial processes have to be set in place so that they are not revoked. This is the critical challenge since it can only be passed with a vote approved by 75 per cent of Parliament. With the military reserving 25 per cent of the seats, most amendments to the Constitution are difficult to push through.
This byelection is also being seen as an indication that the 2015 elections will bring further change. The United Solidarity and Development Party currently has a majority hold over Parliament, but given its willingness to move the process forward, there is an optimistic view that in 2015, the actual political landscape in Burma will be different. While it is too early to make such predications, undoubtedly the current shift is positive and hopeful for Burma.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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