The Lady Must Live Long for A Sound Democratic System
Watch Aung San Suu Kyi’s acceptance speech here.
As was widely anticipated, on April 1 Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept 43 out of Burma’s 45 available parliament seats in a fair by-election, amidst some complaints that the current government had invoked the dead to vote for their Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Despite the supporters from the netherworld, whose names were said to be found on outdated eligible voter lists in some townships, the USDP came away with just one seat in Wuntho constituency, where the NLD candidate U Saw Hlaing had been disqualified—reportedly on the grounds that his parents were foreign-born. The other remaining seat went to the ethnic party Shan National League for Democracy.
However the League’s victory should not be cause for over-jubilation. Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, would warn, ‘‘Don’t raise your oar before your boat hits the finish line.’’ We should be reminded that 77 percent of a total of 659 seats in the bicameral parliament have been occupied by the USDP elects and the greens—the Burmese military officers in olive-green uniforms whose 25 percent presence in the parliament is required by the 2008 constitution they wrote.
The junta that ruled Burma from 1988 to 2010 has left no stone unturned in drawing up a political map that will secure their graceful exit, if not their perpetual lead in the country’s politics. Yet the top generals, most of whom have become inexplicably rich, have been less prepared for economic contingencies. With the privatization of health and education sectors over the past decade, the country seems to have already plunged headlong into neoliberal reforms and the ruthless drive for privatization shows no sign of abating.
For her part, Suu Kyi has always espoused social justice and economic protectionism in her speeches. As such the Lady, her 42 colleagues in the legislature, and their allies are in for an uphill struggle against the powerful members of parliament, ten times their number, many of whom are in politics for business reasons.
Surprisingly for a very poor country, the key points in Suu Kyi’s by-election campaign speech do not entice the voters with economic issues. The Lady, who I believe is of a social democratic hue, has always maintained that equitable economic outcomes should naturally emerge out of ‘‘a sound democratic system.’’ Her campaign rhetoric, therefore, has stressed three major structural issues: Rule of law, peace in the country, and the need to change the 2008 constitution, all of which can be seen as prerequisites for a sound democratic system.
Two recent anecdotes on popular justice and formal justice should amply illustrate Burma’s current lack of rule of law. On Eleven Media Group’s home page, an outlet that calls itself “the most popular news media in Myanmar,” a commentator complained how a soldier refused to pay for the food he bought from a lady hawker on the Mandalay-Myitkyeenar train. Later the soldier was jumped and ‘almost killed’ by a group of male hawkers. In another episode, a famous actor who slapped a journalist was fined 1000 Kyat (about $1 US ) for her offense.
Even though the government has made commendable efforts for peace, a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in the northernmost part of the country remains elusive. As of March 2012 there are an estimated 60,000 Kachin refugees on the Sino-Burmese border. Some aid groups have warned that a humanitarian crisis is looming over the refugees who are trapped in conflict zones. The 2008 constitution needs to be amended, and the Lady is most aware of this, as it is tilted in favor of the Burmese armed forces.
Yet the general mood of the people inside the country, reflected in various Burmese news journals, is one of hope. The Burmese appreciate the fact that their government has become slightly accountable and transparent and that they can now live in less fear. They seem to believe that their country’s transition will sustain and that the 2015 election will see the League in a neck-and-neck race with the USDP. After 2015 it is likely that the League, their allied parties, the USDP, and the greens will come to resemble Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.
The USDP has exactly three years to improve their performance and credibility if they do not want to give away their foothold in the parliament to the NLD. The League’s supporters are already looking forward to 2015. For now one could understand why their wish to the Lady has always been, ‘‘Long Live Mother Suu!’’
Ko Ko Thett is a Burmese poet and a literary translator. He is the co-editor of Bones Will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013) and is working on Aung San Suu Kyi: Dialogue with the People, a compilation of the Lady’s weekly talks to her supporters at her residence from 1995-1996.