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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 49 New Delhi November 28, 2015

Treading Lightly to Freedom in Myanmar

Friday 27 November 2015, by Uttam Sen

The Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy’s clean sweep in the November 8 elections in Myanmar surprised those who thought that the embers of the 1990 outcome had finally died down. The NLD had stormed those elections as well (if anything, less emphatically) but had been set back by their annulment by the military junta and the house arrest of their all-in-one Burmese “face” and mass leader, at home in Yangon and at Oxford, or Delhi where she did some of her schooling and of which she nurtures fond memories. The interregnum has been a long one and despite the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) having forged links with conflicting ethnic groups, their hunch that the seemingly motley crowd of the NLD was a house divided against itself and would not stand, was belied. In the event the League’s ascent to power went virtually unchallenged. With three seats still uncalled, it had won 390 of the national Parliament’s 664 seats for a majority in both Houses. The NLD also secured a majority of State and regional Assembly seats.

Yet the military is far from out of the picture. By the 2008 Constitution it has reserved 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats. The key portfolios of Defence, Border Security and Home Affairs remain with the armed forces. The Commander-in-Chief retains autonomy from the President and Parliament. The military has veto power over changes in the Constitution. The earlier consti-tutional stipulation that no candidate married to a foreigner could be President effectively bars from the top job Myanmar’s renowned Nobel Laureate, who was married to the late Michael Aris, a British national and scholar of Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture and history. There are indications that the lady will challenge these restrictions. But there is a makeshift measure by which she can, and probably will, set up her proxy as the President by March next year.

Well-wishers will hope that matters do not come to a head and upset a reasonably democratic exercise in which the military had invited foreign observers to oversee the free and fair conduct of polls. Global isolation, economic stagnation and so on, had tempted the military into a gambit it thought would pay off, after limited gestures of “liberalisation” had drawn in foreign investment and external recognition. The military and the government could perhaps be forgiven for imagining that Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s political objective would eventually elude her. Her fortitude in adversity was in large measure responsible for the NLD’s recovery.

Inevitably, on the other side of the coin, analysts discern a forceful personality without whose writ the NLD cannot run, and an uncertain future because she is pushing seventy. A leading Western newspaper seized upon a slip of tongue by an NLD functionary who had described her as the prima donna of the country, to mean that she considered herself to be better than everyone else.

More hopefully, with her own considerable credibility even beyond Myanmar, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi could well lead the way to inoffensively sensitising her countrymen to wider global norms, and opportunities, and thereby restore them to the mainstream. Roads and communications with India to the west and her neighbours in the east can change the economic profile of the entire region. She has indeed said in a recent interview that she would like to act as a bridge between East and West, and different political systems or countries, India and China, and possibly Japan, coming immediately to mind. In the present context, the South China Sea is not too distant either!

Myanmar has problems of ethnic strife which the NLD in its election manifesto had promised to settle through federalism, an argument voters bought across the board. (Incidentally, vigorous workshops are being conducted at various levels on the subject there by international non-profit organisations such as the Ottawa-based Forum of Federations and the European Business Organisation in which there is Indian participation.)

But observers remain wary of the substance which has not been very clearly spelt out. Additionally, the new-found particularity about identity and ethnicity is raising questions about Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s possible limitations as a leader of the majoritarian Buddhist Burmans who do not always do justice to the country’s other ethnic entities, numbering about a hundred. The most irksome issue pertains to the Muslim Rohingyas, hundreds of thousands of whom have been herded into camps and squalid settlements in the north-west. Their tragedy is one of the starkest in contemporary times, as they also find themselves hounded into the high seas and marooned because other countries will not receive or accept them. Disenfranchised and shorn of entitlements, they eke out miserable existences on the margins. Such is the “public” antipathy towards them that even Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has turned a blind eye to their plight. They still root for her as their only hope. Perhaps she will respond with greater consolidation of her authority.

Many sores fester within the conglomeration of ethnicities that is Myanmar today. The significance of the NLD and Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory was that their trust was secured, though selective “tactical” support also split the non-Burman vote. Just being members of the majority community had not brought solace to its constituents either, during natural calamities, rising prices or agitations against a State apparatus which was failing to cope. The country’s political isolation was making it vulnerable, a factor which weighed in the attempted “opening up”.

Above all, there were matters of conscience with an important prerequisite. Ms Aung San Suu Kyi could convey to the common man the nuances of freedom. After an interview in Yangon in 1995, she caught me unawares on the verandah of her idyllic wooden bungalow. Freedom is a very precious thing, she told me with a wan smile, while waiting for the BBC to fix the sets for her next interview. Continued incarceration threatened to reduce her to an icon on the wall. The ability to choose between right and wrong and do something about it assumed that one would at least be at physical liberty to do so. Many of those who had lost expectations or prospects can now savour them with their leader, whether they can call her their President or not.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.