It wasn’t exactly the opening of the floodgates, but Burma’s Sunday elections marked a significant step toward greater political liberty from a regime that is moving rapidly from authoritarian to something much more liberal.
Longtime pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the clear winner, with her National League for Democracy (NLD) winning 40 of the 45 seats being contested. Kyi herself will join her NLD colleagues to become a member of the Burmese parliament.
Nonetheless, the military still essentially controls the majority of the 664 seats in the parliament, which itself has very weak powers in respect of governing the country.
Still, Burma is shaping up to be one of the more surprisingly positive stories of the year, as its once-tight junta loosens political controls over a country long known for its repression. General Ne Win took power in post-independence Burma in 1962, and the military has held power essentially ever since. The so-called “8888 Uprising” in August 1988, saw Ne Win resign from power and Aung San Suu Kyi emerge for the first time as a player in Burmese politics. Even though the military used lethal force to put down the 8888 Uprising, just as it had during protests in 1975 on the occasion of the death of Burmese politician and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, new hope — in the form of the 1990 elections — indicated perhaps a new opening in Burma for political freedom.
Kyi won those elections handily — the NLD took 58.7% of the vote and 392 of the 492 available seats in the constitutional committee to be formed. The military junta, however, annulled those results, established what would become the State Peace and Development Council under General Than Shwe, who ruled until 2011. Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts, remained under house arrest for most of those 20 years. Even recently, in the so-called “Saffron Revolution,” a revolt led by Burma’s highly respected Buddhist monks in 2007, was put down with brutal force, and the 2010 elections were not in any way fair or free.
Shwe stepped down in March 2011 and his successor, Thein Sein, has been making moves toward moderate reform ever since — Sunday’s election result was perhaps less striking than the amnesty provided to many political prisoners, the program of economic reform that Thein Sein has initiated and the diplomatic front that his government has opened to warm relations with the west — UK Foreign Minister William Hague and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both visited in the past year. Indeed, the announcement yesterday of a “managed” floating exchange rate is perhaps even more significant for Burma’s reemergence on the world stage.
As Simon Tidsall writes in The Guardian, it is too early to tell whether the gains are irreversible — Burma’s leaders are not all nearly as reforming as Burma’s new president. Indeed, Kyi herself made the same point — with just a handful of seats in a parliament that remains submissive to the military, the NLD will be hard-pressed to achieve its three goals: rule of law, a revised constitution and national reconciliation.
But after two chilly decades of repression, all signs indicate cause for cautious optimism that such a thaw is well under way, even if it remains to be seen if Burmese military leaders will oversee a transition to full democratic freedoms and economic liberalization.
In its four decades of military, near-autarchic rule, Burma has watched Japan and South Korea leapfrog into the league of fully developed nations. It has watched China and India assume their role as the 21st century’s massive economic giants in manufacturing and data services. It has watched income growth in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — once well far behind Burma’s development — double and even triple that of Burma/Myanmar.
After four decades that have seen Burma degenerate from one of Southeast Asia’s economic powerhouses into one of its poorest nations, Thein Sein’s gestures are a clear sign that Burma’s leadership wants to pivot to a freer society and a freer economy — and attract the international aid that can facilitate that transition.