Burma has just held its freest election in decades with the international media in attendance focusing on happy voters and the landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy.
The optimistic mood has been boosted by the reaction of the military’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party of President Thein Sein, which has run the country since the last – less than free – vote five years ago. Although all the results are yet to be declared, Thein Sein has already congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on the NLD’s performance.
The President has been followed by the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, who promised the military – which has run Burma for most of the past six decades – would cooperate with the new government.
The impression is that despite some bumps along the way the reforms started by Thein Sein in 2010 when he released Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest are on course to return Burma to the democracy it was before the army first seized power in 1962.
I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but if you need evidence that there’s more to democracy than elections, Burma may be about to provide it.
Despite the encouraging noises since Sunday’s election, the constitution entrenches military influence in the political system. A quarter of seats in parliament are reserved for officers and the National Defence and Security Council retains the power to remove the government.
Over the years, the Burmese armed forces have trained many more officers than it has needed and many of them have taken off their uniforms and are now prominent in business and other areas and, by and large, they remain loyal to the military’s ethos.
Astute Burmese and knowledgeable foreigners have dubbed the reform process the military’s retirement plan.
Then – perhaps surprisingly to many – there is growing doubt about Aung San Suu Kyi herself.
The defiance of the military dictatorship that saw her kept under house arrest for 15 years won her a Nobel Peace Prize and iconic status as a symbol of democracy among ordinary Burmese and around the world, where she was compared to Nelson Mandela.
But unlike Mandela, who was able retain his iconic status while also being president of his country, Suu Kyi has not shown the same ability to combine politics with moral leadership.
In an attempt to realise her ambition to lead her country she has made many compromises with the military in return for being released, allowed to run for parliament and win a by-election in 2012.
Her freedom helped ease the country’s isolation from western powers and avoid over dependence on neighbouring China, which was one of Thein Sein’s main objectives. But if she expected the military to return the favour and amend the constitution they’d written so she could become President – she is currently prevented because her children were born in Britain – she must have been sorely disappointed.
So it’s perhaps understandable that since the election she has said that whoever the NLD chooses to be President, she will be above them – understandable, but not particularly edifying.
She went on to tell the BBC the constitution won’t stop her “making all the decisions as the leader of the winning party”.
This is not simply loose language. It tallies with her whole approach to leading the NLD.
She takes a regal approach to her followers. There is little debate over key decisions, little delegation to those below her and, by all appearances, no attempt to bring on the next generation of leaders in the party – remember Suu Kyi is already 70.
There is also her attitude to the plight of the Rohingya minority.
They are Muslims of Bengali descent who live in the west of the country and are subject to widespread discrimination and even denied full citizenship. Since the country started opening up, many have also been victims of communal attacks from Buddhist chauvinists and driven from their homes to live in camps or risk their lives fleeing to neighbouring countries in rickety boats.
Aung San Suu Kyi – in order to avoid alienating Buddhist voters – has been mealy-mouthed about condemning all this. In an interview two years ago she even appeared to sympathise with Buddhist fears that “global Muslim power” as she put it “is very great”.
This matters because democracies are societies characterised by tolerance – tolerance not just of different political views, but also of ethnic and religious diversity and Suu Kyi is failing to set an example. If anything, she is reinforcing intolerance and an authoritarian approach to political leadership.
This clearly hasn’t harmed her standing with Burmese voters, but it has made a mockery of the Mandela comparisons and tarnished her image among former supports abroad. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch went as far as to tweet ahead of the election “if only she were as principled as popular. Shh, please don’t say Rohingya”
Suu Kyi is very much her father’s daughter. General Aung San led the struggle for independence from Britain, but he was assassinated six months before his dream was realised. She has the ambition to go one better and lead the country – even if it means making deals with the men who have imprisoned and tortured thousands and impoverished a country that was once one of the richest in South East Asia.
Whether Burma goes on to become more truly democratic or goes down the track of authoritarian oligarchy seen in other countries emerging from military or one-party rule will depend to a large extent on the choices made in the coming months and years by the military, the officers who’ve shed their uniforms and Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly empowered NLD.
Despite the historic election, optimism may prove to be misplaced.
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